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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What Do We Believe About the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church?

Written by  Father Frederick Faber
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There is something almost indiscriminate in the generosity of the Precious Blood. It appears not to regard the probabilities of its being used, or appreciated, or welcomed. It goes in floods through the seven mighty channels of the sacraments. It lies like a superincumbent ocean of sanctifying grace over the Church.

Truly, the sacraments are an invention of love, yet are thy not also as truly a necessity for our salvation? Would not the divine assurance of our salvation be a very heaven begun on earth? Yet the Sacraments are the nearest approach to such an assurance as the love of our Heavenly Father saw to be expedient for the multitude of His children.

Let us see now the means by which the Precious Blood spreads its empire. These means are the sacraments. It is difficult to describe the sacraments. If an angel were to bear us from this globe which we inhabit and carry us to some distant star, which God may have adorned as a dwelling-place for some other species of reasonable creatures, we should be struck with the novelty and peculiarity of the scenery around us. Some of its features might remind us of the scenery of earth, although with characteristic differences, while other features would be entirely new. This is very much the effect produced upon us when we come to learn the Catholic doctrine about the sacraments. It introduces us into a new world. It amounts to a revelation.

The sacraments are a part of the new world introduced into creation by the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, and therefore are an essential part of creation as it was eternally preordained by God. Yet they are quite distinct from any other province in creation. The sacraments of the Old Law were but shadows of the sacraments of the Gospel. The sacraments of the New Law are created things which have been devised by our Blessed Lord Himself. The Eucharist was foreshadowed by the Paschal Lamb; the sacrament of Holy Orders by the consecration of priests and Penance by the legal purification of the tabernacle.

There was no shadow of Confirmation because it is the sacrament of the fullness of grace, and so can belong only to the Gospel dispensation. Neither was there any shadow of Extreme Unction because it is the immediate preparation for the entrance of the soul into glory and there was no entrance into glory for any human soul till Jesus had risen and ascended. Neither could Matrimony be a sacrament under the Old Law, because the Word had not yet wedded our human nature; and the sacramentality of Marriage consists in its being the figure of those transcendent nuptials of the Sacred Humanity.

What then shall we call these sacraments? They are not persons, yet they scarcely seem to be things. I mean that they seem to be more than things. We want another word for them, another name, and we cannot find one. They are powers, lives, shrines, marvels, centers of heavenly power, supernatural magnficences, engraftings of heaven upon earth, fountains of grace, mysterious efficacies, marriages of matter and spirit, beautiful complications of God and man. Each sacrament is a species by itself. Each has some specialty, which is at once its excellence and its mystery. The pre-eminence of Baptism consists in its remission of original sin and the pains due to it. The pre-eminence of Confirmation resides in the vastness of the succors of actual grace which it brings with it, as we see in the fortitude it conferred on the Apostles and which the Eucharist had not conferred. The sacrament of Penance can claim the privilege of the most necessary of all sacraments to those who have been baptized, and of the capability of reiterated remission of mortal sin, which Baptism cannot claim. Extreme Unction excels Penance in the great copiousness of its graces. The excellence of Orders consists in its placing men in the singularly sublime state of being domestic ministers of Christ. Matrimony has a glory of its own in its significance of the union of our Lord with His Church. The preeminence of the Eucharist resides, as St. Thomas says, in the very substance of the sacrament, seeing that it is as it were the sacrament of all the other sacraments, the center of them, the cause of them, the end of them, and the harmony of them. All are because of it and are subordinate to its amazing supremacy.

These sacraments were designed by our Lord Himself and were instituted by Him with varying degrees of details as to matter and form in various sacraments; and yet, saving their substances, He has given His Church very extensive power over them, because they are so intimately connected with its unity. We see the exercise of this power in the bread of the Eucharist, in the impediments of marriage, and in the varieties of Orders in the Latin and Greek Churches. The sacraments are institutions that illustrate at once the magnificence of God’s dominion over His creation, and also the capability of creatures to be elevated by Him to astonishing sublimities far beyond the merit and due of nature; and this elevability of creatures is one of the most glorious manifestations of the liberty of God.

The sacraments are not mere signs of grace, but causes of it. They cause grace in us physically by the omnipotence of God which exists in them as if it were their own proper virtue and energy. The sacraments cause grace physically, just as our Lord’s Blood, shed long ago, cleanses us from our sins physically, not morally only, and just as His Resurrection and Ascension cause our resurrection and ascension physically, by the energy and a force which God has appropriated to them. The sacraments also cause grace in us morally, by representing to the Father the merits of Christ’s Passion actually accomplished and so doing a sort of holy and irresistible violence to God, and thereby procuring for us more abundant, and at the same time, very special succors of grace…

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But the sacraments not only confer a sanctifying grace and infuse habits of virtue, both physically and morally, they also confer a certain special sacramental grace which is peculiar and distinct in each sacrament. Moreover, it belongs to the grace of the sacraments that certain of them impress what is called a character or seal on the soul. The nature of this character is involved in mystery; but the most probable interpretation of it is that which describes it as a natural similitude of the soul of Jesus, likening our souls to His, and imparting hiddenly to our souls a resemblance of His, hidden in this life, but to be divulged with exceeding glory hereafter. This is a beautiful thought and fills us full of a peculiar love for the dear human soul of Jesus. Our clearest idea of the Sacraments is that which we gain form Hugh St. Victor and the elder theologians: they are the making visible of invisible grace…The sacraments are the actions of Christ. He instituted them as Man and thus they are the going-on of the thirty-three years upon earth…

The sacraments are the most striking memorials of the love of Jesus and a knowledge of them is most necessary to the right understanding of redemption…They are the inventions of God. No creature could have devised them. I do not believe that without revelation the most magnificent intelligence of angels could have imagined such a thing as a sacrament. It is a peculiar idea of God. It represents a combination of His most wonderful perfections.. It conveys to us a distinctive notion of God. We already know God as the unbeginning God. We know Him as the God of nature and the God of grace. These are two different disclosures of Him to us. So the knowledge of Him as the God who devised the sacraments is another disclosure of Him. Moreover, God not only invented them but He invented them for the most magnificent of purposes. He invented them that by their means especially He might impart His Divine Nature to created natures, that He might justify sinners, that He might sanctify souls that he might unite to Himself the race whose nature He had condescended to single out and assume to Himself. If they are His own invention they must be works of unspeakable excellence; but if they were meant also for purposes so dear to Him, and of such an exalted character, who shall be able rightly to imagine the excellence of the sacraments?...

The character which some of the sacraments confer also belongs to their grace. Amid the ardors of heaven and in the dazzling splendors of the Beatific Vision, the inexplicable characters of the sacraments, three in number, as if adumbrating the Three Divine Persons, shine forth as distinct beauties and brighten through all eternity. The character of Baptism is, as it were, the finger-mark of the Eternal Father on the soul. The character of Orders glistens like the unfailing unction of the priesthood of the Eternal Son. The character of Confirmation is the deep mark which the fires of the Holy Ghost burned in, the pressure of His tremendous fortitude which was laid upon us and yet we perished not, so tenderly and so gently did He touch us. In the wild fury of the tempestuous firs of hell the same characters glow terribly. They are indestructible even there, fiery shames, intolerable disgraces, distinct fountains of special agony forever and forever…

Now, look out upon the great laboring world, the world of human actions and endurances; it is not possible to measure the influence which is being exercised upon the world at this moment by the sacraments. They are penetrating the great mass of mankind like the network of veins and arteries in a living body. They are being the causes of millions of actions, and they are hindering the consequences of millions of other actions. They are weaving good and unweaving evil incessantly. The influence of a single reception of a sacrament may be handed down for generations; and the making of destinies of thousands may be in its hands., At this instant, by far the greatest amount of the earth’s intercourse with heaven is carried on directly, or indirectly though the sacraments. There is a vast wild world of sorrow upon earth. But over great regions of it the sacraments are distilling dews of heavenly peace….They are drying the widow’s tears, raising up unexpected benefactors for the orphan, nerving the pusillanimous, softening the desperate, rousing the torpid, crowning those who strive, and doing all things for those who die….

Moreover, a devotion to the sacraments is very needful for the times in which we live. The spirit of the age must necessarily affect both our theology and our asceticism. Under its constraints we shall be tempted to sacrifice the supernatural to the natural, the passive to the active, and the infused to the acquired. Theology will be allured to merge into metaphysics. Devotion will be considered a vocation, priests a caste, and theology a private professional training. Men will sneer at perfection in the world. Education will be bidden to throw off what it will be taught to consider the last relics of monastic trammels.

Men will chafe at the condemnation of books and indeed at all acts of intellectual authority on the part of the Church. A discontent with the existing Church, or at least a want of cordial forward sympathy with it, will grow up. The sovereignty of the Church, the Pope’s temporal power, and the hallowed truths enshrined in canon law will provoke impatience as obstinate things which will not die although their hour of death has come. The mystical side of the Gospel will become more distasteful while it grows less intelligible. Heroism will have to rank lower than the ordinary attainments of conscientious piety. The privileges of the Church will be less esteemed and heresy less hated. The influence of the Incarnation will be far less recognized and acknowledged in the world. Such is the spirit which will try to waylay souls on their road to Calvary or Thabor. Such, by the blessing of God, will not be our, if we foster in ourselves a deep, a tender, and an intelligent devotion to the sacraments.

Read 6478 times Last modified on Wednesday, January 14, 2015
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