Tom Palanza’s guest post continues today. Read part one here.
The theme of our previous meeting was on rituals, who participates in them and what they accomplish, which was a nice segue into discussing sacraments. The Sacraments (in the proper sense of the Seven Sacraments) are the rituals of the Church. This leads to our two basic concepts, posed as questions to the catechumens, “What are sacraments and why do we do them?” Since our faith is an intelligible mystery, knowable but never completely grasped, the best way to answer these two questions is through analogy. The discussion developed off of three analogies: 1 – Learning a Language, 2 – Marriage Proposals, 3 – Sports Fandom.
A language analogy helps concretize the nature and function of a sacrament. What is a fourteen year old catechumen going to learn from a definition like “a sacrament is an outpouring of God’s grace,” or “a sacrament is a physical manifestation of an invisible reality?” Language, however, is something they are very familiar with. To tell them the Sacraments are a language, specifically the language that the Church and God use to speak to each other, now that might mean something. The image of a child learning to speak exemplifies this. Children must learn the language of their parents in order to know what their parents are trying to tell them and in order to express themselves to their parents. The Sacraments are the language we use to speak with God. As children learn a language from their parents, so do we learn God’s language from God. The Scriptures are the history of humanity learning God’s language and through it learning about God and speaking back to God. The more we learn this language the more God can say to us and the more we can say back to him. The Sacraments are the most mature form of language with God given to us by Jesus (God himself) and made our own in the Church.
But there are many ways of speaking to God, all of them good, so what makes the Sacraments special? Sacraments say and do more than any other form of communication with God. They are definitive statements with complex meanings acquired over a long history that are recognized by the whole Church community and change the people participating in them. Our second analogy helps to concretize this definition. A marriage proposal, like a Sacrament, has four elements: 1 – the setting or circumstance, 2 – the action, 3 – the material or object, and 4 – the words. These four elements differ in variety and importance, from many settings and similar actions, to near universal objects and words. In the baptism presentation, the leader giving the talk actually staged a proposal with another leader. They described the setting (a romantic dinner), the action (taking the other’s hand while getting down on one knee), the material (a diamond ring), and the words (“Will you marry me?” optimistically followed by, “Yes!)” Not only does this kind of demonstration – to quote one of the other leaders – “grab the student’s attention by the throat” (there was no shortage of “ooo-s,” “aww-s,” and shouts of encouragement throughout the proposal), it also perfectly illustrates the four elements of a Sacrament, the fact of the power of universally acknowledged rituals, and the importance of the person’s response to that ritual. Of all the many points this demonstration makes, the response point seems most important to drive home to the catechumens. The proposal response changes the couple, just like our response to the Sacraments changes us. By responding “Yes,” a couple is changed, they are truly engaged, different than before. So too, our response to the Sacraments changes who we are.
At this point, the presenter posed the second question to the catechumens, “Why should we do the sacraments at all?” What if someone wanted to speak their own language with God and not use that of the Church? Surely God will be able to understand no matter what language we use? The presenter then used the third analogy, Sports Fandom, to tackle this question, “What does it mean to be a sports fan?” There are three important questions to ask here, 1 – “How do you know when you are a fan?”, 2 – “How do others know you are a fan?”, and 3 – “How does the player or the team know you are a fan?” These questions highlight the three groups that a sacramental language speaks to: the individual, the community, and God. The presenter described a situation where a person says they are a fan but they do not own a team jersey, they do not watch that team on TV, they do not go to team games, they do not join other fans in any team activities, nor do they try to know more about the players or the team in general. Is this person a fan? Perfectly to the point, some of the catechumens were already calling this imaginary fan a fake (the thought of someone not owning a Patriots jersey or a Red Sox hat struck a nerve…). This person is not a fan – or at best, it is very unclear and highly doubtful. It is similar with the Sacraments. How does a Christian know they are a Christian? How does the community (the Church) know that a person is a Christian? How does God know you are a Christian? The sacraments are our way of participating in the Christian life. They are a statement to ourselves, to our community, to God about who we are and what we want. The Sacraments also say something to us, they tell us what the community expects of us, what God expects of us, and what participating in this sacrament is going to do to us. A fan makes a claim on a team, and that team and those other fans make a claim on that fan, and all three expect certain things of each other.
The presenter took the Fandom analogy one more step which connects back to the importance and effective nature of our response to the Sacraments. If you are a fan of an athlete, chances are you want to be like that athlete somehow. And if you participate in the same sport as that athlete, you will likely train to be like that athlete. You take all the best of their skills and try to make them your own, becoming like them and yet remaining unique from them. So too, the Sacraments are our way of becoming like God, the person we are all fans of. Training in the Christian life is participating in the Sacraments. It is taking on the skills of God in order to live a good Christian life. And this life, this training, being a fan and growing as a fan can only be done in community – and it is way more fun that way too.
This is a very long post and is far more detailed than the actual presentation given to the catechumens at St. Brigid. But the point was not to just give a word for word account of a presentation given for people to imitate in their own situations (better to go to YouTube for that kind of inspiration). Instead, it tries to show the reasoning used in an attempt to make the Sacraments relatable to young catechumens in the hope that some of that reasoning will make sense to others and serve them well to explain the Sacraments to other young catechumens in other parishes. We do very much hope that this post meets that goal.
Thomas Palanza Jr. is a student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry in the Master of Theological Studies program. He earned his undergraduate degree in theology from the Catholic University of America. While he loves all areas of theology, it is St. Paul and St. Augustine who most frequently soften his hardness of heart and his family, friends, and professors who open it up even more.