Wise couples invite Christ into their union to strengthen the bond
PART VII: Marriage
By Msgr. Charles W. Cicerale
Here is a glimpse of the heartfelt love expressed by St. Lioba in a letter to St. Boniface back in the 700s: “I send you this little gift, not because it is worth your consideration but simply so that you may have something to remind you of my humble self; may it draw tighter the bond of true love between us forever.”
They were not married, but these words express the depth of self-gift that makes for a joy-filled union. The “little gift” of one’s whole self; humbly given to draw tighter the bond day-by-day in the process of making a lifelong commitment is what marriage is about.
In Christian marriage, the wise couple invites Christ into their union to form a third strand strengthening their bond.
What the Church teaches about marriage can be summarized in one word: covenant. Books have been written about covenant — that mystical union between God and God’s people — an intimate union of life and love, the marriage covenant.
The old ritual for the celebration of holy matrimony, used before I was born in the 1940s, has two parts: an instruction before and an exhortation after marriage.
The first section speaks of marriage as “a union that is most sacred, because it was established by God himself; most serious, because it will bind the two together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate that it will profoundly influence your whole future.”
It addresses the powerful words spoken in the giving of vows… “take each other for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.” These words are most serious and a beautiful tribute to the couple’s undoubted faith in each other and in God. The words still rest on the great principle of self-sacrifice; slightly made more contemporary with “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness/health. I will love and honor you all the days of my life.”
This is a voluntary and complete surrender of each individual life in the interest of that deeper and wider life they are to have in common.
The ritual goes on to say: “Henceforth you will belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections.”
This reflects the true definition of a covenant as different from a contract, which is what is affected in a civil ceremony and not in a sacrament. A contract, in effect says: “I owe you and you owe me.” Whereas a covenant says: “I am yours and you are mine…I give the gift of myself, past, future, and this moment to you freely, and without reservation, and receive the gift of yourself in response!”
Our distorted, self-centered, narcissistic culture tries to convince us that sacrifice ought to be avoided for it only makes us unhappy. “Where as sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome,” as the ritual instructs, only love can make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy. “We are willing to give in proportion as we love and when love is perfect, the sacrifice is complete.”
I’m reminded of Abe Lincoln’s definition of happiness: “Happiness is a by-product of a life well lived.” I understand that to mean living with integrity, love and compassion.
This call to marriage is woven deeply into the human spirit, yet our culture shows little support. A recent comic strip had two men talking over coffee, one says “I just want to get married and be happy.” The other quips “pick one.”
Today, more than 40 percent of first-time marriages fail. Married couples who understand what it takes to make a marriage last and find happiness in their union speak of what to do after “I do.”
Top of the list: Communicate how you feel honestly. Never presume the other understands what has been unstated. Ask for clarity when you don’t grasp what the other is saying. Let go of the “you” and “me” way of speaking and work on making “us.” This requires balancing your needs and desires with those of the other. Part of this is seeing yourselves as a team. Seek support from each other and from a community of couples. Marriage encounter is a great resource for such ongoing support in your relationship.
You’re choosing to deal with conflict creatively and avoiding the things that are deadly to your marriage: criticism, contempt expressed in sarcasm and cynicism, defensiveness expressed in blaming the other and stonewalling with the silent treatment. Learning to say “sorry” and meaning it brings the healing love of God into the union.
Carl Jung said: “Seldom, or perhaps never, does a marriage develop into an individual relationship smoothly without crisis. There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” Langdon Mitchell adds: “Marriage is three parts love and seven parts forgiveness of sins.”
Intimacy is critical to a marriage. Pay attention to issues of sexuality and do kind things that show you cherish your spouse. There are many ways to express love and tenderness. Sexually is one, but seek new and deeper ways to let the other “see into you.”
As the Chinese proverb goes: “Married couples who love each other tell each other a thousand things without talking.”
Lastly, recognize God’s great love for you both — no matter what and mirror the concept in your marriage. Respect each other and pray together. These are some of the characteristics shared with me over the years by happily married couples.
Marriage is not a finishing affair. No matter to what age we live, love must be continuously nourished, tenderly attended to and give the priority in one’s married spirituality. Being considerate, thoughtful and respectful without ulterior motives is the key to a joyful marriage.
As we understand the meaning of vocation: it is God’s way of moving us toward love. Marriage is a solace and a comfort for the spouses. We call that consolation grace — God’s free gift of love that enables husbands and wives to love each other through all comforts and challenges of life.
Msgr. Charles W. Cicerale serves as pastor of St. James Parish, Woodbridge, and Dean of the Cathedral Deanery.
Repentance sends faithful into world filled with hope, faith
PART VI: Reconciliation
By Father John G. Hillier
One of the most cherished guarantees left in this world of change is the guarantee of the “seal of confession.” This means that under no circumstances is a priest permitted to divulge the sins we confess or the conversation that takes place while celebrating the sacrament of penance (also known as reconciliation or confession).
Such was the case when the priest heard my first confession when I was 7-years-old. One of my later confessions, during those early years, was the time I confessed that I had committed the sin of “adultery.” The priest asked me to explain how I committed this sin. I gave several examples of why I no longer wanted to be a child. Therefore, I committed, what I thought was, the sin of adultery (“wanting to be an adult”). Several years passed before I discovered that adultery was something very different than what I had previously thought it was.
Another discovery I made years later was a document written by Saint John Paul II in 1984 called Reconciliation and Penance. He explains in the opening paragraph:
“To speak of reconciliation and penance is for the men and women of our time an invitation to rediscover … the very words with which our savior and teacher Jesus Christ began his preaching: ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’ (Mk 1:15), that is to say, accept the good news of love, of adoption as children of God …”
These words spoke to my heart when I first read them in the summer of 1986. Pope John Paul had captured something quite special that had endured from the moment it was first proclaimed by Jesus. “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” a heartfelt invitation that fills us with the desire for forgiveness and leads us to a greater appreciation of his sacramental presence.
Given to us by Christ, the sacrament of penance is one of the most beautiful, yet perhaps misunderstood sacraments of the Church. When people ask, “where in the Bible does Jesus give us the sacrament of penance,” our quick answer is that this sacrament of healing is the first sacrament Jesus gave us after his resurrection. We recall the words of the Risen Christ to the apostles when he sent the Holy Spirit to them and gave them the authority to forgive sins:
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (Jn 20:19-23).
God provides for us most intimately in this sacrament, which is the ordinary way to have our post-baptismal sins forgiven. As St. Ambrose put it: “The Church possesses both water and tears: the water of baptism, the tears of penance.”
The cousin of Jesus, St. John the Baptist, prepared the way by “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4). Jesus continued to call people to repentance including those like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-42), Zacchaeus the tax-collector (Luke 19:1-10), and other “unnamed” sinners (Mark 2:15-17, Matthew 9:10-13, Luke 5:29-32). The parables further describe this disposition in Jesus’ personality including: the parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7; Matthew 18:12-14), the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10), and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Recall also the crucial passage when Jesus said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19).
Here, the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” are “given over” to Peter, thus securing the authority for every age through apostolic succession. Our Lord’s gift of this sacrament is made available through the ministry of his ordained priests in every generation.
Priests, acting in the person of Christ, are on the front lines of the Church’s outreach to sinners. Following the lead of Pope Francis who, in his now-famous August 2013 America magazine interview said, “I see the Church as a field hospital after battle … You have to heal wounds,” priests act as physicians of the soul in the hospital of the confessional mostly on a weekly basis, sometimes even daily.
The sacrament of penance is not magical nor an easy-fix but God’s gift to us. It is critical that we examine our lives regularly. How is it that I am offending God? How is it that I am not fully living the life of a disciple? What are the sins that I habitually commit? What is the one serious sin that keeps me from loving God and others more perfectly? From being able to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel?
Such questions are what the Church calls an examination of conscience. This helps us prepare for the celebration of the sacrament of penance and enter into the most important aspect of the sacrament, which is contrition. Understood as heartfelt sorrow for having offended God, along with the desire to sin no more, where there exists no sorrow for sin, no sacrament can take place. We take our cue from Jesus who, in John 5:1-15, after healing an invalid by the Pool of Bethesda, and in the account of the woman caught in the act of adultery (Jn 8:3–11), said to them: “Go and sin no more.”
Having prepared for the sacrament by an examination of conscience, the penitent approaches the sacrament (either face-to-face or anonymously). The sacrament is celebrated as follows:
1. The priest/confessor greets us, and we make the sign of the cross. He invites us to trust in God’s mercy or may read a passage from Sacred Scripture.
2. We confess our sins. This involves telling our sins to the priest who is acting in the person of Christ. We believe it is Christ therefore who forgives our sins through the priest.
3. The priest gives us our penance, which may involve prayer, an act of charity or a combination of both depending on the nature of the sin and the spiritual maturity of the penitent.
4. The priest invites us to express our sorrow or contrition by praying a memorized Act of Contrition, another similar prayer or our own words.
5. Finally, the priest extends his hand(s) over us and prays aloud the beautiful prayer of absolution:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We respond: “Amen.”
6. The priest dismisses us with the words, “Go in peace.” We go forth to perform the penance we were given.
With new, abundant life given to us by the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, we are again sent into the world filled with new hope and renewed faith.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski.
Process brings unbaptized adults into communion with Church
PART V: RCIA
By Oratorian Father Peter R. Cebulka
RCIA. We see it in bulletins and hear it in the announcements; it is bandied about in our pastoral councils and in parish staff meetings. In an age that relies heavily on acronyms the Church has its own share. And RCIA may well be at the top of the acronym list.
The challenge with acronyms, however, is we can become so familiar with the letters that we run the risk of forgetting for what the letters stand. RCIA stands for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and is composed of the liturgical rites used to welcome unbaptized adults into the Catholic Church. (It should be noted that the RCIA process can also be adapted to welcome those coming into the Church from other Christian traditions, for those who were baptized Catholics but never received confirmation and Eucharist, and also for unbaptized children who have reached the age of reason. The RCIA book contains directions for how these adaptations are to be made. The comments that follow, however, describe the rite for unbaptized adults.)
The first aspect of RCIA to note is that it is one of the liturgical rites of the Church along with other sacramental rites such as the Rite of Marriage, the Rite of Confirmation and the Rite of Penance. The liturgical rites of RCIA are the heart and essence of the process; they are not optional. Unlike the other rites, the liturgies of RCIA unfold over time and are designed to mark the unfolding of the conversion process in the life of individuals coming to the Church. Conversion is a process that unfolds over time; the liturgies of RCIA serve to ritualize that process.
The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was the last of the liturgical rites to be published after the Second Vatican Council. The Latin edition was promulgated in 1972 with the official English text being mandated for use in the United States in 1988. The development of a new rite for the baptism of adults came out of a request at Vatican II for a restoration of the catechumenate in order to prepare adults properly for the reception of baptism.
However, while RCIA may seem a new innovation it is in reality a restoration of the ancient process of initiation we see described in the writings of the early Church.
There are four stages in the process, with three steps that mark the transition between the stages. The first stage, the Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate (also known as Inquiry) is the most informal part of the process. During this time, an individual manifests the first stirrings of faith. The main purpose of this period is to assist the inquirer in becoming familiar with the Christian story and in developing a personal relationship with Christ. There is no given length to the process. It takes as long as it takes.
Once an individual makes a decision for Christ and the Church the first step, the Rite of Acceptance, is celebrated. This is the first public liturgical celebration in RCIA. The inquirer is accepted as a catechumen becoming a member of the household of faith.
The second stage, the Period of the Catechumenate, is the longest period in the process and can last for a year or even several years. A general rule of thumb is that a catechumen should go through two Lents before receiving baptism. During this period, the catechumen is formed in the teachings of the faith, in the life of prayer (both liturgical and personal prayer), in the call to service and in the moral teachings of the Gospel.
After this period of formation and once those responsible for overseeing the process have discerned the catechumen’s readiness the second step, the Rite of Election, is celebrated by the bishop. At this liturgy, the bishop enrolls the catechumens in the Book of the Elect, formally choosing them to receive the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist at the upcoming Easter Vigil. At this point, the catechumenate is over and the third stage, the Period of Purification and Enlightenment, begins.
The elect, which is what the catechumens are now called, prepare themselves for the reception of the sacraments throughout the Lenten season. Special rites called the Scrutinies are celebrated on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent.
The entire process comes to its highpoint at the celebration of the Easter Vigil at which the Elect receive the sacraments of initiation. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, sealed and strengthened through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they now for the first time celebrate their new communion with the Christian community through their reception of the Body and Blood of the Lord in Holy Communion.
It is important to note that RCIA does not end with the celebration of the sacraments. For the next 50 days, the newly baptized (neophytes) gather for the Period of Mystagogy, the final stage of RCIA, where the meaning of being a fully-initiated Catholic Christian is unpacked in order to assist them in taking on that full identity as disciples of Christ thus taking their own place in the community of the faithful.
Father Peter R. Cebulka, serves as a chaplain at The Catholic Center at Rutgers, New Brunswick, and is in residence at St. Peter the Apostle University and Community Parish
Church teaches that Eucharist is source, summit of Christian life
PART IV: EUCHARIST
By Father Thomas J. Serafin
Through the years, I’ve been awed by the expressions of faith in Christ’s Real Presence by those I offer Holy Communion. I see it in the apprehensive First Communicants shuffling their hands to get the right (or left?) one on top, and in glowing adults at the pinnacle of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adult process receiving First Eucharist. I see it in smiling newlyweds whom I tell the first food they eat as husband and wife should be the Body of Christ and, before they drink Christ’s Precious Blood, to pour out their love for each other as Christ poured out His love. I see it, too, in the teary-eyed who, having confessed their sins or rectified an invalid marriage, receive Eucharist for the first time in years or decades. I see that Real Presence in mourners who gently touch their loved one’s casket before receiving the Bread of Eternal Life and in the hope-filled faces of the dying as they receive Communion for the last time as Viaticum: Food for the Road.
No wonder we call the Most Blessed Sacrament the sacrament “par excellence” (Mysterium Fidei, 39) and “the source and summit of the Christian life.” (Lumen Gentium, 11) “For it contains the Church’s entire spiritual wealth: Christ himself, our passover and living bread.” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 5)
The Eucharist’s centrality is the core of the Appearance on the Road to Emmaus Gospel (Luke 24:13-35). By simply meeting together, Christ can fulfill his promise to be amidst those who gather in his name [C.f. Matthew 18:20]. But the two disciples heading to Emmaus had to do more than pray together to know Christ’s Real Presence! Nor was it enough to read Scripture, for even as they took part in that ultimate Bible study — led by Jesus himself who interpreted to them all that referred to him in the Scriptures [what a long homily!] — Cleopas and his companion’s eyes, minds and hearts were closed to Christ’s Real Presence.
For the Bible gives the rubrics, the rules, the recipe that enables us to fulfill the command Christ gave twice: “Do this in memory of me!” (1 Cor 11:24 & 11:25) But what good is a cookbook if we read it but never use it to create a meal? Besides, Jesus did not say “read or study this in memory of me!” He commanded us to do the only thing that opens our eyes, minds and hearts to his Real Presence. Like Jesus, we must bless, break and share the bread!
But do we have more faith in the Eucharist or an aspirin? When I take a pill, I believe its ingredients will work in me to alleviate aches, battle bacteria, control cholesterol, fight infection, etc. Do I also believe that Christ — truly present in the Eucharist — can do for my spiritual well-being what earthly pills do for my physical well-being? And if I do believe, how often do I receive the Blessed Sacrament?
Every Catholic over the age of reason should receive Eucharist on all obligatory days [every Sunday and all so-called ‘Holy Days’], ideally as a prayerfully attentive, active participant in the Mass. Holy Communion should be brought by proper ministers to the homebound and others unable to get to Mass on these days. But why should non-Catholics and those conscious of grave, serious, mortal sin or those invalidly married attend Mass but not receive Eucharist?
Receiving Eucharist signifies we are one with the Church’s teachings and leadership, so the non-baptized and those baptized into other Christian communities should first enter the RCIA to become Catholic and better understand what — or rather who we receive in holy Communion. Those guilty of mortal sin should heed this warning: “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor 11:27)
To invalidly married Catholics who get upset when told they “cannot receive” (or be sponsors or godparents) I ask: if you go to your mom’s house on Thanksgiving and she asks, “Who’s your friend?” and you say, “Oh, that’s my spouse; we’re married!” Do you think Mom will say, “OK, let’s eat?” or rather “You didn’t invite me to your wedding; now you want to eat at my table as if nothing’s wrong?” That’s why I plead with the invalidly married: speak to a Church authority to see if things can be rectified.
Receiving weekly Eucharist is so important that in 1989 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a rite called “Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest,” when authorized by the diocesan bishop, it may be used on Sundays and other ‘holy days of obligation.’ However, it is not to be used when no priest is available on weekdays — or in a place where holy Mass is celebrated that same day. Why?
On weekdays, when no priest is available, the faithful should gather for prayer without Eucharist, thereby “creating the heat” under those considering God’s call to priesthood! Nor should daily Eucharist, or even Sunday and obligation Masses, be scheduled for our convenience! Since Christ laid down his life to give us the Eucharist, we must be willing to go out of our way to receive Eucharist!
The rubrics for Holy Thursday’s procession to the Place of Repose call for the Blessed Sacrament to be ‘veiled’ for Christ’s glory had not yet been revealed; on Corpus Christi and at others times, it is openly displayed in a monstrance — for as we now know: Christ is truly present in the Eucharist! Yet some seem not to know this! Do you need to get to confession, have your marital situation rectified or join the RCIA to become a Catholic so you experience — each week — what those two disciples on the road to Emmaus knew: the Risen Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist?
Father Serafin serves as pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Three Bridges
Confirmed are called to be witnesses, spread and defend faith
PART III: CONFIRMATION
By Father Abraham Orapankal
During one of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults sessions in our parish, St. John Neumann in Califon, we had a very interesting discussion on the theology, biblical foundation and historical development of the sacrament of confirmation.
When I explained that according to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” “Baptism, the Eucharist, and the sacrament of Confirmation together constitute the ‘sacraments of Christian initiation,’ whose unity must be safeguarded,” (1285) a participant named Susan asked me: “If it is one unit, why do we give it to the children at different times: baptism as a baby, Eucharist as a child, and confirmation as a teen? And why do we in the RCIA get all three together?”
While in India, when I, as a Catholic priest, baptized the babies of my brothers and sisters, I administered all three sacraments. I first baptized them, then confirmed (or “chrismated”), and gave them Communion (in the form of the Sacred Blood, the consecrated wine), all in the same ceremony, and always in that order. This baffled our RCIA group further!
Why such a divergence in practice?
It is true that today we generally understand baptism to be the sacrament of rebirth to a new life of divine grace and confirmation as the sacrament of maturity in discipleship at a later stage. But the early Christian practice was not that! Based on the biblical evidence (John 20:22; Acts 2:1-14, 38), the Catechism says: “the apostles, in fulfillment of Christ’s will, imparted to the newly baptized by the laying on of hands the gift of the Spirit that completes the grace of Baptism” (1288).
It was then administered by the apostles’ successors, who are the bishops (from the Greek episcopos, meaning ‘overseer’). But with the multiplication of infant baptisms all through the year, the increase of rural parishes, and the growth of dioceses, the bishop often was prevented from being present at all baptismal celebrations. (See Catechism 1290). The solution adopted by the Church in the West (Latin) was different from that in the Eastern Catholic Church. The Catechism explains it thus: “In the West the desire to reserve the completion of Baptism to the bishop caused the temporal separation of the two sacraments. The East has kept them united, so that Confirmation is conferred by the priest who baptizes.” (1290).
This is the reason why I could give all the three sacraments to my nephews and nieces in India in the Eastern Catholic Church.
We are familiar with the imposition of the hands by the bishop on the confirmandi and praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Many mistakenly think that to be the central act in this sacrament. But the Catechism says: “The essential rite of Confirmation is anointing the forehead of the baptized with sacred chrism, together with the laying on of the minister’s hand and the words: Accipe signaculum doni Spiritus Sancti” (Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.) (1320). “Very early, the better to signify the gift of the Holy Spirit, an anointing with perfumed oil (chrism) was added to the laying on of hands.” (1289). The title Christ comes from Christos in Greek, meaning “anointed.” At confirmation, we are anointed with that same Holy Spirit.
The prayer during confirmation names the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: “Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide. Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of right judgment and courage, the spirit of knowledge and reverence. Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence” (Christian Initiation of Adults, 234).
The Prophet Isaiah had taught that these seven gifts would be the sign of the Messiah (Jesus Christ), “the one anointed by the Holy Spirit…” We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, who brings about an increase and deepening of baptismal grace. The Catechism explains these effects thus:
— it roots us more deeply in the divine filiation which makes us cry, “Abba! Father!”
— it unites us more firmly to Christ;
— it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us;
— it renders our bond with the Church more perfect;
— it gives us a special strength of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross. (1303)
Even though confirmation is “the completion of baptismal grace,” making us, as the Introduction to the Rite of Confirmation says, “true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed,” we need to correct the false popular impression that it is a graduation in Christian formation. Our bishops have repeatedly taught us that our faith formation is a life-long process: “The image of a journey is one that is often used in reference to the RCIA and that fits with an understanding of catechesis/adult faith formation as a lifelong process.” (Journey to the Fullness of Life, USCCB, 2000).
Whether one receives the sacrament of confirmation as a teen in the regular confirmation program or as an adult in the RCIA process, the faith journey continues throughout our Christian life. We need to learn more about our faith from the Word of God and from the teachings of our Church.
Father Orapankal serves as pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Califon.
Baptism begins a call to discipleship, proclaim the Kingdom
PART II: BAPTISM
By Father Thomas J. Walsh
“Go out to all the world and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” — Mt. 28:20.
Baptism is the first sacrament, our first encounter with the sanctifying grace of God. It is an initiation into the mystery of love, God’s love for us and our love for God. By our baptism we are incorporated into the Community of Disciples. In this sacrament we are reborn through water and the Holy Spirit.
For the purpose of this essay I will focus on the baptism of infants since this is the way most Catholics experience the sacrament. On any given Sunday throughout the Christian world, the sacrament is celebrated for newborn infants and their families. The priest or deacon, having prepared the parents and godparents, invite them with their child to celebrate the mystery of God’s love through this ancient ritual.
The ritual itself echoes the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. At the Jordan River, according to the earliest account found in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus comes to begin his public ministry by submitting to the ritual of baptism. John’s was a baptism of repentance for the remission of sin. Jesus, the sinless one, comes to John to fulfill all righteousness and to be proclaimed as Son of God. Filled with the Spirit, Jesus goes forth to proclaim the Kingdom.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we find numerous accounts of baptism. Peter baptizes Cornelius and his family, including the children. The early Church began to baptize adults during the Vigil of Easter after an intense period of preparation. Our penitential season of Lent has its roots in the preparation of adult catechumens for initiation into the Christian Community.
At the Easter Vigil in 387 A.D., St. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in the Cathedral of Milan. In the long vigil of prayers and processions the catechumens were led to the baptismal fount by their sponsors. They were completely immersed in the water as a sign that they were buried with Christ and were then clothed in a white robe and led to the bishop to be anointed with chrism. Only then were they admitted to the celebration of the Eucharist.
Over the centuries the baptism of infants became the norm for the Western Church. Catholic parents, because of their faith in Christ, sought baptism for their children. The Church emphasized that baptism washed away Original Sin and made the child an heir to the life of grace.
In the 1960s, the Fathers at the Second Vatican Council desired to renew the Church by renewing our understanding of baptism as a call to discipleship. By going back to the sources of Scripture and tradition, the Fathers hoped to reignite the faith of Christians to understand the Church as, above all, the community of the baptized. St. Augustine, in reflecting on his own baptism said, “For you I am a priest, but with you I am a Christian.” The greater dignity, to be called a Christian, is conferred on each of us by our baptism.
Today we need to recapture a profound sense of the beauty of this simple ritual. Baptism touches the core of all human life, the meaning of our birth and our life for and with others. Even our death must be seen in light of our baptism. By baptism the person is plunged into the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish, I have offered the possibility of celebrating the sacrament at one of our Sunday liturgies. In this way the whole parish celebrates and welcomes the infant to the community of the Church.
At these celebrations the parents and godparents stand before the community and express their desire to have their child receive the sacrament of baptism. The parents and godparents are asked what name they are giving their child. Then they are asked what they are seeking from God’s Church.
There are two anointings in the ritual: the first with the oil of catechumens on the collarbone of the infant claiming the child for Christ and setting them aside for consecration. The second anointing takes place after the baptism when the infant is anointed with the sacred chrism as Christ was anointed priest, prophet and king. This threefold dignity is conferred on all the baptized and reminds us that we are all the beloved sons and daughters of God our Father.
By their rejection of Satan and all his empty promises, the parents and godparents profess their faith in God, Father, Son and Spirit. They express their desire to share their faith with their child. This is the faith of the Church, the faith in which their child is to be baptized.
The child is blessed and presented with a candle representing that they are now a child of the light. In baptism we receive the gift of prayer and the Lord’s Prayer is prayed. At the end of the ritual all are blessed and sent forth to proclaim the Good News as disciples of the Lord.
On the day of their First Communion, the child will profess these vows for himself and be welcomed to the Table of the Lord.
Father Walsh serves as pastor of St. Bartholomew Church in East Brunswick.
Sacraments are masterworks of God in new, everlasting covenant
Editor’s note: The mission of The Catholic Spirit is to be a vehicle for evangelization, education and enlightenment. To further that mission, The Catholic Spirit is beginning a series on the seven sacraments with an introduction. An article, each written by a priest from the diocese, will appear once a month. A story about the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults will also be published.
By Msgr. John N. Fell
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the sacraments as “God’s masterpieces” (CCC, 1091). They are effective insertions of heavenly grace into human reality, exemplifying the fact that there is a divinely-infused richness in human experience that may begin with what the eye can see, but that certainly goes much farther. The Father of heaven sent Jesus Christ, his Son, into the world as the perfect, effective sign and instrument of his goodness toward all creation. That same Jesus, after his own earthly ministry had run its course, then established the Church as his ongoing sign and instrument designed to continue his mission of proclaiming the Father’s Kingdom. The Church, commissioned by Christ and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, administers the seven sacraments in our age as visible, audible manifestations of God’s ongoing outreach drawing all of humanity ever closer to himself. And so, as God’s masterpieces, the seven sacraments are very practical ways that Jesus works through the Church further manifesting the goodness of God in the lives of his people.
The development of the Church’s understanding of the sacraments began in its earliest days as the ancient Christian community gradually realized that their memorializations of Jesus were far more than historical reminiscences. In their prayers and rituals, they not only remembered data about Jesus, but came to recognize his ongoing power and presence operating through these very rituals. Jesus’ promise to be present to his flock through the work of the Holy Spirit was being effectuated among them. As they gathered for the Eucharist, for example, they were not only telling the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, they were actually being nourished by Christ and drawn more deeply into the Paschal Mystery. These early Christians began to understand themselves as recipients of this ongoing outpouring of grace, and also as being transformed by it. In fact, the word “sacrament” from the Latin sacramentum referred to the oath or pledge of loyalty one took dedicating their life to another; they were pledging to live their lives for Christ even as he more and more shared his life with them. Usage of this word was also influenced by the fact that it was used in the New Testament to translate the Greek word mysterium, which indicated matters revealed by Christ but still not completely understandable by human beings.
The history of each sacrament’s development into its current form, as well as the meaning and nature of the term sacrament itself have long and complex histories. Throughout the course of history, such questions as whether the sacraments are merely symbolic or actually effective (effective), how many sacraments there actually are (seven, but up to 12 or more have been hypothesized over the centuries), what rituals are actually included (for example, the consecration of a church, washing of feet, and exorcisms were considered sacraments by some), whether the sacrament would work if the priest was actually in mortal sin (yes), and so on. Although other Church councils before and since have addressed issues concerning the sacraments, the Council of Trent gave the Catholic Church’s most developed teaching during its seventh session in 1547.
For our purposes, the definition of a sacrament proposed in the Baltimore Catechism will suffice: “A Sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” Each of the three parts of this definition is significant.
First, the Church teaches that a sacrament is “an outward sign;” this points to the fact that each sacrament brings visually and audibly into human experience the working of God’s grace. We can always see and hear a sacrament being celebrated. The required elements (for example, water in baptism, chrism in confirmation, bread and wine in Eucharist) are referred to as the matter of the sacrament. The Church can specify particular requirements for these elements (for example, the wine for Eucharist must be made from grapes). The words used to effect the sacrament are known as its form (for example, the form of baptism is “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” If the minister (the person performing the sacrament) has the right intention (that is, at least intending to do what Christ and the Church intend to do in that sacrament), and if the person receiving the sacrament is properly disposed to receive it (“the fruits of the sacraments also depend of the disposition of the one who receives them,” CCC, 1128), then “the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through [the sacrament], CCC, 1128). “The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament” (CCC, 1131).
The Church also teaches that each sacrament is “instituted by Christ,” that is, that “the mysteries of Christ’s life are the foundations of what he would henceforth dispense in the sacraments” (CCC, 1115). Each sacrament receives its fruitfulness from Christ, is an instance of He and the Church actively seeking to draw people further into the Paschal Mystery, and is rooted in its beginning in the life and teaching of Jesus. Each of the sacraments has its own particular tie to Jesus, for example, Jesus himself began a brand new practice with the Eucharist, he spent a vast amount of his ministry in healing the sick (anointing of the sick), he forgave sins and empowered his apostles to do so (reconciliation), he sent the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in the upper room (confirmation), and so on. In each sacrament, the recipient is privileged to encounter a particular highlight of Jesus’ ministry.
Finally, the Church teaches that the intent of the sacraments is “to give grace,” that is that “they are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work” (CCC, 1127). The grace given in the sacraments is either sanctifying grace (God’s habitual, gratuitous sharing of his life and love with us, given in baptism and restored or replenished in reconciliation), and the various sacramental graces that pertain to each sacrament (for example, spiritual and physical healing in anointing of the sick, the ability to live together as husband and wife in matrimony, etc.). These graces are intended to help us in our journey throughout life, to build up the community of God’s people, and to bring greater honor and glory through Christ to the Father.
The sacraments are, then, rooted in the Father’s love, revealed by the Son, and made effective by the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church. As the Catechism testifies, “they are ‘the masterworks of God’ in the new and everlasting covenant” (1116). For this may we give thanks and resolve to appreciate them better as we learn more about each of them via the articles in this series.
Msgr. Fell is a Scripture scholar and pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, Bernardsville