Probing the Effective Signs of Divine Grace and Life – Catholic World Report


Let us recall that the original purpose of the Season of Lent was the forthcoming preparation of catechumens for the reception of the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist) during the liturgy of the Easter Vigil. Over time, particularly as adult converts gave way to generations of “cradle Catholics,” Lent took on a different focus and audience, becoming a time when all the faithful embark on a sort of “ second honeymoon. with Our Lord consisting of a penitential journey to rediscover his baptismal innocence, as well as participating in a “refresher course” in the basics of the Faith.

With this in mind, we thought it would be useful to offer a review of what Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches about the sacraments – those means by which we are brought into the life of Christ and grow in that life.

The “economy” or the sacramental system

In the time of the Church, Christ “acts by means of the sacraments” [1076]. This “sacramental dispensation” has God the Father as its “source and goal” [1077]. In other words, He is the One “from whom all blessings flow”, as well as the ultimate goal of our prayer and of our whole existence, a process begun and guided by Almighty God by having conferred on us “the adoption subsidiary company” [1110].

The Catechism describes “the work of Christ in the liturgy”, noting that the starting point is the glorified Christ, who “by giving the Holy Spirit to the apostles, entrusts to them his power of sanctification”, which power is transmitted to their successors too. “This “apostolic succession” structures the whole liturgical life of the Church and is itself sacramental, transmitted by the sacrament of Holy Orders” [1087]. Thus, we are led to remember that the hierarchical structure of the Church is not a simple appendage or a “necessary evil”; rather, it is at the very essence of ecclesiality. The risen Christ communicates his life to the Church on earth through the Church’s liturgy, through which we “already participate, as a foretaste, in the heavenly liturgy” [1111].

An indispensable role in the liturgy is played by the Holy Spirit:

He prepares the Church to meet her Lord; He recalls and makes Christ manifest to the faith of the assembly. By his transforming power, he makes the mystery of Christ present here and now. Finally, the Spirit of communion unites the Church to the life and mission of Christ. [1092]

A strong emphasis is placed on the “today” of the liturgical action [1095]; that is, what we do in the sacraments is not a simple act of memory. Rather, it is the traditional Jewish notion of ‘memorial’, according to which the present act of remembrance actually brings about a present reality. As the Catechism says: “The Holy Spirit is the living memory of the Church” [1099]. Also noteworthy here is the excellent discussion of the links between Jewish and Christian liturgy [1096].

The text then moves on to a reflection on “the paschal mystery in the sacraments of the Church”, observing that “the whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments”. [1113]. The seven sacraments are enumerated and their origin in Christ is affirmed; this divine institution, however, is carefully explained, lest anyone walk away with an unhistorical or crude notion of the process: “. . . the Church, by the power of the Spirit who guides her “into all truth”, has little by little recognized this treasure received from Christ and. . . determined his “exemption”” [1117].

These visible signs of invisible grace “bear fruit in those who receive them with the requisite dispositions” [1131]; these actions express the priestly nature of the whole Church, but “the ordained minister is the sacramental bond which binds the liturgical action to what the apostles said and did and, through them, to the word and the action of Christ, source and foundation of the sacraments” [1120]. Reaffirming traditional doctrine, the Catechism teaches that three sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders) “confer, in addition to grace, a sacramental character or ‘seal'”, which is “indelible”, so that these sacraments can never be erased or repeated [1121].

Faith and salvation are an integral part of the sacraments. “The sacraments strengthen the faith and express it” [1133]; this faith exists in the Church before it exists in an individual believer [1124]. “The fruit of sacramental life is both personal and ecclesial.” The first aspect is that one lives entirely “for God in Jesus Christ”; the second brings to the Church “an increase in charity and in her mission of witness” [1134]. The Church’s eternal teaching on how the sacraments “work” is also reaffirmed: this happens “by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all” (ex opere operato) and are therefore not effected by the action of man, but “by the power of God” [1128]. Quickly, the text affirms that sacramental validity does not depend on the “personal holiness of the minister”. At the same time, we are reminded that “the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them” (ex opere operantis).

Four key questions about the liturgy and the sacraments

The following section takes up more practical details, but based on theological truths.

1. Who celebrates the liturgy? The answer comes: All Christusthe whole of Christ, which refers to the fact that in each liturgical action, the whole Church (Head and members) is present, including (and even above all) those who are currently participating in the liturgy of Heaven [1136]. This understanding is essential to recover if we want to get back on track liturgically, returning to a true sense of the sacred.

2. How is the liturgy celebrated? Starting from a sociological fact of life, the Catechism makes a deeply religious application of it: “As a social being, man needs signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures and the actions. The same goes for his relationship with God.” [1146]. Beyond that, Catholicism (as an incarnate religion) takes the human and the physical seriously: “Integrated into the world of faith and taken up by the power of the Holy Spirit, these cosmic elements, human rituals and gestures of remembrance of God become carriers of the saving and sanctifying action of Christ” [1189]. The place of the Word of God in the liturgy is emphasized, as is the importance of good sacred music which uplifts the human spirit [1153-1158].

A large section deals with holy images, obviously in response to the neo-iconoclasts: “Holy images, present in our churches and our homes, are intended to awaken and nourish our faith in the mystery of Christ. Offering a clear catechesis on what is at stake here, he says: “Through the icon of Christ and his works of salvation, it is he whom we adore. Through the sacred images of the Holy Mother of God, the angels and the saints, we venerate the persons depicted” [1192]. To have such images visible in the midst of the liturgical assembly is seen as a way of reminding us of the presence of “that great cloud of witnesses” described in the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:1) and their participation in the current liturgical assembly. action [1161] – so much the worse for those who wish to banish such elements from our religious buildings.

3. When is the liturgy celebrated? Once again, the emphasis is on the “today” of all these events. An excellent treatment is given on “Sunday, ‘the day of the Lord’, [which] is the main day of the celebration of the Eucharist because it is the day of the Resurrection. It is the day par excellence of the liturgical assembly, the day of the Christian family, and the day of joy and rest from work.[1193]; each element requires careful analysis and thought, especially in the United States (and most of the West) where so many of these elements have been overlooked or ignored. Flowing from the centrality of the Lord’s Day and the liturgical reconstitution of the paschal mystery is the liturgical year of the Church, which “unfolds the whole mystery of Christ”. [1194]. Keeping the memory of the Blessed Virgin, first of all, and also of the other saints, is of crucial importance because thus “the Church on earth shows that she is united to the liturgy of Heaven. It gives glory to Christ for having accomplished his salvation in his glorified members; their example encourages him on the path of the Father” [1195] – another direct response to some who have argued, however passionately, against the continued worship of saints.

A superb exposition is given on the Liturgy of the Hours, along with an encouragement to return this prayer to all members of the Church, not just clergy or religious. It is also mentioned that the Hours should be considered “an extension of the Eucharistic celebration” and, moreover, that this form of prayer does not exclude “the various devotions of the People of God, in particular adoration and worship of the Blessed Sacrament,” but actually calls for their incorporation into the liturgy “in a complementary way” [1178].

4. Where should the liturgy be celebrated? While quoting the teaching of Our Lord that Christian worship takes place “in spirit and in truth” and therefore “is not bound to an exclusive place”, the Catechism realistically continues: “In its earthly state, the Church needs places where the community can gather. Our visible churches, holy places, are images of the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, towards which we journey on pilgrimage. [1198]. These houses of God on earth should, by their beauty and their sense of holiness, remind us of Heaven – all these points, necessary reaffirmations of the importance of truly sacred places in the life of the Church.

The section concludes with a beautiful presentation on “liturgical diversity and the unity of the mystery”, so that the various rites of the Church, reflecting its diversity of cultures, “may be mutually enriched”. [1201]. About “inculturation”, the Catechism says very honestly that “cultural adaptation also requires a conversion of heart and even, if necessary, a break with ancestral customs incompatible with the Catholic faith”. [1206]; therefore, discernment is necessary, for not everything can be introduced into Christian worship in an uncritical manner, lest the Faith itself be compromised or eviscerated. “The criterion which assures unity in the diversity of liturgical traditions is fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition, that is to say communion in the faith and the sacraments received from the apostles, a communion both signified and guaranteed by the apostolic succession” [1209].

With this introductory material in place, we are now able to consider the different sacraments individually, aware of the link of ecclesial realities proposed by St. John Henry Cardinal Newman:

. . . [the Church] dogma and sacraments are needed; — it is a dogma and the sacraments, and nothing else, which can give meaning to a Church, or sustain it against the State; for by this is meant certain facts or acts which are special instruments of spiritual good for those who receive them. Just as we only obtain the benefits of civil society if we submit to its laws and customs, so we only obtain the spiritual benefits that the Church must grant us if we receive its dogmas and its sacraments.


If you enjoy the news and views provided by Catholic World Report, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers around the world for free, without subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to the CWR. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.


Comments are closed.