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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church

By Jack Hartjes

2. Introduction

A book of reflections on the graces of the sacraments can be about an entire world of grace as well. The way we do sacraments expresses our understanding of the world and our place in it. Now, many years after the Second Vatican Council, you can read in the new shape of the Church’s sacramental celebrations an understanding of the world of grace that we live in. You can contrast that with the understanding that supported the Church’s public worship before the changes that the Council brought.

Catholics always saw Christ’s action in the sacraments as pouring grace out into the world. To that picture the renewed liturgy makes a remarkable addition: the world itself is a place of grace. In the sacraments we celebrate the grace that God gives all the time and everywhere. This graced world is not a new idea in theology, but it’s a new thing for the Church’s liturgy to show it clearly.

I have been privileged to know and love the Catholic Church before and after the Second Vatican Council. I knew the attraction of that mysterious Latin Mass enacted on a distant high altar. But even before the Council the Church saw that it wasn’t enough. The people had to participate. Of course, interior disposition and understanding were important. Our teachers had already made sure we could follow the priest’s prayers in our English missals so we knew what was happening at every moment. Later, congregational singing became important, although often tentative and meek.  But our parts were like decorations or teaching aids or prayer aids, not the real Mass. Then came the council, and we watched as the Church took one step after another toward fully integrating the whole assembly into an all-English liturgy in the literal meaning of that word: Liturgy means “work of the people.”

Mystery is still part of Christian life and worship, but liturgy feels less mysterious since we have realized that liturgy is our work. That fact changes what the liturgy means for us. The Mass and the sacraments are not dark, distant, hidden mysteries anymore, directing us away from our everyday world. They are brightly shining and close up, and with their light we can see a dimension in ourselves and in our world that usually is hidden. Catholics are becoming more attentive to the prior mystery of God's presence and action in our lives, and it is our liturgy that is sending us into that mystery.

The sacramental light shining outward and what it can reveal about the graced world we live in is the guiding theme of these essays on the sacraments of the Catholic Church. I have said less than I might have about the grace and closeness of God that one knows—at special times even feels—is there within the celebrations. I have paid more attention to the grace that is before and around the sacraments. Sacraments are not the biggest parts of God's grace, though of all graces they are the easiest to see. Sacraments can teach us how to see more clearly. With their help a whole world of grace that we might easily miss ought to start catching our attention. I looked for the many ways sacraments can provide that help, and in doing so I found keys to greater understanding of the sacraments themselves. It's not the only way, but it is one way of getting to the meaning and mystery of the sacraments. Each sacrament has its own message about graces God is always giving us.

Part 1 deals with the sacraments in a general way. Part 2 looks at the seven individual sacraments plus the sacrament of the visible Church and our relationship with Jesus, the original sacrament. After each section in either part you are invited to “Think Again” with questions to ponder or discuss. In addition to the questions proposed, it would be good to think about the following for each section:

q      How do the ideas in this section affirm what I already believed?

q      How do they challenge me to grow or change?

q      What do I find that I cannot accept in this section?

q      What is missing that ought to be there?

Liturgical renewal is not finished when liturgists and church authorities have made their findings and decisions and all the decorations are in place and the rubrics down pat. Liturgical renewal happens every time priests, liturgical ministers, and committees work to make liturgy feel like a celebration of something and make the signs of the sacraments look like they mean something. Liturgical renewal happens also as people take another look at what they are celebrating when they come to church—including the presence and work of God in their lives.

 On to 3, Celebrations of Grace