Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Why is the Catholic Church a sacrament? – A.A., Wiaga, Ghana
A: This is quite a challenge and almost requires a treatise. However, I will try to be succinct.
When speaking of this theme, most people refer to the Second Vatican Council. The council’s document on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium states in No. 5:
“This work of human redemption and perfect glorification of God, foreshadowed by the wonders which God performed among the people of the Old Testament, Christ the Lord completed principally in the paschal mystery of his blessed passion, resurrection from the dead, and glorious ascension, whereby ‘dying, he destroyed our death and rising, restored our life.’ For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.”
In Lumen Gentium, the council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, this idea is reinforced in No. 9:
“All those, who in faith look toward Jesus, the author of salvation and the source of unity and peace, God has gathered together and established as the church, that it may be for each and everyone the visible sacrament of saving unity. In order to extend to all regions of the earth, it enters into human history, though it transcends at once all time and all boundaries between peoples.”
Later, in No. 48, the Church is explicitly referred to as the “universal sacrament of salvation.”
It would be an error, however, to think that the idea of the Church as sacrament came out of the blue in the early 1960s. Sacred Scripture describes the mystery (sometimes practically synonymous with the Latin word sacramentum, or sacrament) of the Church saying that “you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst” (1 Corinthians 3:16); and that God’s presence is manifested in the Church (Luke 12:32; Mark 4:26-29). The mystery of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:1ff) is made manifest through visible images such as flock, vine, building, temple, spouse.
The Church Fathers also describe this reality with significant expressions. The Didache (written between A.D. 90 and 120) speaks of the “cosmic mystery of the Church.” St. Cyprian (died 258) calls the Church “great mystery of salvation,” and St Augustine (354-430) refers to her as the “wondrous sacrament born from Christ’s side,” as quoted above in Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 5.
In the liturgy we find several examples. One prayer, attributed by some to Pope St. Leo the Great (390-461) and found in the Gelasian manuscript from 750, calls the Church the wonderful sacrament through which the work of redemption is continued and the restored world returns to its first destiny. In other words the Church, as a new creation of Christ, must be the sacrament that guides the world back toward God’s original plan.
With the advent of scholastic theology the concept of the Church as sacrament was obscured for a time, although the idea was gradually recuperated in the 19th and 20th centuries. The topic was widely treated in the decades before Vatican II by several major theologians.
The Catechism, which in a way sums up the earlier reflections, deals with the concept in several texts but especially in Nos. 774-776 regarding the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation:
“774. The Greek word mysterion was translated into Latin by two terms: mysterium and sacramentum. In later usage the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterium. In this sense, Christ himself is the mystery of salvation: ‘For there is no other mystery of God, except Christ.’ The saving work of his holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation, which is revealed and active in the Church’s sacraments (which the Eastern Churches also call ‘the holy mysteries’). The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body. The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies. It is in this analogical sense, that the Church is called a ‘sacrament.’
“775. ‘The Church, in Christ, is like a sacrament — a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men.’ The Church’s first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God. Because men’s communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race. In her, this unity is already begun, since she gathers men ‘from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues’; at the same time, the Church is the ‘sign and instrument’ of the full realization of the unity yet to come.
“776. 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.'”
Therefore, as the Catechism says, the concept of the Church as sacrament is analogous, and does not mean that it is an eighth sacrament.
Seeing the Church as a sacrament helps us to have a clearer grasp of the seven sacraments within the framework of the Church itself. We can perceive more clearly how the effects of sacramental participation go beyond the individual’s relationship with God and increase the sanctity of the entire body.
This concept also clarifies such classic dictums as “The Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church.” The Eucharist, and in a way the Church’s entire sacramental and liturgical life, engage in a continual interaction. Christ’s fundamental saving action reaches the individual through the Church and her sacraments, and at the same time the individual’s positive embrace of this saving action sanctifies and builds up the Church.
The spirituality that can derive from assimilating this fundamental communion in Christ shared by all members of the Church and — since the Church is also sacrament for the world — with each and every human being, can lead us to understand that every good action we perform, and also our less positive actions, have effects that are way beyond our immediate circle and not only extend from “the rising of the sun to its setting” but can reach heaven itself through the communion of saints.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.