Sacraments and Catechesis: Building-Blocks of Faith

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by Carrie Sallwasser

Amen. I believe.

This response after the reception of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist proclaims who—and whose—we are. During this Year of Faith—proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI in light of the fiftieth anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council—it behooves catechists to reflect upon the relationship between the Sacraments and catechesis, and the impact that relationship has on faith, asking ourselves how we can best facilitate this process.

In the fourth century, Augustine declared that Sacraments are sacred signs. Throughout the history of the Church, Sacraments have been connected to Christ as revelations of God and signs of grace. The histories of the various Sacraments are rich. For our purpose, we will reflect and build upon what the Second Vatican Council proclaimed about the Sacraments.

The Church as Sacrament

The Second Vatican Council’s Lumen gentium affirmed the work of theologians such as Edward Schillebeeckx and declared Jesus as the Primordial Sacrament in which God is revealed in divine fullness. By instituting the Church (see Matthew 16:18-19), Jesus legitimized the Church as a Sacrament itself, as a sign and an instrument of salvation.

Through its offices, the Church offers grace and salvation through the reception of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Matrimony, and Holy Orders. These seven Sacraments were instituted by Christ to call us to worship God, build up the Church, deepen our faith, show us how to pray, connect us with the living Tradition of the Church, and sanctify us (see United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, p. 170). In other words, the Sacraments point toward Jesus, the Sacrament.

In its very deepest identity, the Church exists in order to evangelize (see Evangelli nuntiandi, n. 14). Its evangelizing activity consists of proclaiming, preaching, bearing witness to, and teaching and celebrating Christ and his Sacraments (EN, n. 17). The Church takes as its scriptural mandate the directive of Jesus to his disciples, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). There we see the connection between Sacraments and catechesis. The Church teaches that there is no separation or opposition between catechesis and evangelization (see Catechesis tradendae, n. 18).

Catechesis, Grace, and the Sacraments

But how was this original catechesis of Jesus experienced by his disciples? It was experienced through their lived experience and encounters with the person of Christ before, during, and after his Passion and Resurrection.

Jesus did not simply give his disciples a syllabus with educational outcomes and goals attached. There were no tests (good thing for the often confused disciples)! Rather, Jesus taught among them; he spent time with them; he experienced the same hungers and thirsts, joys and sorrows, weariness and pain. Jesus was one with them. His relationship was intimate and daily.

As the heart and center of evangelization and catechesis, Jesus is the one through whom we catechize, with our mission being to guide and mentor others to a lifelong, deep, and intimate relationship with him (see National Directory for Catechesis, nos. 1, 19B). Such catechesis, coupled with the grace of the Sacraments, leads to faith, which is “the human response to a personal God who has revealed himself” (NDC, n. 16C).

It must be emphasized that catechesis alone, no matter how well done, cannot lead to faith. “Without the liturgy and Sacraments, the profession of faith would lack efficacy, because it would lack the grace which supports Christian witness” (Porta fidei, n. 11). The initiation and growth of faith is dependant upon both these elements. “Catechesis gives growth to the gift of faith given in Baptism and elaborates the meanings of the Sacraments” (NDC, n. 22). Encounter and catechesis spiral together, one leading the other to Christ and an ever-deepening of the intimacy of that relationship. The more one encounters Christ in the Sacraments, the deeper is the desire for an understanding of Jesus and his teachings.

Our Catechetical Opportunity

This belief—that relationship with Christ is the goal of the Church, and is fostered by revelation and grace (through Sacraments) and catechesis—often is not clearly understood. The Church teaches that the reception of the Sacraments presupposes faith (see CCC, n. 1124). When we, as catechists, are working with children’s sacramental preparation, it is the faith of the parents that brings them to the font, to the table, or to the bishop.

The challenge, then, arises when parents’ faith is shallow because they do not practice their Catholic faith and receive the graced encounter of Christ through the Sacraments. They seek the Sacraments for their children, but only as religious milestones, not as sources of faith. Yet, “Sacramental life is impoverished and very soon turns into hollow ritualism if it is not based on serious knowledge of the Sacraments, and catechesis becomes intellectualized if it fails to come alive in sacramental practice” (CT, n. 23). Thus we need to challenge ourselves to look upon these circumstances as opportunities to act as agents of the New Evangelization, welcoming people back and encouraging in them a deeper relationship with Jesus through Sacraments and catechesis together.

It is in everyday life, where the rubber meets the road, that catechists must show the connection between faith and life. We must “promote a synthesis of the faith we have been taught to believe and the faith which we enact in our everyday lives” (NDC, n. 28B). In short, what we teach must be believable and must demonstrate the power to change the world in which our audience lives. This synthesis of faith—what Thomas Groome calls the praxis of life to faith and faith to life—is modeled in the period of mystagogy. It is after the reception of catechesis and the Sacraments that the newly initiated ponder the effect of faith on their lives and their world. In a sense, then, we are all in a constant state of mystagogy.

First, Most Powerful Resource

The first and most powerful resource is ourselves. In Evangelii nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI states that witnesses are listened to more than teachers, and if teachers are listened to at all, it is because they are first witnesses (see n. 41).

As catechists, we must model the faith we teach. We must live sacramentally. The most powerful witness of sacramental living for me came from watching my three-year-old son play checkers with God. When I asked who won the games, my son’s response was, “God wins every game.” And when I asked him why he continued to play, knowing the outcome, his response was simply, “But Mommy, I just like being with God.” This was the mystagogy of a baptized Christian catechized not so much by formal instruction but through lived experiences of prayer and worship.

Our vocation as catechists is to enable others to respond to Augustine’s formula for distribution of Eucharist: “Receive what you are with ‘Amen. I believe.’”

Carrie Sallwasser is the Coordinator of Religious Education at Queen of All Saints in St. Louis, MO. She is the President and Heartland Representative of the National Association of Parish Catechetical Directors (NPCD).

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This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, December 2012.

Image Credit: Aris Suwanmalee/Shutter Stock 555003484

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