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Bishop Strickland . . . The Sacramental Economy

January 6, 2020 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By MOST REV. JOSEPH STRICKLAND

In my last column, I explained that the Church is, in an analogous sense, a sacrament. Through the Church, the redemptive mission of the Lord Jesus Christ continues and through the sacraments of the Church, sacramental grace is conferred. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way:
“As sacrament, the Church is Christ’s instrument. ‘She is taken up by him also as the instrument for the salvation of all,’ ‘the universal sacrament of salvation,’ by which Christ is ‘at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God’s love for men.’ The Church ‘is the visible plan of God’s love for humanity,’ because God desires ‘that the whole human race may become one People of God, form one Body of Christ, and be built up into one temple of the Holy Spirit’” (CCC, n. 776).
I also candidly admitted to you, my readers, what I have unfortunately observed as a bishop, a successor of the apostles. In my ministry as a Shepherd of souls, I have discovered that too many Catholics have not been evangelized or properly catechized. Too many of the faithful do not know the very basic teachings of the Catholic Church. Often, through no fault of their own.
There is a desperate need for Catholics to understand their faith in order to be able to live it and give it away to others. Sadly, the teachers of the Catholic Church, starting with the bishops, have too often focused on other topics, rather than teaching the Catholic Christian faith to the flock entrusted to their care. And, we are reaping the bad fruit of this failure in the falling away from the faith which we are witnessing.
Catholic bishops are the primary teachers of the Catholic Church. Given the state of matters in much of the Church, one must ask, what are we teaching these days? Why are we sounding more and more like a non-governmental agency, offering political, economic, and personal opinions in our pronouncements, rather than Shepherds who are ordained to stand in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd? Why aren’t we focused on preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, saving souls, helping the faithful to grow in holiness, and evangelizing a fallen world?
On November 28, 2012, I was asked those two questions: “Are you resolved to be faithful and constant in proclaiming the Gospel of Christ?” and second, “Are you resolved to maintain the Deposit of Faith, entire and incorrupt, as handed down by the apostles and professed by the Church everywhere and at all times?” My response to both questions was a resounding “I am!”
It was at this point that the deeper meaning of the phrase “Deposit of Faith” came alive for me. I also began to understand my role in magisterial teaching and my serious call, as a successor of the apostles, to the ongoing task of “Guarding the Deposit of Faith” given by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself to the apostles and handed down since then. Every ordained Catholic bishop was asked the very same questions.

Jesus Continues His Ministry

The Lord Jesus Christ is still with us. As the Head of His Mystical Body, He is still at work in and through His Church. One of the ways He does that is through dispensing sacramental grace. “Sacramental grace” is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament.
The Church is the instrument through which sacramental grace is mediated to the faithful. It is Christ Himself ministering the sacraments in the Church, through His ordained ministers.
It is Jesus Christ who is baptizing. It is Jesus Christ who is calling down the fire and the power of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation or Chrismation. It is Jesus Christ who is giving those who approach Him His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Most Holy Eucharist.
It is Jesus Christ who is forgiving and absolving sins and healing the spiritual wounds caused by sin. It is Jesus Christ who is anointing the sick and the dying with oil, ministering healing and preparing those whose time has come for healing through death and passage into eternal life.
It is Jesus Christ who is witnessing the exchange of marriage vows and communicating to the spouses the grace they need to remain faithful and grow in holiness. It is Jesus Christ who is calling and ordaining men to diaconate, priesthood, and episcopal office.

Sacraments

In the large edition of the Catholic Catechism there is a very helpful glossary at the end. It is not found in the smaller version. It offers another way to approach studying the Catechism. In its easy to understand definitions, the Glossary also gives the paragraph numbers within the Catechism where a longer discussion can be found. There the student will also find excellent references to passages from the Bible, the early Christian Fathers of the Church, papal writings, and Council documents.
Here is the glossary definition of sacrament: “SACRAMENT: An efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit (nn. 774, 1131). The sacraments (called ‘mysteries’ in the Eastern Churches) are seven in number: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance or Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony (n. 1210).”
The sacraments of the Church confer and communicate the grace which they signify. The Catechism explains this important point in these words:
“Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power” (CCC, n. 1127).
When the Church teaches that the sacraments are efficacious, it simply means that they are effective. They bring about what they intend: “This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: ‘by the very fact of the action’s being performed’), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that ‘the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.’
“From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and His Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them” (CCC, n. 1128).

Sacramental Economy

The teaching of the Catholic Church often uses a phrase to explain the sacraments and their effects. It needs to be explained. That phrase is “sacramental economy.” Here is where the phrase is explained in the Catholic Catechism:
“The Church was made manifest to the world on the day of Pentecost by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Spirit ushers in a new era in the ‘dispensation of the mystery’ the age of the Church, during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church, ‘until he comes’.”
This paragraph continues: “In this age of the Church Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church, in a new way appropriate to this new age. He acts through the sacraments in what the common Tradition of the East and the West calls ‘the sacramental economy’; this is the communication (or ‘dispensation’) of the fruits of Christ’s Paschal mystery in the celebration of the Church’s ‘sacramental’ liturgy” (CCC, n. 1076).
So, in this “age of the Church,” Jesus is acting through His Body. He is giving all who open their hearts, and their lives, to Him, grace. Grace is the free and undeserved gift that God gives us to respond to our vocation to become His adopted children. The word grace simply means gift. God loves us so much that He gives us His divine life as a gift. We must receive it and open it and let it change us.
In 2007, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI released an Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church entitled The Sacrament of Charity (Sacramentum Caritatis). In paragraph sixteen he wrote:
“The fact that the Church is the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’ shows how the sacramental economy ultimately determines the way that Christ, the one Savior, through the Spirit, reaches our lives in all their particularity. The Church receives and at the same time expresses what she herself is in the seven sacraments, thanks to which God’s grace concretely influences the lives of the faithful, so that their whole existence, redeemed by Christ, can become an act of worship pleasing to God.”

Partakers Of The Divine Nature

The Lord Jesus Christ, through the sacraments, makes Himself and His saving grace, His Divine Life, available as a gift to be received. We come to participate in Divine Life through receiving grace. The Apostle Peter, in his second letter to the early churches, wrote these powerful words:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3,4(a)).
So, what are the effects of the seven sacraments? How do they help us to progress in this participation? As mother and teacher, the Church uses a threefold division of the Seven Sacraments in order to help us understand the effects of each of the sacraments.
There are the three sacraments of initiation, Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist. There are two sacraments of healing, Penance and the Anointing of the Sick. There are two sacraments at the service of communion and mission, Holy Orders and Christian Marriage.
In our next column, we will consider the sacraments of initiation and, most particularly, the source and summit of the whole Christian life, the Holy Eucharist.

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