Friday, October 7, 2016

The Church Prepares for Sacramental Initiation

I was honored yesterday to speak to the priests and pastoral leaders of Manchester at the invitation of Bishop Peter Libasci on the occasion of their renewal of sacramental preparation programs throughout the diocese.  Here is part of what I said.

As the Diocese of Manchester embarks on a renewal of its pastoral initiatives for Sacramental preparation, I am delighted to reflect with you on three themes which I pray will prove helpful.

I want to begin, however, with a presupposition: I am not here as an expert imparting new insights into an old problem: How fo you preparer parents for Baptism, teenagers for Confirmation and children for First Holy Communion.  I do not have magical insights which I bring down to you from some mountain top.  I offer these three little insights as your brother, a pastor and a liturgist, in that order of importance. 

Today’s presentation is in three parts, beginning with the sense that renewal is often nothing more than returning to the basics.   I will, therefore, begin by asking the question many of us first learned to answer in the Baltimore Catechism: What is a Sacrament?  You can’t get much more basic than that!

Then I will then invite you to a little practice in lex orandi, lex credendi, with a couple of helpful quick snapshots from the history of the Sacraments of Initiation.  Finally, I will propose the idea of mystagogical preaching and teaching as a key to inviting your parish to meet Christ through remembering the sacraments of initiation.

So, we begin with the question: What is a Sacrament?

As long as we’re starting with the basics, let’s go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which tells us that "the sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us…”1

“efficacious signs of grace.”  But what is grace?  Is it some invisible force which mystically flows around the Church building, or something to add to my collection of holy stuff as I fill my grace bag, or is it a quantity which I slice neatly into slices of actual, sanctifying and sacramental?

Listen to one of the greetings at Mass taken from 2 Cor 13:14:

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Love of God 
and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Son, Father and Holy Spirit.  So, grace is relational.  It’s about entering into the life of the Most Blessed Trinity; it is the encounter with God by which he saves us.  

As Saint Paul reminds us, "grace and truth came through Jesus Christ," so it follows that the sacraments are actions of Christ.  It may look like the old Monsignor is doing the Baptism, but it is really Christ joining that baby to his dying and rising in the cleansing waters of that font.  

Put simply, "when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes.”2

Pope Paul VI is quoted in the Catechism in this regard, when he wrote:

“The sharing in the divine nature given to men through the grace of Christ bears a certain likeness to the origin, development, and nourishing of natural life. The faithful are born anew by Baptism, strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life…”3

Let’s take a closer look at that:

The three sacraments of initiation correspond to the three stages of natural life.




So, we know what a Sacrament is and how its sacramental graces correspond to our initiation into natural life.  Let’s take a quick look at each of these sacraments in the light of a snippet of its history mediated through its prayers.

First, Baptism, for which we start with a lesson in pre-sixth century Roman architecture. The ancient Christian Baptistry proclaims the meaning of Baptism by its stone, mosaic and design.

Three steps descend to the font, reminding us of three days in the tomb!

Eight sides make up its outer walls, reminding us that this is a place where men and women leave behind this 7 day world and enter a new dimension of time and space.

The octagonal shape is also reminiscent of the ancient Roman tombs.  Indeed, the Father of the Church referred to the Baptistry and its font as a womb and a tomb.

And it all makes sense when we hear Saint Paul’s words bouncing off the  able walls of the Baptistry:

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”4

So the primordial meaning of Baptism, proclaimed by Apostle and Baptistry, is that Baptism is something more than cleansing.  It is an insertion into the death and rising of the firstborn of many brothers, a going down into the tomb with the Christ who will raise us up on the last day.

It’s a very nitty-gritty, earthy sort of sacrament, made up of water and washing and dying and rising and bodies.  And, like all sacraments, it is an action of Christ and his Church.  As Pope Benedict reminds us, “we have been baptized" is a passive. No one can baptize himself, he needs Christ and his Church to celebrate the sacrament.5

Let’s take a quick look at the forthcoming translation of the Blessing of Water from the Order for the Baptism of Children (no. 28) in this regard.  It’s an ancient text, for the most part, and one from which we can learn a great deal, lex orandi, lex credendi.

First we recall:

“May  this  water  receive  by  the  Holy  Spirit the  grace  of  your  Only  Begotten  Son, so  that  human  nature,  created  in  your  image and  washed  clean  through  the  Sacrament  of  Baptism  from  all  the  squalor  of  the  life  of  old, may  be  found  worthy  to  rise  to  the  life  of  newborn  children  through  water  and  the  Holy  Spirit.

We die with Christ to the squalor of the life of old (I love that phrase) as we rise to the life of newborn children.  Not just children of this world, but adopted sons of the Father and brothers of Christ.  That’s how Baptism changes us forever and for good.

Then the  celebrant  touches  the  water  with  his  right  hand, just as he lowers his hands over the bread and wine at Mass, and calls down the Holy Spirit:

“May  the  power  of  the  Holy  Spirit,  O  Lord,  we  pray, come  down  through  your  Son  into  the  fullness  of  this  font, so  that  all  who  have  been  buried  with  Christ  by  Baptism  into  death may  rise  again  to  life  with  him.”

In this epiclesis, the Spirit descends upon the fullness of the font in the same way that the Spirit descended from a cloud at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and enables those who have been buried with him to “rise again to life with him.”

Here we are mining the prayers of the sacred liturgy for the meaning of the sacraments they help us to celebrate: lex orandi/lex credendi, for what we believe is best preserved not in a catechism or collection of magisterial documents, but in the immemorial prayers and rites by which the Church celebrates the sacraments.  Do you want to teach what a sacrament means, teach the rites and pray the prayers.  It’s all in there, clear as day!

Let’s try the same with Confirmation.  That sealing with the Holy Spirit.

As you may know, the word sealing (sphragis) comes from the imposition of a mark of ownership on Roman slaves, who unlike the slaves of other nations, were branded right on the forehead with the sign of their master.

So, too the early Christians marked their foreheads with the Sign of the Cross at the beginning and end of the day and of every prayers and as a sign of blessing for, as Saint Paul reminds us we are now “slaves of Christ,” 6 marked by his Holy Spirit.  Here’s a modern Ethiopian Coptic Christ whose members maintain the tradition of being branded with the Cross at Confirmation.

Listen to Saint Paul: “From now on, let no one make trouble for me, for I bear the marks of our Lord Jesus Christ branded on my body.”7

The prayer accompanying the imposition of hands from the Rite of Confirmation (no. 25) explains further:

“Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who brought these your servants to new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, freeing them from sin: send upon them, O Lord, the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete; give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and piety; fill them with the spirit of the fear of the Lord.”

So, here’s another epiclesis, this one calling down the seven fold gifts of the Spirit, marking them with counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.

One final example of teaching sacraments by historical snippet and liturgical text is given us by the late Anglican Don, Gregory Dix.  It’s called the four-action shape of the Eucharist and it’s a great way to explain the Mass and Lord’s Supper to a first communicant, young or old.

Let’s begin by returning to the primordial account of the Last Supper which forms the basis of our words of institution at Mass.

"For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my Body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me'. In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my Blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’"8

Dix suggested that the easiest way to explain the Mass is as a fulfillment in every age of the Lord’s command to “do this in remembrance of me.”  In other words, we have simply, in every time and place, taken him at his word…at least in his verbs.

Take Offertory Procession/Preparation

Give Thanks (or Bless) Eucharistic Prayer

Break/Give Fraction/Communion

Say Words of Institution

Do this in remembrance of me.


All of which brings us to one last text.  It is, appropriately enough, from the Order of Christian Initiation of Adults (no. 37) and it explains the method we have been following in reflecting on the meaning of the Sacraments.  It’s called Mystagogy: the encountering of Christ by your parish in remembering.  Remembering their own Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion as they prepare yet another generation to make the same journey.

Let’s unpack what the Church has to say about this last stage of Christian initiation:

After this last stage has been completed, the community along with the neophytes 

Ahh!  Mystagogy is not just the last meeting of those who have been together as catechumens.  Mystagogy is a whole-parish experience.  Something happens to the whole Parish: it “grows in perceiving more deeply the paschal mystery and in making it part of their lives.”  

Mystagogy is not just for neophytes: it is for the old lady who remembers her Baptism 82 years ago, the pastor who can still feel the butterflies in his stomach as he prepared to receive the Holy Spirit as a gangly adolescent and the grandfather who scratch his arm at his grandson’s First Communion, still able to feel that itchy starched shirt as he said “Amen” for the first time. The whole Church remembers:

by meditating on the Gospel

sharing in the Eucharist

and doing works of charity

It is interesting to note, by the way, that these three ways of “being Church,” to use a contemporary expression, are nothing more than the triplex munera writ large.  

It is an exercise of the Priesthood of Christ, the teacher of the Kingdom of God, the sanctifier in his own Blood and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

And that’s not all:

38. The neophytes acquire a truly more complete and more fruitful grasp of the "mysteries" by the newness of what they have heard and above all by the experience of the sacraments they have received. For they have been renewed in mind, tasted more deeply the good word of God, received the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and discovered the beauty of the Lord. Out of this experience, which belongs to Christians and grows as it is lived, they derive a new sense of the faith, the Church, and the world.

Right alongside the neophytes, the parish community that has received them experience the mysteries, the sacraments “by the newness of what they have heard and above all by the experience of the sacraments they have received.”  In other words, the power of the Sacred Liturgy….of watching the neophyte go down into the font,  the sweet smell of the Sacred Chrism on the foreheads of the confirmands and the sound of the First communicants as they sing the Hymn of Thanksgiving, returns to us the joy of our youth, so that “renewed in mind, tasted more deeply the good word of God, received the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and discovered the beauty of the Lord.”

How many parish renewal programs have we known in our lifetime as parish priests.  With their work books and their meetings and the lectures to explore them.  All those well meaning programs, when the Church all along has presented us with an ongoing program of parish renewal rooted in the preparation of our young for the Sacraments.  A mystagogical preparation, centered on the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy and our reflection on that experience.  A deepening of the Faith of each member of the Parish by returning to the essentials of listening to the Gospel well proclaim, celebrating the Eucharist as the source and summit of our lives and going out to the margins to find all who need us to love them.

And there’s still one more paragraph:

39. …just as the freshness with which they come to the sacraments enlightens the neophytes' understanding of the Scriptures, so also it increases their knowledge of other people and thus has an impact on their experience of community. As a result their interaction with the rest of the faithful is made easier and more beneficial. The period of postbaptismal catechesis is of utmost importance so that the neophytes, with the help of their godparents, may enter into closer ties with the other faithful and bring to the others a renewed vision and fresh energies.

There’s an analogy to be drawn here, with the birth of a child to a newly married couple.  Perhaps nothing changes them so profoundly or transforms them more profoundly into what God wants them to be.  In a very real way, who they are supposed to be becomes evident only with the first time they hold that child in their arms.

So too, the Church becomes more deeply inserted into the Paschal Mystery only with the birth of new Christians, washed with the Blood of the Lamb, sealed with he Paraclete and nourished with his Body and Blood.

What does that mean practically?  It means that Sacramental Preparation of candidates for the Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist can Renew our parishes like nothing else can, in five different ways:

By rooting our teaching about the Sacraments in the every-day life of people, and not in the categories scholastic philosophy.  

By rooting this teaching in History, but connecting it to the Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion of Sarah and Michael and James.  

By preaching the prayers and rites of the Sacred Liturgy, lex orandi, lex credendi, letting the Liturgy proclaim the sacred doctrines it has enshrined from the first days of the Church.

By ever going to the heart of the matter: of Baptism into his Death, of being claimed, sealed and confirmed in Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit, and of taking, blessing, breaking and saying in memory of him.

And finally, by remembering we are all in this together.  That a Sacrament is not something we “get” but someone we become by God’s grace: a member of the Church, the Sacred Assembly, the People of God: a fact which must be lived in preparation, celebration and remembering.

This is so clear in the first thousand years of the Church’s celebration of Baptism, the focus of which was not so much on the actual pouring of water, but on the neophyte entrance: the first time I gathered assembly saw and embraced and anointed the newly baptized.

So, in conclusion…Seven Questions on what could be next…

Is the preparation of candidates for the Sacraments of Initiation the work of our whole parish, or of a specialized group?  How can we more actively engage every ministry and segment of the Parish in our preparation programs?

Do I preach on the meaning and reality of the Sacraments as the source and summit of the entire Christian life?  When is the last homily I preached on the meaning of God’s Grace in the Church’s life?

Do I preach mystagogically, reflecting at Sunday Mass on our parish celebration of Baptism, Confirmation and First Holy Communion?

Are our celebrations of Baptism, Confirmation and First Holy Communion acts of the whole Church or activities of the family and friends of the candidates?

How are the newly Baptized and their families, the confirmandi and the first communicants welcomed in to our parish community?

When did I last read a book on Sacramental Theology or reflect on the prayers and rites for Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist?

When did I last read a book on Sacramental Theology or reflect on the prayers and rites for Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist?

In other words, the Sacramental Preparation program which works the best is the one which commits the whole parish to an intensive renewal, to a mystagogical journey of remembering and to a reflection on what God is doing by the grace efficaciously bestowed in the Sacrament we have just celebrated!

It’s not just a matter for the Religious Education staff but for our preaching our adult and family education, all woven into the tapestry which is Parish-Based Sacramental Preparation.

Such na tapestry initiates candidates, and renews the lives of all the members of your parish community.

It is a thing of beauty and of wonder, or, as Pope Paul VI once said, a “sharing in the divine nature given to men through the grace of Christ.”9

Thank you.


1 - Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 1131.

2 - Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 7.  Cf. Saint Augustine, Tractatus in Ioannem, VI.

3 - CCC, no. 1212, quoting Pope Paul VI, apostolic constitution, Divinae consortium naturae: AAS 63 (1971) 657; cf. RCIA Introduction 1-2.

4 -  Galatians 6: 3-4.

5 - Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, In audience, 10 December 2008.

6 - 1 Corinthians 7:22.

7 - Galatians 6:17.

8 - 1 Cor 11: 23-35.

9 - CCC, no. 1212, quoting Pope Paul VI, apostolic constitution, Divinae consortium naturae: AAS 63 (1971) 657; cf. RCIA Introduction 1-2.