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
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
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,...by 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,
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
Next: Why Read the Scriptures?
What people and things of this world bring you closer to
Discuss ways you experience Jesus in the people of your
community, Scripture, the presence of the priest and in the consecrated Bread
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
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
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.
Talk about the ways you experience Jesus in the people of your
community and in the consecrated Bread and Wine.
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
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
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.
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
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.”