Gifted with the Spirit: Confirmation
Senior High, Lesson #6 “The Sacraments and the Church”
Dear Parents, Guardians, and Sponsors:
Catholicism is a sacramental and incarnational faith, which means we take the body, the senses, and the material world seriously. Because God became flesh, we know that the flesh and the material world are not in any way evil. We do not long to escape the body in flights of pure spirit. Instead, we embrace the belief that Grace works through and perfects nature. Even where sin is present, it is no match for God’s Grace. “Where sin increased,” wrote St. Paul to the Romans, “grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).
Sacraments are signs that are visible and available to our senses that point to God’s invisible presence and action among us. Unlike the Gnostics, whom the Church denounced in the early years of Christianity, Catholics do not seek a spiritualized knowledge and union with God apart from the body. Ours is an embodied faith, because God Himself chose to be “incarnate of the Virgin Mary,” as we say each Sunday in the Nicene Creed. Jesus Himself is the ultimate Sacrament. He is the perfect sign of God’s presence and action among us, for He is God in the flesh: “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
The Church is also a sacrament. Through all the baptized who respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, the Church is a visible sign of Christ’s continuing presence and activity in the world. The more faithfully we live out our baptismal promises of rejecting sin “so as to live in the freedom of God’s children,” the more perfectly others are able to discern the presence of Christ among us. “Christ has no body on earth but ours,” said St. Teresa of Avila, “no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out upon the world, ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good, ours are the hands with which he blesses his people.” On the flip side, when we fail to be faithful witnesses, our hypocrisy may turn people away from Christ. In the Church, we are all sinners, and always in danger of hypocrisy. Our hope in this regard is the mercy and grace of God, on the one hand, and our own humility on the other. Humble (although not perfect) witnesses to Christ become a very effective sign to others of Christ’s presence in the world.
To be a member of the Church means accepting responsibilities as a member. Traditionally, we call the summary of our minimum duties The Precepts of the Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2042-43). These precepts exist to help us to grow in holiness but also to remind us that Jesus did not call us to be individualists, but to be a Church. We need one another. We need to come together as the Body of Christ in order to faithfully be His presence in the world. Here are the precepts:
- To attend Mass on Sundays and all holy days of obligation; and to rest from unnecessary servile work on those days.
- To confess one’s sins at least once a year in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
- To receive the Eucharist at least during the Easter season every year.
- To observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
- To help provide for the needs of the Church.
Although these precepts are written in the form of rules, they represent something deeper. They represent the Gospel call to conversion of life (fasting, Confession), community (provide for the Church, attend Mass), and the mission of bringing the Good News into the world by receiving and then being the Body of Christ (attend Mass, receive the Eucharist, provide for the Church). Even as the Church has changed in its external qualities over the centuries, these precepts have remained central from the beginning. The first Christians might not have had this list, but they would recognize all of these imperatives for Christian living in some form or another. In other words, they are not arbitrary. They are central to being a follower of Christ in the Catholic Church He founded.
Aside from the precepts, most Catholics are familiar with the seven sacraments that are special rituals by which the invisible presence and activity of God is made visible through signs and gestures. Through the sacraments, God encounters us and enables us to share in the divine life, the life of perfect love. They prepare us, in other words, for Heaven. The seven sacraments are usually broken into categories. The three Sacraments of Initiation, by which one becomes a full member of the Church, are Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. The two sacraments of service, are Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. The two sacraments of healing are Reconciliation (or Confession) and the Anointing of the Sick. All seven sacraments involve signs (such as water, exchanging vows, anointing with sacred oil, etc.) that point to God’s invisible presence and action in our lives, something we call Grace. As we grow in Grace, we become more like Christ. We become more credible witnesses of His Holy Gospel.
Above all others is the sacrament of the Eucharist that we celebrate at every Mass. It is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1324). In this sacrament, we not only have a sign of Christ’s presence, but we have the Real Presence of Christ in the bread and wine that are consecrated. We receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ in order to then go out into the world and be the very presence of Christ wherever we are. Then, we come back to Mass again on Sunday to offer what we have done. Just as we receive Jesus, He receives us. Jesus accepts everything we have done and joins it to His perfect offering of love to the Father. At Mass, in the Eucharist, our works take on eternal value. We are one with Christ in accepting and reciprocating the perfect love of the Father. Our words of thanks and praise are no longer our own feeble prayer. They are Christ’s prayer. Meanwhile, our sinful souls are healed and made stronger by the grace of the sacrament. In the words of Pope Francis, “The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
The Christian life of unselfish love and service is not easy. We are all weak and sinful. The temptations that exist are sometimes difficult to resist. It is easy to be selfish and self-centered. It is easy to choose greed and comfort over helping those in need. It is easy to hold grudges and prejudices and difficult to forgive and to love one’s enemy. It is easy to be lustful and lazy and self-loving, and it is difficult to choose to sacrifice for love of others. It is easy to be self-righteous, and difficult to be humble and to not pass judgment. The Church and the sacraments are gifts from Christ to strengthen us, forgive us, encourage us, and ultimately to sanctify us. They exist to bring about greater unity and love, preparing us for eternal life in the heart of the Triune God, who is perfect love and perfect unity.
As our young people prepare for lives as fully initiated Christians, we invite them to take part frequently in the sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist, in order to strengthen them in their commitment to be Christ’s disciples in their homes, schools, work, and world. Christ called them. He also empowers them with the Spirit, and renews their strength in the sacraments. He will never abandon them.
Kevin Dowd is a doctoral candidate in theology and education at Boston College, where he also received his M.Ed. A graduate of Harvard University, Kevin has taught in Catholic schools and public schools in both Massachusetts and New York. Currently he teaches theology at Anna Maria College in Paxton, MA and writes a weekly blog connecting the Sunday readings to life. You can read the blog at http://www.bayardinc.com/the-word-is-life/