Here’s the beginning of something I’ve been pondering for a while now (or really the last post may have been the beginning). I’m going to try to be a little more brief than I usually am, both for your sake and mine.
The ministry of the Roman Catholic Church to her people is focused in the Seven Sacraments: Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Confession, Marriage, the Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders. The word sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum, which classically referred to a solemn oath, but came in Ecclesiastical Latin to mean something set apart, consecrated, made sacred. It became one of the common translations for the Greek μυστήριον (mystērion, mystery, as in the sacred mysteries) — e.g. Ephesians 5:32, “This [marriage] is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church” (Douay-Rheims Bible).
So what is a Sacrament? The clearest definition, which apparently comes from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (though it seems to have a basis in St. Augustine and Hugh of Saint Victor), is that it is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Or, as it was explained to me in RCIA, a sacrament actually accomplishes spiritually what it represents physically. Baptism, through a washing with water, actually accomplishes a spiritual washing away of sin, a death to the old self and a new birth in Christ. The Eucharist, through the breaking of bread and the eating and drinking of the elements, actually communicates to us the Body and Blood of Christ, by God’s grace. We believe that the Sacraments are the “media of grace” — the means by which God transmits His grace to His people.
So why do Catholics call these seven things sacraments? Why do we raise these things to the level of the sacred? Why do we place the emphasis on them that we do? The simplest answer: Because Christ commanded us to do them. We find in Scripture Christ teaching these things to His Apostles; we find the Apostles taking them and making them part of the worship and practice of the Early Church. In the Tradition of the Church, passed down from the Apostles themselves, these things have always been done; always held to be sacred. A lot of the finer points of sacramental theology were worked out by the Church’s theologians over many generations; even the firm definition of Seven Sacraments was a development over time. But we know that Christ commanded these things; we know that they accomplish what He said they would.
And that brings me to the question I’ve been pondering: We Catholics believe that the Sacraments are the means by which God saves us. If I accept as an assumption that Protestants can be saved — many of whom deny the efficacy of the Sacraments — how does God’s grace move for them? As I mused last time, I reckon God’s Divine Mercy is so overwhelming that His grace bleeds even through the cracks of our schism. The Church holds that even though the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” (Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium §8). And I’m enthralled by this wondrous grace that reaches even beyond our gravest human failings, across the chasms of our human divisions, to catch up those who love Him and serve Him and won’t let them slip away.
I plan in the near future to focus on each of the Sacraments, and the graces that we believe as Catholics they bestow, and muse on why our separated Protestant brethren have rejected them, how each’s particular aspect of salvation is accomplished in Protestant systems of belief, and how even though Protestants reject them, the Sacraments bear grace to them anyway. First, I will think about Baptism.