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An Eighth Sacrament?


What Could Make Another Sacrament?
Church as Sacrament

The seven sacraments—that phrase sounds so complete. That’s partly because seven is one of those perfect numbers like three (the Trinity) or 12 (the apostles). Something ingrained in us likes perfect numbers—remember the rush to fill Judas’s position after his perfidy? Eleven apostles just doesn’t cut it, anymore than two persons in one God does.

We have sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist), vocation (Matrimony and Holy Orders) and healing (Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick). Not every person receives every sacrament, but if all goes well, we begin (Baptism/Confirmation) and end (Anointing) in the Church, have the critical choices of our life affirmed there (Marriage and Orders), and partake in ongoing healing and nourishment (Eucharist, Reconciliation and Anointing).

“A sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace,” as the old Baltimore Catechism put it so simply. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to sacraments as "'powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and lifegiving” (#1116). They are “of the Church” in two senses: They are “by her” and “for her” (#1118). In other words, all sacraments are done in the name of the Church to build up the Church. They benefit us as individuals and collectively.

The Catechism goes on to explain their relationship to faith: Sacraments presuppose faith, they express it, they nourish and strengthen it. They are intimately connected to our salvation and eternal life.

The Catechism allows the great St. Thomas Aquinas to sum things up: “Therefore a sacrament is a sign that commemorates what precedes it— Christ’s Passion; demonstrates what is accomplished in us through Christ’s Passion—grace; and prefigures what that Passion pledges to us—future glory” (#1130). Amen!


What Could Make Another Sacrament?

Is the number of sacraments limited to seven by the Church? What’s lacking in the seven sacraments that we have? Do we need eight or 12 or more sacraments to meet all of our needs today?

The number of sacraments was first officially recognized by the Council of Florence in 1439 and reaffirmed by the Council of Trent in 1547.

Because women are excluded from ordination to the diaconate or priesthood, their souls can never have the mark of that sacrament.

Sisters and brothers and all consecrated religious seem to have made a life choice of much less importance because their commitment is recognized only at a Mass of religious profession. That seems inherently unfair, especially when a religious like Sister Dorothy Stang, S.N.D. deN., is called to sacrifice her life for the people she served in Brazil. Would a sacrament affirming her life choice have made that sacrifice easier?

There are also temporary commitments of people that need to be acknowledged, like parish missions to Jamaica or Haiti or to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Usually, the parish sends these generous volunteers out with a Mass, but is that really enough? Simple rituals, which are being developed for such occasions, may not be sufficient to recognize the commitment involved.

Other critical times in people’s lives, like going off to college or taking on a new job, are change points for the whole direction of those lives. Can the Church acknowledge that?

We have funeral Masses to try to console grieving spouses, parents or children, but is that enough to remind them—and us—of Christ’s presence, love and grace?

The Eucharist is intended to sustain us throughout our lives. And it’s available every Sunday and most weekdays in the United States. Perhaps that’s why priesthood is so highly regarded in the sacramental list—only a priest can say the words and perform the ritual by which God’s Spirit changes bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, which nourishes us all.

But the ministerial priesthood is at the disposal of the baptismal priesthood (Catechism #1120, citing Lumen Gentium #10). In Baptism we all “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27); we entered into his passion and death, resurrection and glory. We entered the Church, the Body of Christ on earth.

Christ is the foundation of all the sacraments—in this sense, the primary sacrament. Thus the Church, as Christ’s representative, functions as a sacrament as well (see Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #1), as “a sign and instrument...of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race.”

It is the Church itself, the People of God, that is the eighth sacrament, or perhaps the first sacrament of eight. It is the Church which dispenses Christ’s grace. It is the Church which tries especially in the Easter liturgies to remind us all of our vocation to follow Jesus Christ. Through the Church, Jesus continues to spread the Good News throughout the world—despite the sins of its members.

Individual faith needs the whole community of believers to grow. We need the presence and witness of others. We need the helping hands of other Catholics to “be Church” to one another.

Whether we have seven sacraments, 8 or 12 is not the point. Sacraments bring God closer to us—and us closer to God. They are Jesus’ gift to us until his return in glory.—B.B.


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