Friday, March 01, 2019 - Updated: 12:11 pm
QUESTION: I am an old Catholic, and I think that my grandchildren have some odd ideas about the sacraments. What is wrong with what we learned (that sacraments are “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace”)?
ANSWER: Question 136 from the Baltimore Catechism did indeed say that sacraments were “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” There is nothing wrong with that definition, and it was easy to remember. But some have asked if it is complete enough.
If we knew nothing else about sacraments but that definition, we might think that the sacraments were personal events that occur solely “between me and Jesus.” The traditional definition, you will note, says nothing about the church.
With only that traditional definition we might also think that sacraments are moments of contact with only the second person of the Trinity (Christ) since that definition says nothing explicit about the other two persons of the Trinity (Father and Holy Spirit). From that traditional definition we might also conclude that there is explicit scriptural evidence that Jesus “instituted” each sacrament exactly the way we celebrate it today.
But our understanding of the sacraments insists that they come to us within and through the church established by Christ. Sacraments are the way by which the church lives and continues in each generation. The sacraments and the church that celebrates them are intimately connected. The church also understands that each celebration of a sacrament is an encounter with the triune God (all the persons of the Trinity).
In addition, the point about being instituted by Christ must be very carefully understood. The “institution” of the Eucharist, for example, is clear in the words of Jesus: “Do this in memory of me.” But a wider understanding is needed to address the institution of the other sacraments. For example, the sacrament of marriage was not instituted by Jesus just because he attended the wedding at Cana. Jesus commissioned the apostles to continue his ministry. They did so by their preaching and the celebrations of the sacraments.
The sacraments then arise from the very ministry of Christ (healing, forgiving, feeding, empowering, uniting, commissioning and incorporating). The church continues that ministry in the way Jesus did. That is why the healing at the hands of the apostles (Acts 3:1-10) is so important because it testifies that Jesus is still acting in and through the apostles, the infant church.
In any case, the notion of sacraments that is being taught in the church today is not radically different from that taught and believed by generations past. It does, however, contain aspects that reflect a deeper understanding of the sacraments within the context of Scripture and a wider vision of our Catholic tradition. This understanding arises not out of someone’s imagination, but rather out of the teachings of the church and those of the Second Vatican Council.
When Christ was glorified and took his place at the right hand of the Father, he left behind a means of continuing his ministry. The church and the sacraments celebrated within it provide the way by which the presence of the triune God is in our midst.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.