Throughout history, people have puzzled over fundamental questions: Why was I born? What happens after I die? Does life have meaning? In 2006, Every Day Catholic will address these questions and explore the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic faith.

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The Sacraments—and More
By Thomas H. Groome

My mother-in-law had a lovely habit, upon seeing something of beauty, of saying to someone in her company: “I give you that.” The first time it happened to me we were looking out over a harbor at sunset. When she said, “I give you that, Tom,” I really felt it was all mine, and I experienced it as total gift. Maryanne, God rest her soul, had a “sacramental consciousness.” She recognized “the more” in the everyday.

We Catholics tend to associate sacrament with the seven we celebrate as communities of faith. But we should also be conscious of the continuity between the great liturgical sacraments and the sacramentality of life.

The Catholic principle of sacramentality is that our God is ever present, and that we respond through the ordinary and everyday. As we come “to see God in all things” (Ignatius of Loyola) and experience God’s grace in the daily, we can more readily believe that the seven sacraments “confer the grace that they signify” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1127).

In the early centuries, Christians celebrated many different sacred rituals as having sacramental power. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church gradually established the seven—Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony—as our vital and valid sacraments. Because each one reflects a central value in Jesus’ ministry, we can say that they were all instituted by Jesus.

God assures that each sacrament confers its general and particular grace through the saving work of Christ, now working through the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. From God’s side, the sacraments are effective ex opere operato, literally by the Church’s very act of celebrating them. On the other hand, the sacraments are acts of faith, not of magic. They do not force their graces upon us; they prompt but also demand our cooperation and lived response.


Starting With Baptism

Because Baptism begins our initiation into the Body of Christ—the Church—it is the “first” of the sacraments. Confirmation and Eucharist, then, complete our initiation. Anointing and Reconciliation are sacraments of healing— as needed—while Matrimony and Holy Orders are sacraments of vocation to serve the community.

While all seven are vital and necessary to the life of the Church, Catholics cherish Eucharist as “the sacrament of sacraments” (Thomas Aquinas). The Catechism, echoing Vatican II, describes it as “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Eucharist is our greatest act of thanksgiving and praise to the Father, reoffering, as it does, the holy sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. In Eucharist, too, we reenact Jesus’ Last Supper with disciples, so replete with love and peace.

We believe that in doing again what Jesus did at the Last Supper, “the bread and wine, the power of the Holy Spirit and by the words of Christ,... become the body and blood of Christ” (Catechism, #1357). Then, in receiving Holy Communion we encounter the real presence.

Vatican II revived for us Catholics our awareness that the risen Christ is present through the Christian community assembled for worship and as the Word of God through Scripture is proclaimed. However, “the mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend” (Catechism, #1374).

How and Why

The favored Catholic way to explain how Christ is present in Eucharist is transubstantiation. So, while the outer appearances of the bread and wine remain, their substance is changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus.

But as important as how, we must remember why Jesus is present, and what receiving Holy Communion should effect in our lives. He is present as our bread of life to sustain us in daily living as disciples. Eucharist empowers but also requires our response. Its celebration sends us forth to love and serve the Lord, to live “for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

In their own way, each of the sacraments calls and empowers us for such daily discipleship. As we so live, the sacramentality of life and the effectiveness of the sacraments become all the more transparent

Thomas H. Groome is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College and director there of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. His most recent book is What Makes Us Catholic (HarperSanFrancisco).

Next: Why Read the Scriptures?

Questions for Reflection:

• What people and things of this world bring you closer to God?

• Discuss ways you experience Jesus in the people of your community, Scripture, the presence of the priest and in the consecrated Bread and Wine.

A Sacramental Life
By Judith Dunlap

I love trees. I love the way their branches stretch to the sky and their roots dig deep into the earth. In healthy trees, the roots mirror the branches, digging as far out and as wide as the branches above them. People are like trees. We too, are rooted and reach out in the same way, and, if we are spiritually healthy, we are equally balanced.

We reach out, stretching for God, offering praise and seeking answers. But if we aren’t firmly rooted in our humanity, we’re going to fall over. At the same time, our humanity, our very being, will shrivel up if we remain comfortably established in our humanness without constantly stretching towards our life source.

All this is why the sacraments are such a perfect gift. The Church celebrates seven different ways we can reach out to God (who of course first reached out to us), and receive the grace we need to participate in God’s love and life. At the same time, each sacrament has its own concrete sign to keep us grounded in the physical world of our humanness.

The Blessed Sacrament is God’s supreme gift. In the very concrete signs of the faithful assembled, the Word broken open, the priest-presider and, most especially, the consecrated Bread and Wine, I become one with the Body of Christ. I share in Jesus’ divinity just as he shared in my humanity. Jesus, you see, was the first and greatest sacrament.

In a sense, everything visible is a kind of sacrament. Even the trees are signs of God’s love inviting us to love God in return. I am Catholic because of our sacramental way of life. I know that I am destined to be one with God. And I appreciate the sacraments because they remind me that I can reach my destiny only by remaining grounded in my humanity.

For Family Response:

Talk about the ways you experience Jesus in the people of your community and in the consecrated Bread and Wine.

Media Watch
Joyeux Noel
By Frank Frost

Although its story is set on Christmas Eve, Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas) is a movie for all seasons, and although its story line is based on real events that happened almost a century ago, during World War I, it’s a movie for today. It’s a story of soldiers fighting a war out of loyalty to their countries, while their deepest personal yearnings are for peace and good will.

Over opening credits, three schoolboys recite at the front of their respective classrooms—one in German, one in French and one in English—poems that glorify war and serve to teach the lads to hate opposing nations. At the end of the film, the governments and the hierarchical church of the combatants reassert the command to hate and destroy the perceived enemies of other nations.

The story between these bookends suggests that if the individual soldiers were not so instructed, war might have a different outcome.

It is Christmas Eve on the Western Front in 1914. Allied French and Scottish troops are dug into bunkers within yards of opposing German troops. After several days of fighting, the dead from both sides lay abandoned under light snow.

Writer-director Christian Carion masterfully turns the events of that night on two Scottish brothers and their parish priest, the love story of a pair of German opera singers, and the French commanding officer. The story is told through the eyes of the ordinary soldiers and officers of each country.

The female opera star manages to persuade the German crown prince to let her visit her singing partner and lover at the front. When the sound of a clear tenor singing “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) wafts across the barren front, it is soon picked up by Scottish bagpipes. This unleashes a cautious de-escalation of tension and leads to a temporary truce of one night that allows the homesick soldiers of all sides to mingle and share their common humanity. They extend the truce through Christmas Day to allow all sides to bury their dead.

But once the opposing soldiers have shared stories, champagne and pictures of their loved ones and have become human to one another—how can they begin to once again shoot to kill each other? A barrage of long-range artillery serves as a reminder of the way today’s high-tech warfare with smart missiles, car bombs and unmanned drones has removed the human equation from identifying and destroying the enemy.

Abraham Lincoln, in the dark days of the Civil War, reflected, “Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other.” At the end of this film, the Scottish priest’s bishop preaches to the assembled soldiers, taking as his text the words of Jesus: “I have come not to bring peace, but the sword.” Perhaps the worst part of wars is the use of religion to stoke them.

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

By Judy Ball

St. Joseph Cafasso (1811-1860)

A small man with a twisted spine, Joseph Cafasso spent his brief life focusing not on himself but on others—their struggles, their gifts and their goodness. His gentle and compassionate presence was the perfect antidote to the spirit of Jansenism, an excessive preoccupation with sin and damnation, which was pervasive in 19th-century northern Italy.

Born into a peasant family, Joseph entered the diocesan seminary and proved an excellent student. He was ordained in 1833 but continued his studies at an institute for young priests. He eventually became rector there and devoted himself to improving the intellectual and moral life of the clergy. Among his protégés was a priest named John Bosco, who followed Joseph’s advice to work with young boys.

He counseled members of the clergy to bring a spirit of mercy to their work, especially in the confessional, where they were to be “fatherly to all who come to us, without reference to who they are or what they have done.” He warned them against the dangers of worldliness. When preaching, they were to teach as Jesus himself did by using “simple words that everyone could understand.”

All who came to know Joseph Cafasso or heard him preach were touched by his kindness and his gentle spirit. This was especially true of prisoners awaiting execution, who, living under barbarous conditions, received regular visits from the smiling young priest who sought to help them die at peace with God. He accompanied more than 60 men to their execution—men he lovingly called his “hanged saints.” He is the official patron of prisoners and of prisons.

Joseph Cafasso died of pneumonia before reaching 50. He was canonized in 1947. His feast day is June 23.

Gertrude Conway

It’s one thing to be opposed to the death penalty; it’s another to do something about it. For Gertrude (Trudy) Conway, it was a conversation in the kitchen several years ago with her college-aged daughter that moved the professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, from theory to action.

She moved quickly, organizing and helping to teach a class on the death penalty. In 2004 she attended a national Campaign to End the Death Penalty convention. There she and several of her students met the family of Vernon Evans, Jr., a convicted murderer on death row at a supermax prison in Baltimore. Convinced that “every individual is worthy of respect and capable of redemption,” she promised to make contact.

Since then, letters have been exchanged and many visits have taken place. She has come to know a man whose childhood was rooted in sexual abuse and drugs and violence but who, as an adult, has undergone a profound “moral and religious transformation.” He is known as “the peacemaker” in prison and has become a devoted Christian.

Dr. Conway’s most recent visit with Vernon Evans was in early February. With his execution scheduled for that week, she feared it would be her last. The Maryland Court of Appeals granted a stay two days later—encouraging news for all, including the state’s Catholic bishops who had appealed on his behalf.

Mr. Evans insists he is innocent of the killing of which he is accused. “I do believe him, but in the end only he and God know,” Dr. Conway told Every Day Catholic. “Every person has an inviolable worth that cannot be taken away. Human life is sacred in all its forms.”

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