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Celebrations of Grace: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church
By Jack Hartjes
Definitions and Misconceptions
“A sacrament is a sacred sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” This is the definition that older Catholics grew up with. There have been other definitions in the history of the Church. None of them were designed to hold up under strict logical scrutiny. Without a lot of extra commentary, you can't definitely explain why one thing, for example, the Sign of the Cross, doesn't belong to the sacrament category and another, like Confirmation, does. The definitions say some important things about sacraments, things worth memorizing. This traditional definition emphasizes their usefulness, how sacraments help us acquire grace.
Here's another definition: “A sacrament is a celebration and sign of grace that God is always giving us.” This definition stresses celebration and the grace that we already have.
In practical terms, what is the difference between the two ways of defining sacraments? Think about the reason for going to church on Sunday. Brought up on the traditional definition, my reasoning went something like this:
My tank is empty. I need to go to church to be refilled, revitalized. I need to get grace to make it through another long, hard week.
That’s still an important reason for me, but now I’m often more inclined to think along the following lines:
My cup is overflowing. In spite of the struggles and sad times, I am still conscious of God's constant love. I have so much to celebrate that I just can't stay away from the celebration.
No celebration looks only to the past. Celebrations involve commitments for the future as well, and they give us an often-needed boost to help us face that future. It's the same with sacraments. Sacraments are both the tip of a mountain of grace that has been there all along and a source of new grace. They are a brand new meeting and a celebration of innumerable previous meetings with the Author of grace. The seven sacraments of the Catholic Church are encounters with God in Christ that help us see how close God has always been. They are actions that symbolize and celebrate and make present God's saving work. They are actions of Christ that celebrating Christians become part of, opening themselves to further workings of God's grace, which has a lot of work to do still.
Believers are always tempted by misconceptions about sacraments, now about two generations after the Second Vatican Council as much as at any earlier time. Age makes little difference, and passage of time is not a cure. Only working at it will solve the problem.
One misconception that tempts us is the idea that going to church is like going home or going to be with God. Rather, we gather with the community to celebrate the God who walks with us every day. God is not a foreigner in the world who makes a home away from home in the church building. Neither are we.
Another temptation is to see sacraments as the work of priests, who administer sacraments to the laity. This view says priests work for God in church and puts lay people outside the holiest places. They work for God, too, but only in the world. Rather, priests are called to help all God's people do God's work both in the world and in the sacred space of the Liturgy.
A third limiting way of understanding sacraments looks only for the grace that is given to the individual. There is much more to it than that. Holy Orders, for example, is not just a person's being raised to the rank of priesthood. Much more important is the way God all along calls the entire Church to do a sacred, priestly work and supports us with, among other things, the grace of ordained priests as we do it. All of the sacraments are the community's celebrations of graces and tasks given to the community.
Before the Second Vatican Council, when I thought of the real presence of Jesus, it was only the Eucharist that I had in mind. I was rid of that misconception thanks to the Council’s very first document, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Now I know every sacrament as a real presence and activity of Jesus. What’s more, Jesus is really present and active in four different ways in every sacrament—in the gathering of the people, in the one who presides over the gathering, in the sharing of the Word (these three signs go with every sacrament) and, lastly, in the enactment of the unique signs of a particular sacrament.
In my early seminary days, before the Council, we celebrated Mass daily. That’s a lot of Masses, but it’s a practice that the Church recommends for many people. But at times we multiplied Masses pointlessly. On Sunday’s, for example—this is before the Council—our seminary had two Masses, a “High” Mass (with lots of ceremony and singing) and a “Low” Mass (quiet, meditative). Whenever there was a large gathering of priests, it was common for each of them to say his own Mass individually every day.
We know today—and probably did back then, too, but practice may have obscured the truth—that the Mass does not add to the sacrifice of the Cross. There is one sacrifice, that of Jesus; there is one source of all grace, Jesus’ sacrifice, made present but not multiplied in our celebrations of the sacraments. Today, if there are extra priests, they may choose to concelebrate or just worship as a member of the assembly. “High Mass” and “Low Mass” are no longer meaningful terms. (Singing, if possible, is always preferred.) I don’t know what we thought we gained, before, from multiplying Masses, but it must have looked as if we thought the more Masses said, the more grace procured for the world, and a High Mass added more grace than a Low Mass. That would have been the most serious misunderstanding of all.
These are some thoughts about the sacraments of the Catholic Church, actions of, by, and for the people of the Church celebrating the graces God is always giving our world:
SACRAMENTS OF INITIATION
SACRAMENTS OF HEALING
SACRAMENTS OF SERVICE
These brief statements indicate some of the directions that sacramental celebrations can turn our thoughts. The following sections on individual sacraments expand on these hints. They are reflections on sacramental celebrations rather than attempts at “complete coverage” of the sacraments.
Definitions say important things about the sacraments. You want to keep them in your memory. Sometimes they’re very short. What is a definition of sacraments that makes sense to you? What does this definition say about how important the sacraments are for you? Can you think of any especially challenging misconceptions about the sacraments?