The Sacraments

In 1983, the editor of the National Catholic Register, whom I had met during the preceding year through my involvement in an ill-fated attempt to produce Catholic television programs, asked me to write a series of personal and scriptural reflections to accompany a series of articles on the sacraments to be written by Fr. Peter Stravinskas. To culminate the series, he asked me to write an article on the sacraments in the Reformation period (which is, after all, my primary field of study). It accompanied articles by Fr. Stravinskas and Professor James Hitchcock.

What follows are the articles as I wrote them. Slightly edited versions appeared first in the paper and then in a booklet containing the entire series published by the Register, Servant Publications subsequently picked up the booklet and published it as a book, applying further edits. When Servant dropped the book, it was picked up by Ignatius Press; their version, however, omitted all of my contributions.

You Must Be Born Again

I once heard Fr. Walter Ong, the Jesuit polymath, shock an audience, mainly of theology students, with the chance observation that no one is born a Catholic. “But, Father,” said a young sister, “I was born a Catholic.” “No,” he replied. “You were born a pagan. You were not a Catholic until you were baptized.”

In recent years, evangelicals have made being “born again” their badge and rallying-cry. But it is the faith of Catholics as well: you must be born again. This is not a subjective experience; it is what happened in our baptism. We were born again. It was a birth more important than the one that happened when we came forth from our mother’s womb. There’s an old custom in some Catholic cultures of celebrating not one’s birthday, but the day one was baptized. It certainly was a day worth celebrating. To be a Christian it is not enough to be born into a Catholic family. None of our subsequent participation in the life of grace or of the Church would be possible if we had not previously passed from the life that is bound to death to the life that is imperishable in baptism. Some of us were old enough to remember the experience; but for most Catholics, the critical passage came when we were still infants.

Baptism changes people. Scripture compares baptism to the Great Flood (1 Pt 3:20-21), and to the passage of the Red Sea (1 Cor 10:1-2). The Easter Vigil includes baptism because baptism is a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ; we are “baptized into his death” so that “we shall be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:4-5). When St. Paul tells us “you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3) he is speaking of baptism. In fact, when the Apostle speaks of the change that comes over a person by being a Christian, he says that it comes, not from faith, or from doing good, but from baptism. Baptism also washes away original sin. We say “as innocent as a newborn babe”; but that babe through no fault of its own is implicated in the fall of Adam. The newly baptized babe, on the other hand, really is innocent, and moreover is a full sharer in the glory of Jesus’ resurrection.

Yet baptism is very simple. It consists of a little water and a few words. It is the one sacrament that anyone can perform. In its decrees on ecumenism, II Vatican Council recognizes a common baptism as the basis of unity with separated Christian churches. Even a non-Christian who intends to do what Christians do in baptism can validly administer the sacrament. How can such a simple thing accomplish such a great change?

Baptism is the first of the sacraments and the one that makes all the others possible. A sacrament is not only a visible sign of invisible grace; it is also an effective sign. This is because it is God himself who acts. In every baptism, as II Vatican Council pointed out, it is actually Christ who baptizes. God is willing to extend the great grace of baptism so easily, to so many, even to little children on the mere presumption they will be taught the faith, because he loves all the persons he has created and wants as many as possible to have new life.

Because baptism is a visible sign, we can look to it if we should be in doubt concerning God’s work in our lives. After all, we don’t always feel “born again.” If you were a naturalized citizen of the United States, especially if you lived among people from your former country, you might not always feel like an American. But if someone challenged your right to vote, you could point to your naturalization papers, and say, “This proves I have the rights and duties of a citizen.” Like baptism, naturalization might happen at a very early age: but that would not make it less valid. We are all naturalized citizens of the Kingdom of God. If we are in doubt concerning our place before God, we can point to the fact of our baptism, and say to ourselves or to anyone else, “I have the rights and duties of a Catholic, for I was baptized in the Church.” This is why St. Peter calls baptism “an appeal to God for a clear conscience” (1 Pt 3:21). It sets our conscience at rest to know that God has worked in a visible way. We have the right to receive the other sacramants of the Church, and her teaching; we have the duty to use those very things to preserve and nurture the life we received in baptism.

Catholic schools used to take up collections for “pagan babies.” That’s a good phrase. Unless you are a Jew, you were a pagan baby once. You couldn’t help it; you were born that way. But whatever you were, if you are a Catholic, it is because you were baptized. That is the only way into the Church. You must be born again.

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Using God’s Gift

The professor sat at the seminar table, giving a dry, word-by-word exposition of the Greek text of 1 Corinthians. At the first mention of the Holy Spirit, he turned to me and said, “You are involved in the charismatic renewal, aren’t you? I know you people talk a lot about the gifts of the Holy Spirit; but tell me, have you ever had an experience of the Holy Spirit apart from the use of any of the gifts?” I was so taken aback at this departure that I could hardly answer; as I recall it, my answer was not very good. But the question is still intriguing.

Confirmation is the sacrament wherein we receive the Holy Spirit. Yet most of us did not experience our confirmation as a particularly dramatic time, not the way persons involved in charismatic renewal speak of “being baptized in the Holy Spirit”—which is an experience separate from confirmation. Most discussions of confirmation, especially in the confirmation of young people, turn on acceptance of adult responsibility in the Church and bypass the Holy Spirit with at most a respectful nod. The Holy Spirit works in so many dramatic ways outside confrimation; but in the sacrament so little seems to happen. What are we to make of this sacrament?

It may be some consolation that the early Church had the same problem. In the book of Acts it is clear that Christian baptism and the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit were two different operations, usually coming in that order. Confirmation was not a trivial thing. When Philip made converts in Samaria (Acts 8:12-17), he baptized them himself, but sent for Peter and John from Jerusalem to lay hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit. But in the story of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48), Peter discovers that Gentiles could be baptized because the Holy Spirit came upon them first. Confirmation is an important place for the work of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is not limited by the sacrament.

The Holy Spirit is a person of the Blessed Trinity. As the Athanasian Creed reminds us, “The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; yet there are not three Gods, but one God.” The Holy Spirit is sent to those who belong to Jesus Christ. The apostles were puzzled when Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (Jn 16:7); but they came to understand. As long Jesus was present on earth, God the Son become man, he was the bodily presence of God; but now the Church, filled with the Holy Spirit, is the earthly body of Christ. This is the key to understanding the sacrament of confirmation.

In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit only came to certain persons: prophets, priests, and kings. In Numbers 11:29, Moses prays, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” This prayer is answered in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ, prophet, priest, and king, who gives the Holy Spirit to all who belong to him and thus share in his threefold office. The Holy Spirit completes the work of Christ by making God’s people his body on earth. It is the Holy Spirit who is at work in both the utterance of God’s word and the operation of his grace in our lives. Even to say “Jesus is Lord” requires the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3); whenever we act “in Christ,” it is by the power of his Spirit. This is the gift we receive in confirmation: not to experience the Holy Spirit, but to use God’s grace, which is his gift of himself.

This is why it is appropriate to associate the sacrament of confirmation with the assumption of adult responsibility in the Church. The Holy Spirit has already worked in our life, but now we are invested with the Spirit in a way appropriate to full membership in the body of Christ. God may from time to time give us fresh experiences of his grace within us, which are renewals of his gift, new outpourings of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not given to us to stand still, but to move on in Christ: to speak his word, to grow closer to him in prayer, to love our brothers and sisters. As we do these things, we are more filled with the Spirit, and more part of the body of Christ.

So the correct answer to the professor’s question was, “No, of course not.” The Spirit is the Gift, and we can no more experience Him without using His gifts than we can experience our muscles without moving or our minds without thinking. But whenever we do, he is at work. Confirmation happens only once, but to experience it at any time, we need only act on it.

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It’s Jesus

It’s a common enough story: a young man, a Baptist and a musician, married a Catholic. She induced him to play his guitar at Mass, he made Catholic friends. Before too long he became a Catholic himself. As he tells the story years later, the Eucharist is at the center: “When I played at Mass, I had to do something to distract myself while the priest was consecrating. I’d get all choked up—I didn’t want to start bawling right there in church.”

Many converts are like this man. What drew them to the Church was the sacraments; and foremost they name the Holy Eucharist. They stick to their instruction, resolve knotty theological problems, all because of their hunger to receive this sacrament.

What is there about the Eucharist that so attracts people? Simple converts experience its centrality even before they know what theologians have to say. Some writers today stress the role of the assembly’s faith: and certainly that is something that surrounds the sacrament. But assemblies filled with faith can be found in many place besides Eucharistic celebrations. It is not in order to go to a meeting that converts hunger and thirst through the arguments of Catholic instruction: it is to be able to eat something that looks like a little round cracker.

It is God. When the priest holds up the host and the cup and says, “This is the Lamb of God,” he presents to us Jesus Christ, God’s only-begotten Son, true God from true God, one on being with the Father, crucified for our sins, now risen and glorified at the right hand of the Father, whom John saw standing as a Lamb that had been slain before the throne of God, in the perpetual memorial offering of his own Body and Blood to the Father—whom we are about to receive according to His own command, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54). Our church, our chapel, wherever we are, has become a part of Heaven, and we are face to face with the holiness of Almighty God.

In the Old Testament, God’s holiness is associated with his power. When Uzzah, in 2 Samuel 6:7, touched the Ark, the dwelling place of God’s holiness, he was killed by coming too near this power. Yet since God became man, his holiness can come close to us. We indeed receive that holiness when we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation. Therefore God’s holiness works in us not for our harm, but for our good, by the grace that is effective in the sacraments. Cleansed of sin, we need not fear to touch, not merely the Ark which was the image of the heavenly dwelling place of God, but the actual Body and Blood of the exalted Lord Jesus himself, the perfect offering he made the the true heavenly sanctuary, that he now shares with us, the Passover sacrifice of our redemption.

We get so used to it. If God appeared to us in a pilar of fire over the altar at our next Mass, we would temble with fear. But if it happened every week, we might get used to that too. If we realize Who it is that is before us in the Eucharist, it would not be inappropriate to tremble with fear, or at least with awe. But his voice raises us up, saying as he said to his disciples after the Resurrection, “Do not be afraid.” It is by his invitation, indeed by his command, that we eat his Body and drink his Blood.

Christ gave us the Eucharist because he longs to be united with us. While we were still sinners, he loved us enough to die for us. Now all the more, the holiness he gives us by our baptism makes us desirable to him. He calls us to this union of love in every Eucharist that brings to us the sacrifice that lets us come to him. Not only is Christ present in the Eucharist: we can be intimately united with him as he desires to be with us. He is our Lord; he is also our Love.

Those of us whom custom and familiarity have dulled to the awesome presence of Christ and the love he offers in the Eucharist can take a hint from many new converts. Those whose spiritual eyes are open, who come to the Holy Eucharist as something new, perceive the grace present in the sacrament and hunger for it. We too can have this hunger, looking at each Holy Communion as if it were our first.

When I was in grade school, an atheist of tender years, Catholic children in the neighborhood preparing for first Communion used to tell me eagerly what they were learning. I, young fool that I was, scoffed at them, but I secretly admired their fervor. One little girl said it all: “It looks like bread, and it feels like bread, and it tastes like bread; but it isn’t bread—it’s Jesus.”

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Celebrating Repentance

One day when I was a fairly new convert, I was feeling discouraged. I said to a friend, “What wonderful experiences people have when they first come to Christ! I wish I were a pagan again so that I could have something like that happen to me.” His answer was simple: “Repent.” So I did. At the first opportunity, I sought out the sacrament of penance. Although by that time I had been to confession many times before, this time I received the sacrament with a new insight, and found my relationship with God greatly renewed.

Penance is conversion. When we confess our sins to a priest as God’s agent, we are not just “checking in,” going through a ritual before we return to live our normal sin-filled life. Nor are we merely seeking out advice on how to handle life’s problems. We are turning to God and asking him to renew our whole life in his grace. That sin is a normal part of our life is a misfortune; that the grace of conversion can also be is a blessing beyond imagination. We are born again once to an imperishable hope in baptism; we can be reborn again and again by receiving God’s forgiveness in penance.

For some non-Catholic Christians, penance is the hardest of the Church’s sacraments to accept. Doesn’t confessing my sins to a priest put a mere man in the place of God? No sacrament would seem more to depend for its effect on the wisdom or the goodness of an individual priest. This would be so if it were merely an opportunity for counseling. Some priests, like St. John Vianney, have had great gifts for the reconciliation of sinners. But the important part of the sacrament is God’s work, and the words that make a difference are what the priest passes on, God’s message of forgiveness. Christ promised to his apostles that if they spoke this word it would have effect (Jn 20:23), so that it is the bishop as successor to the apostles, or a priest as his agent, who can minister the Lord’s forgiveness decisively.

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), among its many lessons, is the classic illustration of the sacrament of penance. Like all the parables of our Lord, it was addressed to God’s people Israel. The two sons lived at peace with their father, as Israel with God. The younger son left his father’s house, as many of God’s people, the “lost sheep” of Jesus’ ministry, had deserted God’s law. As the prodigal came to his senses in the pigsty and returned to his father’s house, so the tax collectors and sinners repented at Christ’s preaching. For us, this parable depicts not merely the willingness of our heavenly Father to welcome us home regardless of the mess we have made of our lives, but of the completeness of the reconciliation that is ours. The prodigal was willing to take a job as a fieldhand; the father treated him as his son, and threw a party in his honor.

How do we play the part of the prodigal? At baptism we became children of God, sharers in the Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ. By sinning we stray from that sonship and find ourselves living the life of a swineherd in a far country. What do we do, finding pigs’ food inadequate nourishment? Do we write home and ask for money to buy more, so that we can go on living the life of a prosperous swineherd? No; we come to our senses; we turn, are converted, and seek out our Father’s house. We come humbly, acknowledging that we have done wrong. The words of absolution, raising us to our feet, reveal not a fieldhand, but a son, an heir, with a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, dressed in the best robe and surrounded by well-wishers dining on the best calf in the barn. God himself says to us, “This my son was dead, and is alive again.” We are restored to the new life of baptism, to the peace with God we had at the beginning.

What do we do in all this? All we need do is come to God and leave the pigs behind. God does not want well-fed swineherds; he wants sons who share his life and his prosperity. We need to come and confess that we have sinned and want to change. Christ has given us the sacrament of penance as a way of making this change as often as we need it, and as a way to hear the truth that we have indeed been forgiven.

God takes sin very seriously, because he takes us very seriously. By leaving us the possibility of separating ourselves from him forever, he is treating us like grownup people whose decisions have some weight. Because what we do matters, God cannot overlook sin; instead he forgives it. He won’t send us just enough to live on in the pigsty; we have to return to his house where we can live like kings.

So you can choose the pigsty if you want. You can stay there forever if it suits you. But if you want God to give a party in your honor, repent.

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As in the Beginning

Jesus had some hard things to say about marriage. While the law of Moses permitted divorce, Jesus declared that God’s original creation, now restored in him, does not. Man and woman were created to become one flesh, and this permanent bond designed by God ought not to be broken (Mt 19:3-9). Many people find this command harsh. So did Jesus’ own disciples. Their reply to his command was, “If such is the case . . . it is not expedient to marry” (Mt 19:10). Jesus’ reply is to offer the option of celibacy.

He refers to celibates as “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (v. 12). This must have been startling: in the Old Covenant celibacy was almost unknown, and eunuchs were excluded from Temple worship. A eunuch cannot beget children; Jesus underlines the contrast by next blessing the children, saying, “to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (v. 14). This is the choice in the Kingdom: if you will not marry according to God’s original design, permanently and fruitfully, then you can be a eunuch. Thus he raised marriage from a natural condition to a Christian vocation.

To many a permanent commitment to fidelity and continual openness to children may seem a burden. They look at marriage as a relationship of physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction, a vacation for two in the Kingdom of the Self. But the call of Christ to service under his Lordship by the power of his grace applies no less to marriage than elsewhere.

The celibate life has attracted many hardy souls in the history of the Church, whose devotion provides us to this day with an example. It is clear that their ascetic calling is a triumph over difficulty for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus himself said that celibacy was only for those who could receive it. But they are not the only ones with a vocation.

Marriage is a vocation. In fact, one could call marriage an ascetic vocation. It is not a vocation of renunciation but of acceptance, not of laying burdens aside but of bearing them; like the ascetic life, knowing its joys requires first the decision to undertake its responsibilities, the most difficult of which are a lifetime commitment and openness to children. The Lord recognizes the difficulty, and therefore has made of marriage a sacrament, an efficacious sign of his grace, a grace without which—as the disciples said—it is not expedient to marry.

Why should marriage be a sacrament at all? It would seem that it is merely a human institution, one that God would regulate by his law, of course, but a blessing shared in by all the human race. And so it is. Some blessing still clings to natural marriage; God has not withdrawn all his gift. But Christian marriage a sacrament because Jesus set it apart even from the marriage of God’s people Israel. He did so by basing his regulation for marriage on “the beginning”—the days of creation before the Fall, when mankind lived in a state of grace. Thus marriage in Christ partakes not of fallen nature, not even of the old law, but of the new life of restored grace.

The romance of the wedding can lead us to focus on peripheral things. Many couples try to impress upon the ceremony their own personalities. This can distract them, and us who witness, from the most important thing occurring there, which does not depend on romance, or on anyone’s personality. It is a sacrament, and depends only on God. Because the sacrament of marriage is something “from the beginning,” these two people, often scarcely more than children, are no longer themselves. They are Adam and Eve, the first parents of mankind, being given dominion over the earth. God looks at them and sees that they are very good; he says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” He endows them with a weight of glory too heavy for their narrow shoulders to bear unaided: the creative powers of their own bodies, now unleashed, and government over souls of incalculable value yet unborn. He gives them strength and authority, and crowns them King and Queen, and even more, for behind Adam and Eve looms, as St. Paul reminds us, a mystery that refers to Christ and the Church (Eph 5:31-32). The ancient mystery of physical love becomes in this sacrament a mystery of God’s grace.

To be a Christian is a high calling to a life of self-giving love. Marriage is by no means an escape from this into a world of mutually indulgent pleasure. It is a true Christian vocation, hallowed by an effective sacrament of grace. Those who enter into it selfishly or for emotional satisfaction will not be able to take hold of the grace, and will find the burden too much to bear. But those who enter with the mind of Christ, with hearts set on service, will find it their way to Paradise.

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The Gift that Makes the Church a Body

He appeared to be a loyal and orthodox Catholic, and claimed to be something of an expert on Church affairs. So I asked him about the bishops. “Most of them are terrible,” he said. He elaborated this point: the bishops in the United States are under the influence of modernism, and leading the Church in this country into schism. Even if they are personally orthodox, they are so weak in character and stupid they can accomplish nothing. This loyal and orthodox Catholic had little use for bishops.

Anyone who has been involved in the affairs of the Church or has studied its history may have some sympathy for this man’s position. Bishops have been known to depart from the teaching of the Church; bishops can be personally wicked, or make foolish decisions. But it is utterly inconsistent for a Catholic to reject their authority and still claim to be loyal to the Church. A bishop is more than a functionary or an office-holder. He has something going for him that is more than an appointment from the Pope. It is the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Normally, we think of the sacrament of orders in connection with priests first of all. Priests, after all, are the ordained men with whom we are most frequently in contact. But the bishop has received the grace of orders in the fullest measure. In the ministry of the bishop we best see this sacrament operating as the gift of order in the Church.

The Church is a community of believers; it is also the Body of Christ, not a random collection of individuals. It is “joined and knit together through every joint with which it is supplied” (Eph 4:16). Because it is Christ’s body, its order is an order of grace, coming from Christ himself. Christ supplies the joints for his body through a sacrament whereby he gives some men grace to direct it.

Jesus first gave this gift to his twelve apostles. He chose them carefully, after much prayer (Lk 6:12-16), trained them throughout his earthly ministry, and gave them special gifts after his resurrection (Jn 20:22-23). Bishops are successors of the apostles and have their gifts through the sacrament of orders. Priests and deacons share in this sacrament because they share in the bishop’s ministry: to administer the sacraments, to see that the Gospel is preached truly and completely, and to hand on the teaching of Christ.

We often think of bishops and priests as a sort of “professional holy men.” But it is the Church that is holy, and the Church is us. Lay people are not Christians without gifts, but Christians with different gifts. Bishops and priests cannot lead the Church to holiness if the Church is not seeking to attain holiness. They cannot love God and follow his ways for us. They can only teach us us what God’s ways are, and proclaim his word: we experience the grace of their ordination by actively following Christ under their direction.

Lay people can make two mistakes regarding their leaders. The first is to despise their authority: but the sacrament of Holy Orders gives them a grace which is not dependent on their own wisdom or learning but on the Holy Spirit. They have authority because God gave it to them. The second is to blame them for not doing enough, when it is the laity who need to put God’s word into action. In this sense, we get the leaders we deserve.

A car needs both an engine and a steering wheel. If you drive it without a steering wheel, it will soon be not a car, but a heap of junk; without an engine, it will never go where the steering wheel is pointing. It is the same with the Church. Without order, it would be a mob, not a body; but bishops and priests cannot be the Church by themselves. They are not supposed to supply all the gifts for the laity, but to dispense the means of grace and put all the gifts in their proper order.

In the history of the Church it has rarely been the clergy that has begun the great spiritual movements. St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola: they were all laymen when they received their call. The bishops’ task is to incorporate new spiritualities and renewal movements into the work of the whole Church; often they have done this by choosing their priests from such groups. But is is not the order that produces the Spirit; it is the Spirit that produces the order.

The gift of Holy Orders is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to the Church for a purpose. It is not the only gift, but it is an essential one for the Church as a whole. The laity experience it by exercising their own gifts. Then the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, will see to it that all the gifts of the one Spirit work together so that the Church “makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.”

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A Sacrament of Healing?

A priest I know anointed his father before he died. The father, so his son tells the story, had been a good Catholic, but had never had a very deep or expressive spiritual life. Now it was clear to everyone that he was soon going to pass from this world. The morning after he received the anointing of the sick, he told his son that the previous night had been unlike any other before. “I kept waking up praying and praising God,” he said. In this joy and peace he died shortly thereafter.

This is the way we still picture the anointing of the sick: in its more traditional role as the last anointing or Extreme Unction. The new discipline of this sacrament extends it to all serious illnesses, and also to the infirm in old age. The occasion for this story was a public anointing of several persons, most of them old, but one a mother of six young children, afflicted with cancer. Our hope for her was that she be healed by the power of God working in the sacrament. That has been known to happen. Many priests report that some of the persons they anoint recover in a way that can only be ascribed to God’s intervention; but not all. The sacrament is more than a preparation for death; yet healing is not always its effect.

Like all the sacraments, the anointing of the sick effectively brings God’s grace. In some cases, this grace is a physical healing. In others, it enables the person being anointed to receive a far greater blessing: knowledge of the presence of God in making the great transition from this poor temporary life to the eternal life of glory. But the greatest gift this sacrament brings is, in any case, the forgiveness of sins.

St. James connects anointing of the sick with forgiveness in the passage usually associated with this sacrament (Jas 5:14-15). This passage recalls the incident of the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:3-12, where before Jesus heals the paralytic, he forgives his sins. We might be led to expect from these two passages that sickness is so closely related to sin that if someone suffers illness, it is because he has sinned. But when Jesus healed the man born blind (Jn 9:3) he says that the man’s blindness was not the result of his or his parents’ sin.

This is a problem for some people. Among Catholics and non-Catholics alike today there are many who argue that healing through prayer is something God wants to do more. There are a number of well-known priests with ministries of healing, and from shrines like Lourdes have come well-documented cases of healing. Yet whether through the sacrament of the sick or through these other ways, not everyone who asks is healed. Some people argue that it is their sin, or their lack of faith, that prevents them from being healed. The line of argument often runs like this: that all the people with whom Jesus prayed in the Gospels were healed implies that it is always God’s will that a person be healed. Therefore if a person is not healed it is because that person, or perhaps the person praying, is somehow departing from God’s will.

This argument is flawed. There were many sick people in Palestine in Jesus’ time, and he did not heal them all. When he healed the man at the pool of Bethzatha (Jn 5:2-9), there was a “multitude of invalids” there. Jesus healed only one, a man who appeared to have no faith in him, indeed did not know who he was. Of course Jesus, being God as well as man, knew what God’s perfect will was. We do not. He can use suffering as well as healing for many purposes that are and will no doubt remain beyond our knowledge. Therefore it is not always because of someone’s sin that he is not healed.

At the same time sin has a connection with sickness. Sickness is in the world in the first place because of original sin, because of the fall of Adam. The forgiveness of sins available in the anointing of the sick sets the sick person free from this system of sin, either for recovery, or to use the suffering of sickness for some higher purpose, or to prepare the sick person to enter into eternal life.

The anointing of the sick is for use in times of great difficulty and danger, when we are face to face with our own mortality through sickness that can lead to death. It conveys God’s grace and the forgiveness of sins, and sometimes healing. But we don’t always know what the result will be. If we did, it would not be faith but magic. As it is, we can put our faith not in some magical formula that will get us the result we want, but in God’s grace, which we know is there, to bring about what he wants. And that is always much better.

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The Sacraments in the Reformation Period

He had been raised a Catholic, but had received most of his education on the street. One day he asked me who Martin Luther was, and was he different from Martin Luther King? I tried to give him some idea, in a few minutes, of the Protestant Reformation. His eyes grew wide with wonder. “Why would Martin Luther want to leave the Church?” he asked. “The Church has the seven sacraments.”

Why indeed? But then, that is just the point. If there is one striking difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the various Protestant churches, it is the doctrine of the sacraments. Catholic teaching is that there are seven sacraments, instituted by Jesus Christ, that effectively communicate God’s grace. Participation in the sacraments is a major part of Catholic life. While most Protestant churches celebrate some sacraments, they are not central to their teaching. During the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the leaders of those movements that became the Protestant churches first offered what they believed to be a more accurate version of Christianity. It was also during this time that the Catholic Church, in the Council of Trent, codified her traditional doctrine concerning the sacraments. The Council of Trent also set out the discipline of the sacraments that remained in effect for the next three hundred years. While there were many issues at stake in the Reformation, both doctrinal and otherwise, those concerning the sacraments touched directly the lives of the most people and aroused the greatest passion. The sacraments were an issue not only between the Catholic and Protestant sides, but among Protestants as well.

We do not have the space here for a complete history of Reformation doctrine. In general, however, we can say that the difference between Protestants and Catholics reflected a difference in understanding of what is central to Christianity. In the Protestant view, the word of God is at the center. Those who believe in the word and are thereby saved constitute the Church. Various Protestants may disagree as to what the word is, but all would agree that the word creates the Church. In Catholic teaching, the Church is central. Christ came to create a new people, his Body on earth, and established that people visibly through the apostles. The Church proclaims God’s word, and also, as Christ’s living Body, passes on his grace, which is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Salvation involves not merely faith but also participation in Christ through the Church.

The Sacraments in General

Martin Luther, the first of the great reformers, took a position on the sacraments which formed the basis for the doctrine of other Protestant leaders. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), he defined a sacrament as a visible sign accompanying a promise of Christ. Therefore he admitted only three sacraments: the Eucharist, Baptism, and Penance. Thus according to Luther the sacraments are really effective, because those who believe the promise are saved by receiving the sign, but no grace is offered to those who do not believe. Everything depends on the faith of the recipient. This is in accord with Luther’s teaching in general, that all Christian teaching pointed to justification by faith alone. In particular he denied that grace actually transforms the believer. Grace, for Luther, merely means that as long as the Christian believes in God’s promise, God considers him righteous; he does not not actually become righteous. Everything in the Church, in Christian life, is to be directed to preaching designed to arouse this faith.

Other Protestant leaders followed Luther in denying that most of the sacraments previously accepted deserved the title. John Calvin only recognized two: Baptism and the Eucharist, which he referred to as the Lord’s Supper. His definition is a little different from Luther’s. For Calvin, a sacrament is a “seal,” a sign that God uses to validate his covenant; in the case of Christian sacraments, the New Covenant of grace in Christ. The sacraments do not bring salvation; it is God’s covenant with those whom he has chosen of which they are signs. It is Calvin’s view of the sacraments that has prevailed in most Protestant churches.

The Council of Trent restated the traditional teaching of the Church based on Scripture and the Church Fathers. The Council declared that all seven sacraments were instituted and sanctified by Christ, handed down by the apostles, and convey grace by His power. God’s grace is present and working in the sacrament, even though the recipient may reject it. But when it is received, this grace actually transforms a Christian more and more into the image of Christ. Although the Council did not change the traditional doctrine concerning the sacraments, the disciplinary rules it laid down at the same time changed some of the ways Catholics related to the sacraments.

The Eucharist

Probably the sacrament that excited the most interest, indeed ferocious controversy, in the period was the Eucharist (or as many Protestants preferred to call it, the Lord’s Supper), the center of Christian worship. The end of the Middle Ages saw a greater fervor and emotion in popular religion, and in much of this the Eucharist was involved. On the one hand, processions and pilgrimages honoring the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist multiplied; on the other hand, heretical and sceptical movements sought to deny this presence or to deride it. Never were more resources directed toward the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass for the welfare of the living and the dead; yet this very multiplication of masses may have served to cheapen the sacrament in the eyes of many. Certainly when the conflict came, it was the mass that attracted the opposition of Protestants and rallied Catholics to the defense of the Church.

Luther maintained a doctrine of the Real Presence in the face of opposition from other Protestants. In his view, Christ’s words, “This is my Body,” were to be interpreted literally. However, he held that the Eucharist remains bread and wine, as well as being the Body and Blood of Christ. He also denied that the Mass is a sacrifice or has any effect apart from the faith by which the believer receives the forgiveness of sins. Therefore he condemned many Catholic practices concerning the Eucharist. The sacrament, he said, is the Body and Blood of Christ only during the celebration and exists only for the faith of the believer. It should not be venerated or reserved, because it is nothing in itself. He also insisted that all the laity should receive the Eucharist under both forms, and that if they could not, they were being denied something of Christ’s promise.

Ulrich Zwingli, who began his Reformation in Switzerland about the same time Luther did in Germany, taught that the Eucharist was merely a symbol of Christ’s body and blood. He and Luther disagreed violently, and their meeting in Marburg in 1529 effectively made permanent the first major division among Protestants. The other reformers tended to follow a position more like Zwingli’s, that the sacrament was merely a sign of a grace that came through the word. However, there were almost as many subtle variations on this position as there were major Protestant leaders. Calvin taught that the believer in fact receives the Body and Blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, but in a spiritual way, without the bread and wine actually being the Body and Blood of Christ. It was, however, the symbolic interpretation of Zwingli that has prevailed among most of Calvin’s followers.

The Council of Trent reaffirmed the traditional Catholic teaching: that the bread and wine in the Eucharist are transformed in substance, truly becoming the Body and Blood of Christ, and that this Body and Blood are truly offered by the priest in a representation of Christ’s sacrifice in his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. Since the whole of Christ is present in every part of the Eucharist, one receives Him just as much under one form as under both, and because he is truly present, honor can and should be paid to the sacrament as to Christ himself. The disciplinary decrees of the Council, and the renewal of Catholic teaching that accompanied it, had the effect of increasing popular respect for the Eucharist by seeing to it that the Mass was celebrated with dignity, that the laity were made aware of its tremendous consequences, and that the sacrament was given due honor and respect outside of mass.

Wherever Protestantism prevailed, the first sign of its victory was to end celebration of Mass. In the view of Protestant reformers, the Mass was a form of idolatry, and could not be tolerated. In most Protestant countries, it was a crime to celebrate or even to attend Mass; in England under Queen Elizabeth I, one could be put to death, as many were. Therefore the Mass became all the more precious to Catholics, especially to those under persecution. In Catholic countries, the preachers of Catholic reform encouraged more attendance at Mass as part of the general conversion of life they tried to bring about—and often succeeded.


Baptism was the other sacrament the Protestant reformers continued to accept. While Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin all agreed that baptism should be given to children and that it should not be repeated, they disagreed about its effects in the same way they disagreed about the Eucharist. While Luther believed that baptism, as a sign of Christ’s promise, actually effected the forgiveness of sins, Zwingli argued that it was merely a symbol of that forgiveness extended in the New Covenant. Calvin, like Zwingli, considered it a sign, and even more, an effective proof of the covenant. All opposed the Anabaptists, who took this doctrine one step further: if baptism is a sign and ineffective without faith, then only those who have faith should be baptized. They argued that baptism was a sign chiefly of membership in the Church and should only be given to those who were making a mature commitment of faith.

Catholic teaching reaffirmed that baptism is not merely a sign, but an effective sign that confers a special kind of grace, that is, a permanent and indelible character. Baptism washes clean of original sin and makes its recipient a new creation in Christ. In its disciplinary decrees the Council of Trent sought to emphasize the spiritual importance of baptism by reducing the more secular practices connected with the sacraments, as by limiting the number of godparents, which had made baptism more of an occasion for family politics than for devotion to God.

The Other Sacraments

We have noted that Luther in the Babylonian Captivity retained penance as one of the sacraments, but he came to regard it as less of a sacrament for lack of a visible sign. He did continue to value private confession of sins, and considered that ministers of the word were particularly appropriate to receive such confessions. But they had, he said, no greater power to absolve from sin than anyone else, but merely to declare God’s forgiveness. He himself heard confessions, and the practice of confession continues in many Lutheran churches, although it is not regarded as a sacrament the way Catholics understand it. Calvin and other Protestant reformers did not follow Luther in this. They declared that penance was not a sacrament, faith and baptism being sufficient for the forgiveness of sins, and called private confession an unnecessary and often dangerous practice.

The encouragement of more frequent and devout confession was an important part of Catholic reform. The Council of Trent reaffirmed that Christ had given to his apostles, and through them to bishops and priests, the authority to absolve from sin, and that confession to them was necessary for the forgiveness of serious sin among Christians. Regular participation in the sacrament of penance was a part of growth in the life of grace given to the Church. It was in this period that the confessional “box” was first used by reforming bishops in Italy to encourage people to confess in privacy and without fear of embarrassment.

All the reformers united in rejecting the other sacraments: confirmation, holy orders, marriage, and extreme unction. At best, they held, these were ceremonies instituted under divine inspiration, and perhaps good for the Church, but not sacraments of Christ. Most Protestant churches, however, retained these ceremonies, except for extreme unction, simply refusing to call them sacraments. Confirmation, for example, is still practiced by Lutherans, by Anglicans, and by some Calvinists, although it is regarded as a sort of blessing rather than a sacrament.

The Protestant reformers considered marriage a human institution commanded by God, but not a sacrament, while Catholics continued to teach the sacramental nature of marriage. It was in this area, however, that the Council of Trent made the greatest innovation. In its disciplinary decrees, it tried further to remove marriage from the secular realm. To be valid a marriage had to be entered into by free consent of both parties, and had to be celebrated in the presence of three witnesses, one of them a priest. Thus it invalidated clandestine marriages on the one hand and, on the other, marriages forced by the families. It also taught that families could not invalidate the marriage of grown children by withholding their consent. These decrees of the Council were among those resisted most strongly, since they emphasized individual responsibility rather than family control.

The case of Holy Orders reveals that while their theological positions were different, the disciplinary reforms of Catholics and Protestants were often similar. Before the sixteenth century, most priests who served in parish ministry were not well educated. It could certainly not be expected that they would have gone to a university, and if they had, that they would have studied theology. Protestants rejected orders as a sacrament, but they retained various offices in the Church, especially that of minister. The main duties of a minister were to preach and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. For these duties, especially for the former, Protestant churches required a well-formed and educated clergy. Therefore, Protestant churches began to insist that their candidates for the ministry attended universities. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the sacramental character of Holy Orders, especially equipping priests to offer the sacrife of the Mass, but also decreed for the first time the establishment of seminaries, where priests could be trained, especially in theology, before they were ordained. Priests were also directed to preach at Mass on every Sunday and feast day. Thus both Catholic and Protestant churches got a theologically educated, professional preaching clergy.

Even in this similarity, we can still see the basic difference between Catholic and Protestant teaching. Catholic priests preached and taught to enable the people to better participate in the Church and its sacramental life. Protestant ministers, while they ministered the sacraments, considered these merely demonstrations of the word; they were always preachers first.

Regardless of their exact theology, the Protestant reformers reduced the sacraments to a secondary status to the preaching of the word. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, reaffirmed the importance of the sacraments as a source of Christ’s life and work among his people. They were, and are, the glory of the Church and its proudest possession.

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