Lent and the Sacraments: Plumbing the effective signs of divine grace and life

Christ “works by means of the sacraments” and is the One “from whom all blessings flow,” as well as the ultimate goal of our prayer and our entire existence.

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We should recall that the original purpose of the Season of Lent was the proximate preparation of catechumens for the reception of the sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist) at the Easter Vigil Liturgy. With the passage of time, particularly as adult converts gave way to generations of “cradle Catholics,” Lent took on a different focus and audience, coming to be seen as a time for all the faithful to embark on a kind of “second honeymoon” with Our Lord consisting of a penitential path to regain one’s baptismal innocence, as well as participating in a “refresher course” in the basics of the Faith.

With that in mind, we thought it would be helpful to offer a review of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches on the sacraments – those means by which we are brought into the life of Christ and grow in that life.

The Sacramental “Economy” or System

In the days of the Church, Christ “works by means of the sacraments” [1076]. This “sacramental dispensation” has God the Father as its “source and goal” [1077]. In other words, He is the One “from whom all blessings flow,” as well as the ultimate goal of our prayer and our entire existence, a process begun and guided by Almighty God in having conferred on us “filial adoption” [11101].

The Catechism describes “the work of Christ in the liturgy,” noting that the point of departure is the glorified Christ, who “in giving the Holy Spirit to the apostles, confides to them His power of sanctification,” which power is passed on to their successors as well. “This ‘apostolic succession’ structures the whole liturgical life of the Church and is itself sacramental, handed on through the Sacrament of Holy Orders” [1087]. Hence, we are made to call to mind that the hierarchical structure of the Church is not a mere appendage or “necessary evil”; rather, it lies at the very essence of ecclesiality. The Risen Christ communicates His life to the Church on earth through the Church’s liturgy, by which we “already participate, as by a foretaste, in the heavenly liturgy” [1111].

An indispensable role in the liturgy is played by the Holy Spirit:

He prepares the Church to encounter her Lord; He recalls and makes Christ manifest to the faith of the assembly. By His transforming power, He makes the mystery of Christ present here and now. Finally, the Spirit of communion unites the Church to the life and mission of Christ. [1092]

A strong stress is placed on the “today” of liturgical action [1095]; that is, what we do in the sacraments is not a mere act of remembering. Rather, it consists in the traditional Jewish notion of “memorial,” whereby the present act of recalling truly brings about a present reality. As the Catechism has it: “The Holy Spirit is the Church’s living memory” [1099]. It is also worth noting here the excellent discussion on the connections between Jewish and Christian liturgy [1096].2

The text then moves into a consideration of “the paschal mystery in the Church’s sacraments,” observing that “the whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the sacraments” [1113]. The seven sacraments are listed and their origin in Christ is affirmed; that divine institution, however, is carefully explained, lest someone walk away with an unhistorical or crude notion of the process: “. . . the Church, by the power of Spirit who guides her ‘into all truth,’ has gradually recognized this treasure received from Christ and. . . has determined its ‘dispensation’” [1117].

These visible signs of invisible grace “bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” [1131]; these actions express the priestly nature of the entire Church, but “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” [1120]. Restating traditional doctrine, the Catechism teaches that three sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders) “confer, in addition to grace, a sacramental character or ‘seal’,” which is “indelible,” so that these sacraments can never be erased or repeated [1121].3

Faith and salvation are integral to the sacraments. “The sacraments strengthen faith and express it” [1133]; this faith exists in the Church before it does in an individual believer [1124]. “The fruit of sacramental life is both personal and ecclesial.” The first aspect makes one live wholly “for God in Christ Jesus”; the second brings about for the Church “an increase in charity and in her mission of witness” [1134]. Also restated is the Church’s perennial teaching on the way sacraments “work”: This happens “by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all” (ex opere operato) and hence are not effected by the action of man, but “by the power of God” [1128]. Quickly, the text affirms that sacramental validity does not depend on the “personal holiness of the minister.” At the same time, we are reminded that “the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them” (ex opere operantis).

Four key questions about the liturgy and sacraments

The following section takes up details of a more practical order, but one grounded in theological truths.

1. Who celebrates the liturgy? The answer comes: Totus Christus, the whole Christ, which refers to the fact that in each and every liturgical action, the entire Church (Head and members) is present, including (and even especially) those who are currently participating in the liturgy of Heaven [1136]. This understanding is critical to recapture if we are to get ourselves back on track liturgically, returning to a true sense of the sacred.

2. How is the liturgy celebrated? Taking a sociological fact of life as a starting point, the Catechism makes a profoundly religious application: “As a social being, man needs signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures, and actions. The same holds true for his relationship with God” [1146]. Beyond that, Catholicism (as an incarnational religion) takes seriously the human and the physical: “Integrated into the world of faith and taken up by the power of the Holy Spirit, these cosmic elements, human rituals, and gestures of remembrance of God become bearers of the saving and sanctifying action of Christ” [1189]. The place of God’s Word in the liturgy is emphasized, as is the importance of good sacred music which elevates the human spirit [1153-1158].

An extensive section deals with holy images, obviously in response to neo-iconoclasts: “Holy images, present in our churches and homes, are intended to awaken and nourish our faith in the mystery of Christ.” Offering a clear catechesis on what is involved here, it says: “Through the icon of Christ and His works of salvation, it is He whom we adore. Through sacred images of the holy Mother of God, of the angels and of the saints, we venerate the persons represented” [1192]. Having such images visible in the midst of the liturgical assembly is seen as a way of reminding us of the presence of “that great cloud of witnesses” described in the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:1) and of their participation in the present liturgical action [1161] – so much for those who wish to banish such elements from our church buildings.

3. When is the liturgy celebrated? Once more, an emphasis is placed on the “today” of all such events. A excellent treatment is given of “Sunday, ‘the Lord’s Day,’ [which] is the principal day for the celebration of the Eucharist because it is the day of the Resurrection. It is the preeminent day of the liturgical assembly, the day of the Christian family, and the day of joy and rest from work”[1193]; each item demands careful analysis and reflection, especially in the United States (and most of the West) where so many of these elements have been forgotten or ignored.4 Flowing from the centrality of the Lord’s Day and the liturgical reenactment of the paschal mystery is the Church’s liturgical year, which “unfolds the whole mystery of Christ” [1194]. Keeping the memory of the Blessed Virgin, first of all, and also of the other saints is critically important since in this way “the Church on earth shows that she is united with the liturgy of Heaven. She gives glory to Christ for having accomplished His salvation in His glorified members; their example encourages her on the way to the Father” [1195] – another direct response to some who have argued, even passionately, against maintaining the cult of the saints.

A superb exposition is given on the Liturgy of the Hours, along with an encouragement to return this prayer to all members of the Church, not just clergy or religious. Also mentioned is that the Hours should be seen as “an extension of the Eucharistic celebration” and, furthermore, that this prayer-form does not exclude “the various devotions of the People of God, especially the adoration and worship of the Blessed Sacrament,” but actually calls for their incorporation into the liturgy “in a complementary way” [1178].

4. Where should liturgy be celebrated? While citing Our Lord’s teaching that Christian worship occurs “in spirit and in truth” and hence, that “it is not bound to an exclusive place,” the Catechism realistically continues thus: “In its earthly state, the Church needs places where the community can gather together. Our visible churches, holy places, are images of the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, toward which we are making our way on pilgrimage” [1198]. These houses of God on earth should, by their beauty and sense of holiness, remind us of Heaven – all of these points, necessary reaffirmations of the importance of truly sacred places in the life of the Church.

The section concludes with a fine presentation on “liturgical diversity and the unity of the mystery,” so that the various rites of the Church, reflecting her diversity of cultures, “have enriched one another” [1201]5. In discussing “inculturation,” the Catechism very honestly says that “cultural adaptation also requires a conversion of heart and even, where necessary, a breaking with ancestral customs incompatible with the Catholic faith” [1206]; therefore, discernment is needed, for not everything can be brought into Christian worship in an uncritical manner, lest the Faith itself be compromised or eviscerated.6 “The criterion that assures unity amid the diversity of liturgical traditions is fidelity to apostolic Tradition, i e., the communion in the faith and the sacraments received from the apostles, a communion that is both signified and guaranteed by apostolic succession” [1209].

With this introductory material in place, we are now in a position to consider the several sacraments individually,7 cognizant of the nexus of ecclesial realities proposed by St. John Henry Cardinal Newman:

. . . [the Church] must have a dogma and Sacraments;—it is a dogma and Sacraments, and nothing else, which can give meaning to a Church, or sustain her against the State; for by these are meant certain facts or acts which are special instruments of spiritual good to those who receive them. As we do not gain the benefits of civil society unless we submit to its laws and customs, so we do not gain the spiritual blessings which the Church has to bestow upon us, unless we receive her dogmas and her Sacraments.8


1We become filii in Filio (sons [and daughters] in the Son, whereby we can address God as “our Father,” as St. Paul teaches us in Romans 8:15.

2As Pope Pius XI reminded us in 1938, “Spiritually, we are Semites.” In point of fact, due in no small part to Luther’s vicious anti-Semitism, much of the liturgical praxis of the Reformation became bland and cerebral, the better to accommodate Luther’s desire to distance Christianity from its Jewish heritage. Catholicism, on the other hand, has never shied away from incorporating Jewish liturgical elements and acknowledging our indebtedness to Judaism for our life of worship.

3Readers will remember a recent audience of Pope Francis, in which he rather clumsily affirmed the indelible character of Baptism, asserting that even heretics and schismatics continue to be members of the Church. They do; however, their membership stands against them, not unto their salvation. So, yes, the old adage is accurate, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic” – properly nuanced.

4Worthy of a serious reading (or re-reading) is Dies Domini, the 1998 apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II – his attempt to reinvigorate the Church’s appreciation for the full meaning and observance of the Lord’s Day.

5This understanding of the interplay of unity and diversity goes a long way to explain why a unitary expression of the Roman/Latin Rite is not required for ecclesial unity or that a plurality of expressions is more reflective of how diversity manifests and fosters unity. And so, we read: “The mystery of Christ is so unfathomably rich that it cannot be exhausted by its expression in any single liturgical tradition.” Clearly, Traditionis Custodes (and the subsequent Responsa ad dubia) do not adhere to that concept – which lies at the heart of the lived experience of the Sacred Liturgy across the centuries.

6Would that the promoters of the Pachamama debacle had internalized this truth.

7Even a cursory reading of the foregoing passages of the Catechism reveals that there can be no justification for interpretations which suggest, even remotely, that the Church has changed her immemorial teaching on the nature of sacred worship. A Catholic at the Council of Nicea I or Trent, or Vatican I, or Vatican II would be equally at home with this material. Hence, the “hermeneutic of continuity” of Benedict XVI, and not in any way the “hermeneutic of rupture” proposed by Archbishop Alan Roche.

8Difficulties of Anglicans, Lecture 7. The Providential Course of the Movement of 1833 Not in the Direction of a Sect.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 282 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

1 Comment

  1. I see two distinct and related dangers going with the Synod.

    One is an excessive collectivization – the modernist terminology and idea is “collective consciousness” and can embrace New Age.

    The other is the promotion of individuals who express or demonstrate alignment, sympathy, supporting talent – this is an ages old problem.

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