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There were seven sacraments before the Second Vatican Council and there are
seven sacraments after the Council. So what's different? Lots! We have moved from a system
of seven rather unrelated "things" or objects to communal celebrations of personal encounter.
The Church as sacrament
Vatican II reminded us of the biblical roots of the word
"sacrament," namely, the wonderful, mysterious plan of God to save us through Christ Jesus.
Sacraments are the visible, tangible manifestations of God's plan of salvation. They reveal
what God is about and who God is. The fullness of this revelation is found in Jesus of
Nazareth. We speak of Jesus as the "original" or "primal" sacrament; in him the invisible
God became visible.
As a stone dropped into a pond causes ripples to go out in ever larger circles,
our understanding of sacrament starts with Jesus, then includes the Church, the Eucharist,
the other sacraments and sacramentals, until all creation is caught up in the wonderful
revelation of the Creator. Jesus passed through death to resurrection and breathed the
Pentecost Spirit into the disciples. The Church that grew out of the faith of the first
Christians is the ongoing presence of Christ in our world. The Church, the "Body of Christ," is
called to be a sacrament, a sign and instrument of salvation.
The Council reminded us that the seven sacraments not only give grace but also
build up the Body of Christ and are acts of worship. Because sacraments pertain to the
whole Church, the Council stressed, "whenever rites...make provision for communal celebration
involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating
them is to be preferred" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, #27).
Sacraments that were once celebrated privately are now often celebrated publicly
at Sunday Eucharist or in other communal settings. For example, when an infant is baptized,
the Baptism is not just for the baby; it is a communal act of worship and an occasion of
grace for the whole community.
The Second Vatican Council speaks of the Eucharist before discussing any of
the other sacraments. The Eucharist is the first sacrament, the source and summit
of Christian life. When it comes to revealing who God is, the Eucharist says it all. We
are never more Church than when we are celebrating the Eucharist.
Each of the other sacraments is an aspect of the central, eucharistic mystery—a
celebration of the revelation that God created us because God loves us. The Eucharist is
the model for all the sacraments. The shape of the Eucharist (gathering, storytelling,
meal sharing and commissioning) is the model shape for all the other sacraments.
Baptism and Confirmation
Before Vatican II we seldom spoke of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist in
the same sentence, and we rarely celebrated them in the same ritual as we do now at the
Easter Vigil. Together these three sacraments initiate us into a community of faith,
a eucharistic community. We call them the Sacraments of Initiation. Before the Council,
a shortened form of the Rite of Baptism of Adults was used for infant Baptism. The
Council called for a new rite for the Baptism of children; this rite acknowledges the parents'
role in presenting their child for Baptism and their responsibility for raising their child
in the faith. Changes in this rite also flow from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which
says that communal forms of sacraments are preferred (#27). This is why children are often
baptized during Sunday Eucharist.
Another new rite is the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, commonly
called the RCIA. When adults are baptized they celebrate Baptism and Confirmation and then
are invited to share in the Eucharist. Celebrating the Sacraments of Initiation in their
original order—Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist—more clearly expresses that it is Eucharist
that completes our Christian initiation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1322).
An increasing number of dioceses are restoring this original sequence of the initiation
sacraments for those baptized as infants.
The bishops at the Second Vatican Council directed that the Rite of Confirmation also
be revised so that "the intimate connection which this sacrament has with the whole of
Christian initiation...be more clearly set forth" (SC, #71). Whenever it is celebrated,
the meaning of Confirmation is best explained and understood in its relationship to the
other Sacraments of Initiation—Baptism and Eucharist.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession/Penance) has undergone more changes
over time than any other sacrament. In the first centuries of the Church most Catholics
never celebrated the sacrament. In the 1940s and 50s we saw long lines of Catholics waiting
to go to Saturday Confession. The Council documents include only one sentence about the
revision of this sacrament, calling for the rite and formulas to "more clearly express
both the nature and effect of the sacrament" (SC, #72). The general principles of
the Council (i.e., Eucharist as model for all sacraments; Scripture plays an important
role in all sacraments; sacraments are public in nature, etc.) were applied in revising
While the opportunity for individual celebrations is still available today,
communal celebrations have become common and are often celebrated in packed churches. We
have also moved to calling the sacrament "Reconciliation"
rather than Confession or Penance as we did in the past. This word change reflects a change
in focus—from what we do (confess our sins, do a penance) to what God does
Anointing of the Sick
Before the Council, the sacrament of anointing was known as Extreme Unction,
the anointing (unction) for persons at the point of death (in extremis).
We now speak of The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, indicating that this
sacrament is intended for all who are seriously ill. As we embrace a more holistic
view of health and wellness, we pray not only for physical healing but also for mental
and spiritual healing.
As sacraments are acts of public worship, anointing is no longer primarily
celebrated privately. Communal celebrations of this sacrament during Eucharist are widespread.
The celebration of this sacrament speaks of our dying with Christ—the dying we vowed in
Baptism. It is a sign of our acceptance of the cross of Christ, that health and productivity
are not the main criteria for judging human worth. These signs are important for the entire
community to witness and celebrate.
The Council brought about two major changes in our understanding of the Sacrament
of Marriage. First, the Council speaks of marriage as a "covenant."
The marriage covenant helps us think in biblical and interpersonal categories that
reach beyond the legal categories of the marriage contract. The marriage covenant
is a symbol of God's covenant with humanity.
Second, the Council taught that the purpose of marriage is not only to produce
children but also to enable the couple to support one another in mutual love. Marriage
is an "intimate partnership" of life and love (Church in the Modern World, #48).
We look to the married couple as a sacrament, a sign to the world of God's love.
Both of these changes enrich our understanding of the Sacrament of Marriage.
But they also open the door to new questions: Who is capable of a sacramental marriage?
What are the qualities and conditions necessary for a marriage to be a sign of God's love
for the Church? In a time when Catholic marriages are vulnerable to the stresses of modern
life, the Church's support of married couples is vital.
When we think of Holy Orders we usually think of the sacrament by which one
becomes a priest. But Holy Orders ends in "s" because it names three sacramental
orders: the Order of the Episcopate (bishops), the Order of Presbyters (priests), and the
Order of Deacons. The Council had important things to say about each of these.
The Order of the Episcopate (Bishops). The Council affirmed that a bishop
is ordained to the fullness of the Sacrament of Orders. By his ordination a bishop becomes
a member of the College of Bishops and assumes responsibility not only for his own local
Church but also for the universal Church.
The Order of Presbyters (Priests). We have all witnessed the drastic
decline in the number of priests. Empty rectories, merged parishes, closed seminaries, "Sunday
Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest"—the bishops of Vatican II envisioned none of these
The Council made two major changes that radically affected the lives of priests.
First, while the ordained have specific ministries within the Church, the Council affirmed
that the basis of all ministry is Baptism into the Body of Christ. Second, the Council
placed the priest in the midst of the baptized and said that priests should "work
together with the lay faithful"
(Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, #9).
To go from being "set apart from the faithful" to living "in the midst of the
faithful" was a big change. The Council affirmed that priests are in a certain sense "set
apart" but they are not to be "separated" from the People of God because priests cannot
serve the faithful if they are strangers to their lives and conditions (PO, #3).
Has this change in identity contributed to the decline in the number of priests?
The Order of Deacons. Deacons had ministered in the Western Church until
about the fifth century. By the time of the Second Vatican Council, the Order of Deacons
was simply a transitional stage for those "passing through" on their way to the priesthood.
The Council restored the Order of Deacons, making it a permanent ministry in the Church.
The bishops of the Council decided to permit married men to be ordained deacons. In 1967
there were no permanent deacons; today there are over 30,000 deacons worldwide.
We seem to have more questions about the sacraments today than we had before
the Council: What is the proper age for Confirmation? Will the individual rite of Confession
disappear altogether? What will happen to marriage and family life if annulments continue
to increase in number? How can we remain a eucharistic Church with fewer priests?
Did the Council cause more problems than it solved? It did not intend to solve
problems but to adapt the liturgy and the sacraments to the needs of our times (SC, #1).
The needs of the times have changed in the 40 years since the Council and will continue
to change. There will always be unfinished business.
But rather than wringing our hands, we need to demonstrate the same hope and
courage that the Holy Spirit inspired at the Council. The bishops stated, "...the Church
constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth" (Constitution on Divine
Revelation, #8). We have not yet arrived; we are still on the journey. The road may
be difficult at times, but with the faith of St. Paul we are confident "that the one who
began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians
What does it mean to say that the Church is a sacrament? How
does this affect your understanding of the seven sacraments?
How well has your parish embraced the shift from private to
communal celebrations of sacraments (e.g., Baptism during Sunday Mass, communal
Penance services, community celebrations of Anointing of the Sick)? What has your
community gained from these changes?
How can you grow in understanding of the sacraments, especially
those that have changed in your lifetime?
NEXT: Sacred Scripture: Food for Our Souls by Dianne Bergant, C.S.A.
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