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The Seven Roman Catholic sacraments are Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. Find out the history and significance of these sacraments and how they relate to Jesus and the Bible.

Youth Update

Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited


Tune In to
the Sacramental

by Sean Reynolds

If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times: The Mass is soooo boring! I used to think the problem was with the Mass, that we just needed to make it more interesting. Now I think that the Mass isn't the problem: We are.

The Mass, the Eucharist, is a sacrament. If we don't "get" sacraments—that is, the whole sacramental dimension of life—we're not going to "get" the Mass either, or any of the other sacraments, or Jesus, or the Church.

We Catholic Christians are sacramental to the core. This Youth Update asks—and tries to answer—these big questions: What does it mean to be sacramental? And how do you live sacramentally?

Radio Days

The boom box was belting out some sweet tunes. A few teens and a couple adults, including me, were taking it easy in the living room of our parish center. The worn, mismatched furniture felt really comfortable. It was good to be there, peaceful.

—My mind wandered. A thought struck me, a really big thought.

I leaped out of my chair, pointed at the radio and yelled, "Turn that thing off!" One of the teens, totally startled, grabbed the remote. Silence. They all stared at me.

"Where did it go?" I asked them. They looked at me like I was crazy. "Where did the music go? When you turned off the boom box, where did the music go?" They stared some more.

"What do you mean?" asked Katie. "Radio on, you get music. Off, no music. Just that simple. Duh."

"No, listen. This is important." I took the remote and turned the radio back on, then off, then on again. "When I switch it off, where does the music go? Please, humor me."

"O.K., O.K., O.K.," said Carrie. "The boom box tunes in the radio waves. When you switch it off, it switches them off."

"Oh," I said, "so the radio turns off the radio waves?" She looked puzzled. "No, the radio waves are just—out there. I guess they're out there, like, all the time." Her voice trailed off. "I guess the radio collects the signals, and the circuits and speakers convert them into sound."

"Exactly!" I shouted. I went over to the radio, turned it on. Music. Off. No music. "That's you and me," I said. Under his breath, Bob said, "Riiiight... "

I searched for the right words. "This boom box is us and the radio waves are like God's Spirit." I paused. "When you turn off the radio, does that make the radio waves go away? Of course not! They're around us all the time.

"Think about all the radio stations, television, cell phones, satellite signals, all of it. It's around us, all the time. That's why your boom box works anywhere, right?"

Wrinkled brows replaced the concerned looks. The sarcastic comments stopped. They were thinking hard.

"O.K.," I continued. "It's the same with us! God's Spirit is alive, active, present, all around us, every minute of every day, like the radio waves. And we are like the tuner on a radio receiver."

Silence. More silence. The ideas started slowly, then followed one upon the other.

Tim: "O.K., so we can be, like, turned off and on."

Carrie: "And we can tune in or tune out."

Bob: "We can be tuned in to the wrong station, hearing the wrong message or singing along with the wrong tune."

Dennis (the other adult in the room): "Or maybe we're channel surfing or we're really not paying attention."

Katie: "Or when there's a song or some news that we really don't want to hear because it makes us uncomfortable, we just switch it off."

"Exactly!" I said. "If God is present, if God's Spirit is as powerful and present and accessible and merciful and wonderful and challenging and loving as the Scriptures teach and our tradition tells us, then why don't we experience that more often?

Could it be that we're mostly tuned out, switched off, distracted, tuned in to the wrong stations, or simply not paying enough attention?"

Silence again. About a minute passed.

"And," I said softly, "doesn't it follow that our mission in life is to become the very best 'receivers' we can be? That's what living sacramentally is all about."

Our 'Station Presets'

Many radios these days have "station presets." You can set up your radio so you can go directly to those frequencies that you pretty much know will "score" with the right music. That's the way the sacraments work.

Like radio waves, God's grace surrounds us every minute of every day. That's what the Scriptures tell us, the Church teaches and the saints lived. But that doesn't guarantee that we'll be tuned in, or that our receiver will be turned on.

God loves and respects us so much that God gave us free will. We can choose to tune in or tune out. We can decide to listen or not. It's up to us.

Imagine growing up in a family with lots of radios but no appreciation of music. If the people you're around didn't turn on and tune in, then it's likely you wouldn't either. We don't grow up in isolation, and we pick up our signals from the people around us. If we don't see others tuning in to God, it's likely that we won't tune in either.

That's why we need the sacraments so badly. In the sacraments, the Church is saying to us: Look! Listen! Pay attention! Wake up to the reality that is all around us.

Tune in: Here are seven "station presets" in which God's loving presence is so clear and unmistakable that it's tough to tune out.

Sacraments of Christian Initiation

Our first three powerful station presets are Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. The Church calls these the "Sacraments of Initiation." Whether they take place together or at different times, they form one unbroken, powerful movement of welcome, acceptance and inclusion into the family of faith.

Baptism: In some churches, water is simply poured. In others, the person may be completely immersed in water, representing the reality of dying to an old way of life and rising with Christ into a new way of life in the community of Jesus' followers.

In Baptism, God the Father says, "Wake up! Tune in! I'm offering you a new kind of life. Let go of your old way of living apart from me and my Church. Rise up into a new life in Christ Jesus, a life of love, wonder and mystery, open to the influence of the Spirit!"

Confirmation: Whereas water is the "stuff" of Baptism, in Confirmation it is oil that seals a person with the Holy Spirit. In Confirmation, God the Father says, "Wake up! Tune in! Be filled with the Holy Spirit! Breathe God's breath, live God's life, let God's spirit be your guide, your source of strength, inspiration and constant companion."

Eucharist: As the final movement of initiation, the person joins the rest of the community at the table of the Lord. After first Eucharist, we Catholics continue to gather around this table week after week, returning ever again to the sacrificial reality on which we choose to anchor our lives.

In Eucharist, God the Father says, "Wake up! Tune in! The Spirit comes to transform the gifts of bread and wine and to transform you into the family of faith. Live Christ! Be Christ to the world!"

Sacraments of Healing

The dramatic healing stories of Jesus in the Gospels show us how powerfully God wants to bring us to wholeness. When our relationships, our spirits or our bodies are broken, when we're most at need, the Sacraments of Healing take us straightaway into the compassionate presence of God.

Reconciliation: What do we do with the parts of our lives that are broken, where we feel crushed and dead, stifled and trapped? In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest stands in for Christ and the family of faith and offers tender compassion and forgiveness.

In Reconciliation, God says, "Wake up! Tune in! You are not alone." The priest extends his hand toward you in mercy and says, "God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins."

Anointing of the Sick: Jesus saw moments of illness and suffering as sacred opportunities to turn to God for healing. That's what the Church also does in the Anointing of the Sick. From the earliest days of the Church, its leaders would visit the sick, lay hands on them, anoint them with blessed oil and pray for healing.

In the Anointing of the Sick, God the Father says, "Wake up! Tune in! Jesus is stronger than suffering, illness and even death. I send my Holy Spirit to strengthen you during this difficult time. Whether in recovery or in death, you are not alone."

Sacraments at the Service of Communion

Two more of our "station presets" stand as living signs of unity and service. These sacraments lead us both inward and outward: inward to build up the family of faith, and outward in the service of others.

Holy Orders: Jesus redefined leadership for all time when "He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and dry them with the towel around his waist" (John 13:4-5).

In Holy Orders, God the Father says, "Wake up! Tune in! Your family of faith needs deacons, priests and bishops to lead the way that Christ led, by washing the feet of his followers. By the faithfulness of your leaders to God's Spirit, you will know he is alive in your midst."

Matrimony: God is love, and when you look at well-married people, you see that love enfleshed in a relationship that is the foundation of family, that's open to new life, that provides for children, that anchors a community in love.

In Matrimony, God the Father says, "Wake up! Tune in! You are a couple expressing one hope: In your commitment, my love bursts into new life. In your love, the world can see 'one body and one Spirit' (Ephesians 4:4-6) as you bring Jesus to one another in love."

Waking Up

God's incredible, compassionate presence surrounds us every minute of every day. Yet so many of us walk through our days half asleep, unaware of the magnificent and mind-blowing reality of God. This is a problem, a big one.

Part of the solution is developing a sacramental mind-set (also called a sacramental spirituality), learning to open our eyes to really see, open our ears to really listen and open our minds to perceive in a whole new way. It's a way to allow creation to speak to you about the creator.

It means noticing that we are literally surrounded by miracles every moment of every day. Life: a miracle. Nature: a miracle. Mom, Dad, brothers, sisters: miracles. My senses: miracles. My self: a miracle. The list of miracles is endless, if we but have "eyes that see, and ears that hear."

Once you wake up to God's presence in nature, in people and in your own heart, then God's forgiving presence in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or God's redeeming presence in Baptism, or the "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist become suddenly, mysteriously apparent. You're learning to tune in to the really real.

But that's not the whole picture. The only way to really "get" the sacraments or the Church is to "get" Jesus Christ. To stick with the radio analogy, not only is Jesus the station preset of all station presets, he is the radio, the power source and the music! That's what it means when the Scriptures say he is "the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6).

Jesus Christ is the quintessential sacrament of God. Tune in to Jesus, and everything else falls beautifully into place. Tune him out, and you get static, boring static.

So we're left with two challenges: The first is to develop a sacramental mind-set. The second is to get to know Jesus. If you do these two things, gradually but miraculously your life, your faith, the sacraments, the Church and the Bible all begin to come alive for you. Your receiver is switched on, your presets are programmed and the music is sweet.


To Get a Strong Sacramental Signal

1. Tune In to Jesus Christ.

Read the Scriptures, especially the Gospels. Put your Bible next to your bed. Read about Jesus when you wake up, or before you go to sleep.

Enjoy the sacraments, especially the Eucharist: If you open your heart to these —station presets— on a regular basis, and really listen to the words, they will become a part of you, second nature, like your own skin. Don—t get frustrated and give up if a particular Mass rubs you the wrong way. Over time, you will definitely tune in, but only if you don—t opt out.

Be active in your faith community. We need friends and companions to remind us of what—s most important, to believe and pray and keep the faith when our own faith falters.

2. Grow Your Sacramental Mind-set.

Slow down and pray. The only way to —tune in— is to take time to breathe deeply, calm your mind and slow down enough to really see, and really listen. Try building in a time each day to listen deeply to the Spirit speaking in your heart.

Get physical. Go for a walk, a bike ride or a run, but don—t race. Take time to enjoy simply being alive. Really look at things, take them in, see them again for the first time. Let it all speak to you.



It's easy to see the biblical basis for some sacraments, but not so easy for others. Is that important?


Christians who believe that the Bible is the only source of inspired truth sometimes struggle with the sacraments, because some are more clearly and directly instituted by Jesus in the Bible (such as Baptism and Eucharist) than others (such as Holy Orders, Sacrament of the Sick and Matrimony). Catholic Christians believe, however, that God speaks to us through the Scriptures and Tradition. This means that Christ's Spirit, alive in the Church, continues to reveal truth to us, both through the Bible and in the unfolding history of the Church. Taken together, the Scriptures and our tradition contain overwhelming evidence that the sacraments are truly instituted by Christ—both the historical Jesus and Christ alive in his Church.


Where does the Bible mention each of the sacraments?


There are solid scriptural foundations for all the sacraments, if that's your concern. The list of citations, though, is so long that I'm going to direct you to the Catholic Youth Bible (published by St. Mary's Press). This youth-friendly edition of the Bible offers a special feature called "Where Do I Find It?" The second index in the back assists you in finding "Sacrament Connections."


I've never seen Baptism by immersion. Why is that a plus?


Scholars tell us that, for the earliest Christians, Baptism was normally done by complete immersion. Here's the point: In Baptism, you die to your old way of life and rise up in a new life in Christ. This powerful reality may be overlooked when the water is sprinkled or poured over a person's head. It's nearly impossible to miss the point when you are completely immersed (the dying part—in fact, symbolically drowned) and emerge (the rising part) to be clothed in white.


Sean Reynolds is a volunteer parish youth minister, the director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Office of Youth Ministry, and the father of two teenagers, Patrick, 18, and Nicholas, 13.

Brandon Fetzer (18) of St. Mark Parish in Sea Girt, New Jersey, and Liz Schreiber (17) of St. Rita Parish in Webster, New York, participated in an online chat with the author of this issue as well as the editor. Disciples Now hosted the chat.

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