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Have Sacraments Changed?

by Mark R. Francis, C.S.V. Not long ago I spoke to an adult study group on the sacraments. One of the older members of the group was sincerely puzzled by what he perceived to be the changes in the sacraments. He had been taught as a youngster that sacraments came from Christ and could not be changed. Yet in the years since atican II there have been all kinds of changes. He spoke of three changes that he found particularly puzzling. !irst" he sees adults baptized by immersion at the #aster igil on Holy $aturday in a large baptismal font surrounded by the whole parish. %his was something unheard&of before atican II. !or him the usual way 'aptism is administered is by pouring a small amount of water on the heads of infants in a (uasi&private ceremony after the )asses on a $unday. $econd" the older parishioner described communal *enance celebrations held during +dvent and ,ent. %he whole community hears the $criptures and is led through an e-amination of conscience" then goes face&to&face to confessors stationed around the church. +gain" this practice is in sharp contrast to the way pre& atican II Catholics approached confession. *enance was almost always celebrated anonymously and individually in a dark confessional bo- on a $aturday afternoon. He finally mentioned that at a recent marriage" the bride and the groom faced the assembly during the e-change of vows" instead of having their backs to their family and friends. Have sacraments changed. /iven the observations of this man who had e-perienced the before and after of the liturgical reform" this is certainly a legitimate (uestion. $ome of us remember the Baltimore Catechism0s still very valid definition of a sacrament as 1an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.1 atican II0s reform of the liturgy enriched our understanding of the sacraments even further. %he sacraments themselves did not change" but the way we celebrate them today invites us to see and e-perience /od0s presence in Christ where we have perhaps never consciously looked before. %he sacramental renewal of atican II sought to help us make the connection between the sacraments and our daily lives.

How sacraments communicate


'efore atican II much emphasis was placed on the sacraments as the way the Christian faithful receive grace. 2e still understand sacraments in terms of grace3 /od0s loving communication of self to us. 'ut now there is a more conscious effort to see how sacraments communicate /od0s grace" /od0s presence. +s our traditional definition indicates" sacraments are all 1outward signs.1 4uite simply" this means they are all perceptible to our senses. %o put it in the theological terms of atican II" 1in the liturgy the sanctification of women and men is given e-pression in symbols perceptible to the senses and is carried out in ways appropriate to each of them1 5Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" 67. %he more perceptible these sacred signs are to our five senses of sight" taste" hearing" touch" smell" the more effectively they will communicate. /od made us in such a way that we learn about the world through our senses. 2e are enfleshed spirits. %he Catholic sacramental approach is founded on the conviction that both creation and our bodies 5because they are created by /od7 are basically good and potential vehicles of /od0s presence when they are open to /od0s grace. It is a central tenet of our faith that /od can and does choose to enter into relationship with us through our physical e-istence" our very humanity. %his truth is reflected in the physical manner in which Catholics worship. %hink of the many ways we use our bodies during the liturgy. %o help us to attain particular interior dispositions we assume various postures3 kneeling 5penitence7" standing 5praise and service7" sitting 5contemplation7. +s intense forms of worship" the celebration of the sacraments always involves our bodies. In the celebration of the

sacraments themselves we are anointed" embraced" bathed and fed. 2e smell the rich fragrance of incense at )ass or the sweet perfume of the chrism at Confirmation and ordination to the priesthood. 2e use our sense of hearing by listening to the $criptures and the homily. *articipating in music helps us to put aside selfish preoccupations and move to praise /od in concert with our brothers and sisters. In short" in our celebrations we are invited to e-perience /od0s love reaching out to us through our senses by means of everyday human actions. Our sacramental viewpoint depends upon our sensitivity to /od0s grace at work in our everyday life. %he changes in the celebration of the #ucharist" for e-ample" were aimed at helping us make the connection between the #ucharist 5the central sacrament7 and the very basic human action of sharing nourishment3 eating and drinking with one another. In the revised order of )ass" the liturgy presents the #ucharist to us not only as a sacrifice" but also as a sacred meal. 8ust as 8esus ate and drank with his disciples" so the revised liturgy invites us to gather around a common table remembering 8esus and fulfilling his command to share in the meal where we" like the disciples at #mmaus" recognize him in the breaking of the bread 5see ,k 9:3;<&<=7. In making this connection between meal and )ass more obvious" the invitation is made to help us see the vital connection between liturgy and life. %his connection is made more e-plicit in other sacraments as well. In >econciliation and the +nointing of the $ick" for e-ample" the human gesture of touch is used in the laying&on of hands. Our loved ones reach out and embrace us when we are sick or when we make up after an argument. 8ust so" in the sacraments of >econciliation and +nointing the presider also communicates that loving presence of /od through what can be best described as a type of caress. %he liturgical reform has made more e-plicit the human basis for this gesture used in the sacraments.

Christ, the original sacrament


+ll of this" of course" is based on the most important way /od has reached out in love to humanity3 in the incarnation of 8esus Christ. In 8esus /od became a real" flesh&and&blood human being" 1like us in all things but sin1 5see Heb :3;=7. /od did this to reach out to us in a way that we could most easily understand. /od continues to use the natural world as a way of revealing the divine purpose. 'ut Christians believe that the most important and decisive way /od has reached out to the world in love is in the incarnation of 8esus Christ. In fact" the Incarnation is the basis for our Christian understanding of sacrament. *rior to atican II" Christ0s role in founding the seven sacraments was stressed. !or e-ample" it would have been unusual in that era to refer to his birth as a sacrament. One of the recoveries of an older tradition by the $econd atican Council was a look at 8esus Christ himself as /od0s principal or first sacrament to the world. Christ himself is the primary 1outward sign of /od0s grace.1 %he solemn proclamation in the prologue of 8ohn0s /ospel" 1%he 2ord was made flesh and dwelt among us"1 speaks about how /od chose flesh 5a human being7 to communicate 52ord7 to humanity. It is in 8esus" a 1human being like us in all things but sin"1 through whom /od has revealed the divine purpose for us and for our world. It is through 8esus" who was fully /od and fully human" that we have been put into relationship with /od and /od0s love. %he Incarnation itself was long regarded as sacramental. Our ancestors in faith used the term sacrament in a much less technical way than we do today. 'efore the distinction was made between sacraments and sacramentals by later theologians" the early Church saw sacraments broadly. #arlier Christians saw sacraments as the ways by which /od communicated to us through our human e-perience in this world. %o them sacraments are how /od 1speaks our language.1 In addition to the seven sacraments we know today" the early writers of the Church thought of sacraments as any activity or communal form of prayer that led Christians into the mystery of /od. %hat included the various rites associated with the catechumenate 5anointings and laying&on of hands to strengthen those who were seeking 'aptism7. %ime itself?the progressive and gradual unfolding of the

liturgical year?was seen as a kind of sacrament. In time we are led to ever deeper communion with the One who is the author of time itself. %his manner of thinking was the Catholic sacramental approach at work.

Paschal Mystery
+ny understanding of the sacraments cannot stop with the Incarnation. In fact" it is only from what we know about 8esus0 life that we know the importance of his birth. + shorthand way of referring to 8esus0 life" death and resurrection is the 1paschal mystery.1 %his term is derived from the word paschal or 1pertaining to the *assover1 since" as we know" it was during the 8ewish pascha 5/reek for 1*assover17 that 8esus handed himself over to suffering and death. Mystery comes from the /reek word for sacrament itself. It refers to that which is not immediately apparent to our senses" but is accessible and real to us because of faith. 'y using the term paschal mystery we refer to all Our ,ord did to redeem humanity3 the Incarnation" his teaching" his ministry 5especially to the poor and outcast7" as well as his suffering" death" resurrection and ascension. +ll of our sacraments are linked to the fullness of the paschal mystery. %hey derive their power from it. It is only by virtue of Christ0s suffering" death and resurrection that /od0s loving purpose was fully revealed to us. In every sacrament we remember the paschal mystery in such a way that the power that flows from /od0s outpouring of love for us in Christ becomes both real and accessible to us here today. !or this reason" to help us 1remember well1 this paschal mystery" all of the new sacramental rites include 'ible readings as an important part of the celebration. Having heard /od0s word" having remembered /od0s promises contained in $cripture" we can proceed to the celebration of the sacrament itself" which continues Christ0s saving work in the world.

Scripture in the limelight


*rior to atican II very little was usually made of the proclamation of $cripture during the celebration of the sacraments. %oday there is a restored emphasis on the $cripture readings as an important part of the whole celebration. 2e recognize in the $criptures it is Christ speaking to his people. %his is true not only for the #ucharist" but for all of the sacraments. In the 'aptism of children" for e-ample" we read from the /ospels about 8esus and the little children or we reflect on $t. *aul0s description of our dying and rising with Christ in the waters of 'aptism. In communal services of >econciliation we hear and reflect on /od0s word which constantly calls us back to relationship with /od and one another. In the +nointing of the $ick" we hear the /ospel stories of Christ0s healing all those with infirmities and /od0s desire to make us whole. 2e proclaim /od0s word to help us remember /od0s promises in Christ. $acraments are not magic" after all. %hey are celebrations of faith?faith that is nourished and heightened by the proclamation of /od0s 2ord. Our faith is also most elo(uently and completely e-pressed when we gather as a community. !or" as 8esus promised" 1where two or three are gathered in my name" I am there among them1 5)t ;@39A7.

The Church: Christ's ongoing sacrament


In a real sense" the sacraments continue the work that 8esus accomplished while on earth. atican II teaches that the purpose of the sacraments is 1to make people holy" to build up the 'ody of Christ" and finally to give worship to /od1 5Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" =B7. It is through the sacraments that the Church continues here and now to incarnate Christ0s presence in the world. 2e baptize" forgive" heal and bless?all in the name of Christ. +ll of the sacraments" thus" are communal celebrations. %his is especially true of the #ucharist as the central sacrament of the Church. %he old adage about the #ucharist illustrates this well3 1%he Church

makes the #ucharist" and the #ucharist makes the Church.1 2e gather" hear and reflect on the $criptures" praise and thank /od for all that has been done for us in 8esus Christ. 2e then share a meal that unites us more fully to both /od in Christ and to our brothers and sisters. In this we celebrate and strengthen our identity as /od0s people. 2ith that in mind" it is easy to see receiving the #ucharist?or any other sacrament?is not simply an act we do as disconnected individuals. 2e receive the #ucharist" for e-ample" not to hoard the presence of Christ in ourselves. 2e receive the #ucharist in order to be transformed" individually and communally" into better members of the 'ody of Christ in the world. How do we know if the transforming power of the sacraments is having its effect. 2e know from $cripture that in the presence of Christ there is reconciliation and peace. In his presence there is no want3 %he hungry are fed" the naked are clothed and the poor have the /ood News preached to them. If we are truly mindful that the sacraments celebrate and transform us into the very presence of Christ" then it is we as Church who bring /od0s reconciliation and peace to the world. It is we who are empowered to feed the hungry" clothe the naked and preach the /ood News to the poor. %his is also true when we witness sacraments received by others. 2henever a sacrament is celebrated" Christ is present. 2hen we see someone baptized" that presence of Christ is communicated to all present3 to the person being baptized" in a special way" but also to those present who are already baptized. %hrough the celebration they are invited to relive the moment of their own 'aptism when they" too" were immersed in the *aschal )ystery of Christ. %hey are invited to pledge themselves anew to the discipleship celebrated in the sacrament and to realize in an even more profound way their membership in Christ0s body. Once again" this is why the sacraments are meant to be public events. %hey are most fittingly celebrated in the conte-t of the Christian community at prayer. +t a wedding" the consent of the couple witnessed by the Church" which constitutes the central act of the marriage rite" is not only for them. It underlines the fact that through the sacrament of marriage" /od0s love for us in Christ becomes all the more present in the world. It radiates out from the Christian home established by the sacrament of marriage.

Have sacraments changed?


In this Update" we have discussed various changes in the way we celebrate and understand the sacraments3 the e-panded use of $cripture readings" the emphasis on the communal nature of the sacraments" 8esus as the primary sacrament" to name a few. 2e have seen" however" that the essential meaning of the sacraments has not changed. 2hile the way we celebrate the sacraments has changed since atican II" the faith of the Church in Christ0s active presence in the sacraments has not. 'ecause we Catholics are a sacramental people" we e-perience the presence of /od in the world. 2e e-perience /od in everyday human actions such as sharing food with one another or reaching out in love to those in need. $acraments are /od0s way of communicating that presence to us. %hey are our way of seeing in Christ0s suffering" death and resurrection the very pattern for our own lives. %his will never change. Mark R. Francis, a Viatorian priest, is associate professor of liturgy at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He holds a doctorate in liturgy from the Pontifical iturgical !nstitute at "ant# $nselmo Uni%ersity in Rome.

Key

uotes on the Sacraments

!rom "atican ##
%he purpose of the sacraments is to make people holy" to build up the body of Christ" and" finally" to give

worship to /odC because they are signs they also instruct. %hey not only presuppose faith" but by words and obDects they also nourish" strengthen" and e-press itC that is why they are called 1sacraments of faith.1 %hey do indeed impart grace" but" in addition" the very act of celebrating them most effectively disposes the faithful to receive this grace in a fruitful manner" to worship /od duly" and to practice charity. It is therefore of the highest importance that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs" and should fre(uent with great eagerness those sacraments which were instituted to nourish the Christian life. ? Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, E=B

!rom the Catechism


%he sacraments are 1of the Church1 in the double sense that they are 1by her1 and 1for her.1 %hey are 1by the Church"1 for she is the sacrament of Christ0s action at work in her through the mission of the Holy $pirit. %hey are 1for the Church1 in the sense that 1the sacraments make the Church"1 since thay manifest and communicate to men" above all in the #ucharist" the mystery of communion with the /od who is love" One in three persons. ?Catechism o the Catholic Church, E;;;@ %he sacraments are efficacious signs of grace" instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church" by which divine life is dispensed to us. %he visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. %hey bear fruit in those who receive them with the re(uired dispositions. E;;<;