Understanding how sacraments are of Christ, the church, faith, salvation and eternal life
By Brian Pizzalato
When it comes to the wonders of the mysteries of the sacraments, our Lord, through his church, wants us to understand that the sacraments are: of Christ, of the church, of faith, of salvation and of eternal life (cf. “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” 1114-1130).
First and foremost, the sacraments are the sacraments of Christ. They are of Christ because he instituted all seven.
In essence, the sacraments are gifts of Christ to his people throughout the centuries, so that the reasons he became like us in all things might be made accessible to us.
What are those reasons? “The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God…so that we might know God’s love…to be our model of holiness…to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’” (CCC 457, 458, 459, 460).
These reasons for the incarnation are definitively accomplished in the Paschal Mystery, and made available to us through the sacraments.
The sacraments are participations in Christ’s own life, love and work. He didn’t come to do everything so that we do not have to do anything. “Sacraments are ‘powers that comes forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church” (CCC 1116).
This leads us to the second point, namely that the sacraments are the sacraments of the church.
Christ formed the Twelve to be what he was and do what he did when he walked the earth. They have an intimate share in the body of Christ through the sacrament of holy orders. They are in persona Christi capitas (in the person of Christ the head), as do their successors, the bishops.
“The ordained priesthood guarantees that it really is Christ who acts in the sacraments through the Holy Spirit for the Church…The ordained minister is the sacramental bond that ties the liturgical action to what the apostles said and did and, through them, to the words and actions of Christ, the source and foundation of the sacraments” (CCC 1120).
Through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist, we all become members of the body of Christ. “Forming ‘as it were, one mystical person’ with Christ the head. The Church acts in the sacraments as ‘an organically structured priestly community’” (CCC 1119).
The sacraments are of the church because they are by her and for her. “They are ‘by the Church,’ for she is the sacrament of Christ’s action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit. They are ‘for the Church’ in the sense that ‘the sacraments make the Church…” (CCC 1118). In a preeminent way, “the Eucharist makes the Church” (CCC1396).
The third point is that the sacraments are the sacraments of faith. This doesn’t mean that the bread and wine, when the priest pronounces the words of consecration, become the Body and Blood of Christ because I believe it. They become the Body and Blood of Christ whether one believe it or not.
They are sacraments of faith because, “they not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it” (CCC 1123).
So they do presuppose belief in all that the church teaches, including what it teaches about the sacraments.
The sacraments are not to be given to those who do not believe. The reception of all of the sacraments concludes with the response “amen,” which is a way of professing belief. When the priest, in the Communion rite, says, “The Body of Christ,” the response is “Amen,” which is like saying, “Yes it is.” Someone who does not believe but still responds, “Amen,” has just lied. One who does not believe should not receive, and then go and seek out the reasons to believe.
However, for those who have faith, they are sacraments of faith because they nourish, strengthen and express faith. We are all called to have our faith go ever deeper into the mysteries of God. We cannot do this on our own, and the sacraments are given to us by Christ to nourish that faith and make it ever stronger.
A fourth important point about the sacraments is that they are the sacraments of salvation. Christ came to save us by reconciling us to God.
Salvation is not only about being saved from sin; it is also about being saved for sonship, and living a life as a son or daughter of the heavenly Father.
“The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior” (CCC 1129).
They are sacraments of salvation because “…for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation” (CCC 1129).
So, if we believe, and do not fully participate in the sacramental life of the church and the living out of that each day, then most definitely our salvation is in peril. If we decide to substitute hunting, fishing, camping, football, sleep, etc. for participating in Sunday Mass, then our salvation is in jeopardy, through the committing of a potentially mortal sin. What silly things to put in place of the goal of life, eternal glory in the midst of the life-giving love of the Trinity.
These leads to the final point: The sacraments are the sacraments of eternal life. I would like to sum up this fact with a prayer after Communion, composed by St. Thomas Aquinas: “I give you thanks, O holy Lord, Father Almighty, Eternal God, that you have vouchsafed, from no merit of my own, but of the mere condescension of your mercy, to satisfy me, a sinner and your unworthy servant, with the Precious Blood of Thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ. I implore you, let not this Holy Communion be to me an increase of guilt unto my punishment, but an availing plea unto pardon and forgiveness. Let it be to me the armor of faith and the shield of good will. Grant that it may work the extinction of my vices, the rooting out of concupiscence and lust, and the increase within me of charity and patience, of humility and obedience. Let it be my strong defense against the snares of all my enemies, visible and invisible; the stilling and the calm of all my impulses, carnal and spiritual; my indissoluble union with you the one and true God, and a blessed consummation at my last end. And I beseech you that you would vouchsafe to bring me, sinner as I am, to that ineffable banquet where you, with the Son and the Holy Spirit, art to your saints true and unfailing light, fullness and content, joy for evermore, gladness without alloy, consummate and everlasting bliss. Through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Printed with permission from the Northern Cross, Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota.
Brian Pizzalato is the Director of Catechesis, R.C.I.A. & Lay Apostolate for the Diocese of
Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville,