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​Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin (Photo by Amy Luke '15)

Lecture Stresses Importance of Sacramentality to Catholicism

In Catholicism, sacramentality — the principle that everything in creation can reveal God — is as essential as the words of the liturgy, said Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin, a professor from The Catholic University of America who presented the annual St. Catherine of Siena Lecture at Providence College.

Msgr. Irwin, a priest in the Archdiocese of New York, is the Msgr. Walter J. Schmitz, S.S. Professor of Liturgical Studies and professor of liturgical studies and sacramental theology at CUA, where he formerly was dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies.

The author of 14 books on liturgy and the sacraments, he is in the process of writing What We Have Done, What We Have Failed to Do: An Appraisal of the Post-Vatican II Liturgical Reform (Paulist Press). His research and publishing interests include the principles of mediation and sacramentality and the role of creation in liturgy and the sacraments.

At the start of his lecture, “Sacrament Speak — The Language of the Sacraments,” Msgr. Irwin was welcomed to PC by Rev. R. Gabriel Pivarnik, O.P., assistant professor of theology and director of the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies, which sponsored the presentation.

Father Pivarnik called Msgr. Irwin “both a mentor and a friend,” noting that it was Msgr. Irwin who directed Father Pivarnik’s doctoral dissertation.

Msgr. Irwin dedicated his remarks to the late Rev. Kurt J. Pritzl, O.P., who was a PC trustee and dean of CUA’s School of Philosophy when he died in February 2011.

Msgr. Irwin discussed two methods of mediation, the process that bridges the divide between God and man. One is mediation by words, the other mediation by sacramentality.

“Sacramentality is a world view, it is a way of looking at life, it is a way of thinking and acting in the world,” Msgr. Irwin said. “It is a world view that invites us to be immersed more and more fully in the here and now, on this good earth, and not to shun the things of this good earth. It is a world view that asks us not to avoid the challenges which this earthiness will require of us.”

The natural symbols of earth, air, fire, and water are used in Catholic worship, especially at Easter, but always are accompanied by words that relate their meaning to God, Msgr. Irwin said.

For example, in baptism, we use “God’s gift of water,” not only because water cleanses, but also because it is the element essential for life — as baptism is essential for eternal life, he said.

Similarly, bread and wine are of human manufacture, created from processes that involve “dying and rising.”

“Our redemption is accomplished by human hands,” Msgr. Irwin said.

Msgr. Irwin quoted Robert F. Taft, S.J., a Providence native, who wrote in The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West: “Liturgy … reminds us of the powerful deeds of God in Christ. And being reminded we remember, and remembering we celebrate, and celebrating we become what we do. The dancer dancing is the dance.”

Liturgy should be “second nature”

Discussing the changes to the Roman Missal that took effect in November, Msgr. Irwin said, “We’re better off if we change liturgy less and less, so it can become second nature.” Liturgy “is much like putting your hands in a glove,” he said.

Translations are always inexact, Msgr. Irwin added, quoting an Italian proverb: “Every translator is a traitor.”

“But allow me to suggest that the liturgy itself and the words of the liturgy are really less about understanding and comprehension than they are about our being drawn into the very mysterious presence and action of God among us,” Msgr. Irwin said.

Following the lecture, Msgr. Irwin answered questions about understanding the new translation and the importance of language in worship, but stressed that the changes should not detract from essential elements of the faith.

“If Catholicism doesn’t ‘do’ theology and spirituality, then it’s over,” said Msgr. Irwin. “Catholicism is not fundamentalism. We’re not charismatic preachers at the pulpit. We’re sacramental folk.”

The St. Catherine of Siena Lecture on Spirituality and the Frontiers of Evangelization is one of four lectures sponsored annually by the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies through the generosity of Edward J. Quinn, Jr. ’63 and his wife, Kathleen Reilly Quinn. 

— Vicki-Ann Downing

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