The Sacraments Of Faith

In its first document the Second Vatican Council described the sacraments as follows:

182 Religious life entails a special and more radical, but not exclusive , call to holiness; all the faithful receive the same call to perfection (Lumen Gentium , 32).

183 In his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii Pope Pius XI had already called marriage 'a complete and intimate life-partnership' (DH 3707; ND 1829).

The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify human beings, to build up the Body of Christ, and, finally, to offer worship to God. Since they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and ritual elements they also nourish, strengthen, and express faith. Hence they are called 'sacraments of faith'. They do indeed impart grace but, in addition, the very act of celebrating them most effectively disposes the faithful to receive this grace fruitfully, to worship God in a manner that is due, and to practise charity. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 59)

This dense summary calls for some detailed comments.

1. It begins with the threefold purpose of the sacraments: sanctifying, building, and worshipping. The celebration of sacraments lets men and women share more and more in the holiness of the Spirit—a theme that we drew from Ignatius of Antioch at the very beginning of this chapter and to which we shall return below under (4). Second, every sacrament also enables Christ to construct and foster the community of his disciples. Baptism and confirmation initiate new members into his Church, where all receive together his eucharistic Body. Reconciliation and the anointing of the sick communicate his forgiveness and healing to the benefit of everyone. Married love increases his community with the offspring of parents who believe in him. The ministry of those who have received holy orders nourishes the life and growth of the Church by prolonging his words, gestures, and love for all. Third, the sacraments constitute structured ways of worshipping God the Father, which anticipate the praise and glory that will be given, no longer through sacramental signs but face to face, to the divine Creator in the heavenly kingdom to come.

2. As 'signs' which 'instruct', sacraments do their work most effectively when the ministers and people join together in carefully preparing the ceremonies. The revised rituals for the sacraments offer a rich variety of choices in prayers, readings, and blessings, as well as providing for appropriate music, hymns, and actions to accompany the service. A little preparation goes a long way in allowing the sacraments to communicate the salvific intentions and to reactualize the gestures of Jesus Christ, the invisible minister of all the sacraments. In this way the liturgy of the sacraments becomes, for each local community, an attractive and instructive icon of the manner in which he stood on the banks of the Jordan, identified himself with those willing to be baptized with the justice of God, sat at table with religious and social outcasts, and made his own their yearning for the reconciling love of God. In effect, each sacrament re-enacts the 'change of position' that Jesus created by sharing in our sinful world and offering us his prophetic gestures of salvation: we sinners are to become the justice and love of God in the world. Thus each of the sacramental celebrations restates in a particular way the marvellous interchange that St Paul boldly claimed: 'For our sake, God made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we [sinners] might become the righteousness of God' (2 Cor. 5: 21).

3. The description provided by Vatican II highlights the manner in which sacraments both 'presuppose faith' and also 'nourish, strengthen, and express faith'. The reforms mandated by the Council included the reading and explanation of passages from the scriptures—a service of the word to introduce the celebration of every sacrament. The inspired word of God repeatedly proves 'inspiring' by effectively calling forth and energizing the faith of those about to receive the sacraments. The fact that the reading of the scriptures and a homily form a normal part of sacramental celebration means that the 'words' spoken in administrating a sacrament include, but go beyond, the formulas used, such as 'I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.'

This 'going beyond' the formulas of the liturgy also means that our faith is to be strengthened not only as orthodoxy (i.e. as proper assent to the salvific force of the rite being celebrated) but also as orthopraxy (i.e. as a privileged responsibility with the tripersonal God of salvation for the material and spiritual well-being of those in our social ambience and, indeed, of all people. Sacraments prompt and empower us to put our faith into practice, to act more responsibly among our relatives, friends, associates at work, and fellow citizens. The third eucharistic prayer implies this moral mandate when it directs the attention of the members of the assembly beyond themselves: 'Lord, may this sacrifice which has made our peace with you advance the peace and salvation of all the world.' What we ask the Lord to grant is what we should also strive to promote: the redemptive joy of universal reconciliation with God on the planet.

4. The Council's description also highlights receiving 'grace', which—as we have seen in Ch. 6—can be best expressed as a personal sharing in the divine life of the Trinity. Whatever the grace of a specific sacrament, the Holy Spirit or Sanctifier is always the gift in person, the One who nourishes and consolidates our common life in Christ to the glory of God the Father. This can be seen best through the two great sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist.

Paraphrasing the words of St Paul, 'we who are many are one loaf, one body (1 Cor. 10: 17), St Augustine reminded the newly baptized, in a good example of the 'mystagogy' that followed Christian initiation, how bread is made: many separate grains of wheat are crushed, moistened with water, and baked with fire to make a single loaf. So at baptism the neophytes were 'ground' by the rite of exorcism, 'moistened with water' at the font, and fired by the anointing of the Holy Spirit (Sermo 272). Augustine wanted to show how, above all through the Eucharist, the Spirit continues what was done at baptism, by converting multiplicity into the harmonious unity of the Church which is the Body of Christ. The same Spirit, who is invoked in the first eucharistic epiclesis to effect the consecration of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Son, is called on in the second epiclesis to transfigure believers and let them share together in the life of the all-holy Father. Because of the constant, dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit, the Church of Jesus Christ is the 'bearer of holiness' for the world and for the greater glory of the Creator Father.

8 The Catholic Church and its Mission

The bishops [are] those to whom the apostles entrusted the churches .. .The message of the Church is true and solid; with her there is only one and the same way of salvation which appears in the whole world. To her is entrusted the light of God.The Church preaches the truth everywhere, and she is the seven-branched candlestick which bears the light of Christ. (St Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 5. 20. 1)

Where the Church is, there is also the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every grace.

(St Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 3. 24).

Our earlier chapters have reported and explained many aspects of the Church's origins and life. Chapter 1, for instance, set out the way in which leadership roles emerged and shaped the government of Christian communities in the first and second centuries: St Paul, later books of the NT, St Ignatius of Antioch, and St Irenaeus were cited as witnesses for the case we developed. In his controversies with the Donatists St Augustine supported what had already emerged from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians and other NT works: right from the outset the Church has been a community that embraces saints and sinners.

Subsequent chapters added much to our account of the Church: for instance, in dealing with our common call to final glory, Ch. 6 attended to the image of the whole Church as the eschatological people of God, a people on pilgrimage towards God's fulfilment for us in the glorious life of heaven. Throughout Ch. 7 we were describing the life of the Church: from the sacraments that initiate men and women into that life, the roles for the community of those who are then married and/or ordained, and the sacraments that the ministers of the Church administer to those who are sick and sinful (penance and the anointing of the sick).

Why then do we not address the Church and its mission until Ch. 8? It is because systematic theological reflection and major official teaching on the Church began quite late in the story of Catholicism. St Thomas Aquinas, for example, dealt more or less only in passing with the Church, the mystical Body of Christ that forms with him one 'mystical person' (III q. 19 a. 4; q. 49 a 1).184 The first treatises on the Church came well over a century later: from two other Dominicans, Ivan Stojkovic of Dubrovnik (d. 1443) and the Spaniard Juan de Torquemada (d. 1468), who is not to be confused with his notorious nephew, Tom's de Torquemada.185 In 1417 the young Juan de Torquemada attended the Council of Constance and from 1432 to 1437 the Council of Basle; we will say more below of these two councils. In his Summa de Ecclesia (published posthumously in 1489), he defined the Church as the 'totality of the faithful, good or bad, who retain the right faith and together participate in the celebration of the sacraments'. He defended the infallibility of papal teaching and, while defending the fullness of the Pope's spiritual power received directly from Christ, took a moderate view of his temporal power. The first attempt from a general council or a pope to present some major teaching on the nature and mission of the Church occurred only with the First Vatican Council. Hence, in line with our policy to treat matters chronologically as far as possible, we come only now to a chapter on the Church. We begin with Jesus and some early developments in the life of the Church down to the middle of the third century. We will then move beyond the founding period to various themes that fill out our picture, before we reach the full flowering of teaching on the Church in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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