Christian Mysteries



THAT is the title of a book by Fr. Schillebeeckx, but firstly it is the best definition of the mystery of salvation wrought in Jesus-Christ and communicated to us through the rites whereby we live out this mystery. From the mysteries of faith to the mysteries of Life there is no logical solution of continuity; they are too interdependent. Furthermore, with the mysteries of life it is practice that matters and which gives access to contemplation : they are the sacred signs that communicate and reveal those invisible Realities of which the dogmas are the intellectual depositary (...). It is nevertheless true that the sacraments are a composite of theory and practice (...). They were divinely instituted by Christ and are conveyed by the Church’s historical tradition; in their substance they are fixed, but in their outward ceremonies they are uncountable and fluid; they relate more to the Church’s oral tradition, which is the actual life lived by the Church, than to the Church’s written traditions and dogmatic definitions (...).


Clément and Origen, who were early theologians of the Alexandrian school – that mystical school which we have enthusiastically spoken of in recent years in connection with the Mass and Christology – both understood that this word mystery, evoking sacred secrets, was more applicable to our own rites, the only true and worthy ones, than to anything else, for our rites contained the hidden and the Divine under simple and natural appearances (...). Catechumens were initiated into the mysteries by the mystagogical catecheses just as they were about to celebrate them.

The Latins, who were soldiers, jurists and moralists, rather than mystics such as the African Tertullian, preferred to use the word sacramentum with reference to these sacred rites. Why did they choose to speak of an oath of enrolment or commitment ? This is because, under their moral aspect, the principal Christian rites, whereby life is transformed, mark an irrevocable stage in the Christian’s commitment to God’s service and to Christ’s militia. The sphragis of the Greeks and the signaculum of the Romans was a seal, an ineffaceable imprint made on the soldier or slave with a red-hot iron, and it reminded them of the irrevocable and public character of Christian initiation. Tradition has retained this idea.

Later, in the Golden age of patristics, the 4th and 5th centuries, St. Hilary and St. Ambrose would attain the essential and perfect definition of the sacrament : a rite producing grace. But St. Augustine went beyond this notion of a rite, which could evoke some idea of magic, and imposed for all time his great doctrine, which is difficult but inexhaustibly rich : that of the sacrament as sign of the Divine gift, a sign conferring grace (...).


It has to be admitted that whereas the Church tolerated the Integrist narrowness of ritualism and juridicism for centuries without thereby experiencing any harm, she nevertheless had to condemn first Protestantism and then Modernism for they jeopardised the essential reality of salvation : the Incarnation of the Word Made Flesh, the operative visibility of the Church and her sacraments, (cf. Jean Guitton, La Pensée Moderne et le Catholicisme; t V, Idéalisme et Réalisme. Aix, 1939).

Where have we arrived today ? There is no doubt that the 19th century suffered from an abuse of ritualism and juridicism, which resulted from a long eclipse of theology, obscured by the previous century’s Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Having begun with Moelher, who almost compromised the renewal with his excessive romanticism, renewal was fortunately taken up by Rome with the return to patristic and Thomist sources by Perrone and Passaglia until its true doctor was found in the person of Scheeben, whose Mysteries of the Church (1865) is a landmark and of considerable influence on the Acts of the First Vatican Council. To this day we are still dependent on this magnificent mystical theology.

Fr. Schillebeeckx
Fr. Schillebeeckx

It is in keeping with this tradition that I recommend Fr. Schillebeeckx’s admirable work Christ the Sacrament of our Encounter with God (Coll. Foi Vivante. Le Cerf) together with Fr. Roguet’s works on the theology of the sacraments, all of which are remarkable, his Commentary on the Summa Theologica (rev. des Jeunes) his chapter on Theological Initiation (Vol. IV Le Cerf 1956) and his little masterpiece, which is within everyone’s reach and will accompany us throughout the year, The Sacraments (coll. Livres de Poche. Le Cerf 1952) (…).

Reaction against the 19th century’s Integrist juridicism has, however, passed the permitted limit. The intolerable excesses of the Dutch Catechism are proof of this (cf. CRC no 32, 34, May, July 1970). There is a way of understanding sacramental realities so spiritually that they end in being destroyed… If it is desirable that we should retain what the modern school has to contribute without yielding to the entreaties of Integrism, it is nevertheless of capital importance to hold on firmly to Integrism’s insistence on the visibility, fixity and historicity of the Christian sacraments.

On this point I will say once and for all in this series on the Sacraments that there exists a school that is neither integrist nor Modernist. It is rather the vast living whole which is the true Church, who is inviolably attached to the sacramentary economy as bequeathed by Christ the Son of God, who is concerned for its conservation and its being put into effective hieratic and ritual operation, who is also meekly open to the Holy Spirit and to the living Magisterium and ready to welcome wider and deeper views into these mysteries where man meets God – God in the transcendent freedom of His gifts and man in the ceaselessly renewed expression of his faith. We shall follow this great Church, regardless of the sects and various schools locked in their conflicting exclusive positions (...).


With the great tradition of the Church, therefore, we believe that (...) every sacrament is an action of God in Jesus Christ and of man in the Church for a communication of Grace. A sacrament is a mysterious action that is theandric : it is human in appearance and divine in depth; it is humano-divine in its liturgical sign and spiritual efficacy (...).


There is God’s approach to man and man’s correlative advance towards God. In appearance it is man’s move, although the effect of preventive grace, which comes first and which solicits God’s response. God’s response, however, prevails so much more over man’s approach that it is better to expound this mystery from God first, when describing the work of the sacraments.


It is He who first loved us, says St. John. He who is the Creator of the universe in the beginning and at all times; He who is the Dispenser of grace or supernatural life to His creatures, we are the objects of His mercy. Since the sacrament is an entry into a sharing of grace, which is an abundance of being, and properly speaking a sharing in the very life of God, it must be held as an absolute certainty that God alone is its Cause. God is the First Cause of the sacramental gift, as of all being, but more especially He is the direct and unique cause without any intermediary or second cause. There is not and cannot be any intermediary in the sacramental gift (...).


That Jesus Christ is in fact the historical institutor of the sacraments and their dispenser at all times, adds to the properly Divine causality, which is supreme and immediate, a causality that is historical and visible, that of His Body and of His human word. Such indeed is Jesus Christ, the Sacrament of God, who acts in the flesh and according to our human mode of being, equal to our being in everything but sin. Nevertheless, man’s encounter with this Man is an encounter of man with God without intermediary, for Christ’s humanity is hypostatically united to His Divinity (...).


Yet the Divine reason for the Son of God’s sacramental mission in the flesh is much more than a necessity of incarnation for the sake of meeting with carnal man; it is necessity of redemption for the sake of saving culpable man and tearing him from his sinful state, from his condition of revolt, disorder and corruption. Grace is not an unconditioned “ Divine Life ”; it is a holy energy to bring man back to his original vocation; it is a new state of being that chases out the old and gives pardoned man the wherewithal to live his new condition as a creature reconciled with His Father in a Divine manner (...). In short, a death and resurrection is being celebrated, renewed and continued from sacrament to sacrament at every stage of life (...).


The Church’s role is not that of a secondary cause or of an intermediary between Christ and man, for Christ acts immediately in her as through His own Body. The Church, however, is also His Spouse and this other analogy shows that the Church administers the Sacraments instituted by Her Spouse in the sense of being both their depositary and mistress. The Church, therefore, determines the elements and rites of the Sacraments; in fidelity to Her Spouse She decides how the sacraments should unfold in action and lays down the conditions for their efficacy, in all freedom. The sacraments, therefore, are truly of the Church as they are of Christ – inextricably.


The minister merely lends his word and action to the Church, so that his word and action is none other than the Church’s. All the individual and arbitrary novelties that the minister adds thereto are admittedly visible and noticeable, and perhaps shocking even, but they have no effect. This human element strikes against the human surface of the Other without the substance of its soul being affected for good or ill. What penetrates the substance of the soul, there to operate the grace signified by the sacrament is the work of man purely as minister and servant of Christ and the Church. Hence the minister cannot obstruct the Divine, Christic and Ecclesial action, he can only add his own minimal merit (...).

Obviously the role of minister is very great by virtue of Him for whom the minister acts as unworthy co-operator. Thus, in order to fulfil this function the man must be divested of himself and clothed in Christ and for this service he must adopt a sacred attitude, follow a fixed rite, instituted by Christ and determined in detail by the Church (...).


As a fully human work of Christ’s for the purpose of producing in saved man a Divine mode of being, a Divine grace superimpressed on his being in the world, the sacrament has to be bodily in both matter and form (...). It is because decadent theology enclosed the sacrament and its grace in “ matter ”, that is in water and oil, that it lacked the courage to conserve the doctrine of the sacraments' physical causality which was henceforth badly understood (...).

The only true theology consists in affirming the integral mystery, that is of a living action, at once objective, historical, fully Divine and human, whereof God alone is Author, Agent and Cause and man but the instrumental cause. The inert matter, if the sacrament comprises any, is one element, just as the action that signifies its usage and as the word that specifies its supernatural and Christian bearing. All together, however, they are but the signs and symbols of a mysterious and immediate Divine communication… It is not the chalk that teaches the schoolboys their chemistry, but the teacher standing at the blackboard with the chalk in his hand. It is a defective analogy but it reminds us of the instrumental role of all that is not Christ-God and the Holy Spirit of the Church in the sacramental action (...).


1. Faith is required, firstly and always. When faith is not present in the minister of the sacrament, it is in the subject who asks for and receives the sacrament (...). If the invisible and saving gift is to be accomplished, the catechumen must know that there is a mystery and must believe in it for then he receives its hidden life and not just the appearance; he receives the sacrament and not an empty gesture (...).

2. Right intention is required for communication of Grace (...).So every real encounter with the Living God produces an absolute, overwhelming and salutary impression of life or of death in accordance with the human subject’s disposition (...). So, it is essential for a full communication of grace that man’s desire should come to meet God’s offer, after the manner of the spouse asking her husband to make her fruitful : “ Give me children or else I die ”. And no longer allegorically but prophetically, like the Samaritan woman asking Jesus : “ Give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water ” (Jn 4 :15) (...). No, the power of the Risen Lord is not confined to giving His grace with the desired and awaited sign. The grace of Baptism is already given to those who desire it, in anticipation of the sacrament’s celebration, similarly the grace of absolution and forgiveness of sins is anticipated by a perfect act of contrition, before the act of absolution itself. Thus the sacramental encounter flows beyond the sacrament itself, on all sides. It is an entire life, an entire world, flooded and sacramentalised by the capital grace of Christ who died and is risen (...).


At this point hundreds of questions arise : how, where, when, how often and how differently can this Divine encounter be realised, since it is so good and so useful to the life of man on earth  ? (...) If God wishes to communicate Himself sacramentally, that is to say in a natural, Christic, ecclesial and ritual manner, one would be inclined to believe that the Sacramental Economy is much more vast, diversified and continuous than the short list of seven sacraments [Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance and Extreme Unction, Holy Orders and Matrimony] would lead us to believe.

Integrism, however, asks no further questions, for what it looks for in the sacraments is grace (...). It reduces them to their simple role as the efficient cause of grace, while they are merely the conditions of the Divine Presence and not this Presence itself. Then in intimate devotion the faithful are going to seek form, meaning and perfection for their union with God. The Catholic religion then changes face and become individualist with its spirituality confined to personal devotions.

Modern Theology conceives of the sacrament as being the very mode of the mutual Presence and of God’s vital, supernatural communication to His faithful, devoted creature. Does everything, then, become sacramental for him ? Less attentive to the catechism and more to his heart’s avowal, the Christian soul desires at all times and in all ways to maintain a loving, religious dialogue and exchange with its Lord. Every human action and all things around him then appear as though they could and should be occasions for him to make oblation to God and for God to respond to His faithful servant  ! (...)

Modernism, however, has taken advantage of this new sacramentary theology in order to destroy Catholic order, with its rites and definitions, from top to bottom. It began by discarding strictly ritual forms in the celebration of the sacraments with the pretext of giving the Church’s life greater freedom of expression (...). A new frontier was crossed when reference to the Cross of Christ disappeared, always with the pretext, of course, of further widening, progress and adaptation of sacramentality to the life of the world. Finally everything that is a sign of man is thereby reputed to be a sign of God  ! (...) Worship and the sacraments, then, have nothing more to do with Christ other than a purely gratuitous and folkloric reference.

The final stage is not far off when man frees himself from God altogether (…). The sacraments of this new religion are still signs and celebrations but only as expressions of the life and grandeur of earthly man. It may be that the name of God finds a place in these celebrations, but they are acts of worship essentially in homage to man himself (...).


Will these excesses lead back to integrism ? Yes, they will lead back to the principles and definitions of integrism but not to its narrowness. We must be on our guard against forgetting that the sacraments are signs of God, first and foremost, and not of man. They are gifts of supernatural grace and not celebrations of the world and its pride (...). The best solution would seem to lie in another perspective, one, moreover, which is in line with St. Thomas' thought (Roguet, R J 374-377). If we consider the “ sacramentals ” as ritual actions and holy functions preparatory to or consequent upon the essential rites of the seven sacraments and therefore part and parcel of their meaning and of their sphere of efficacy, then indeed all life that is religious, Christian and ecclesial life – finds itself thus sacramentalised (...).


For nineteen centuries there was never any idea of opposing the sacraments to the faith. It must also be strongly emphasised that neither does the 20th century renewal of theology attempt any such opposition. This strange pastoral theory (?) was born and developed at a much lower level and it was nourished on strictly pragmatic and sociological considerations that were implicitly political and partisan, but in no way did it draw on true Christian doctrine. In order to separate evangelisation from sacramentalisation and sacramentalisation from catechesis, one must have become truly a stranger to the Church’s Tradition and impermeable to the lessons of Scripture !


« All power in Heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and teach all nations, baptising 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. And behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the world. » (Mt 28 :18-20) There is no discussion, uncertainty or exception from this sending of the Apostles out on the mission. It is a command to teach and baptise whereby evangelisation and sacramentalisation are inextricably united. Preaching the words of Christ and practising the rites and laws He has established go together (...).

A sacramentalisation of all life and of all nature necessarily expresses and spontaneously accompanies the Christianisation of peoples. It is made manifest in churches, pilgrimages, wayside calvaries, canticles and liturgical feasts, national Te Deums and Requiems, the cult of relics, rogations, blessing the fruits of the earth and so forth...

Such is Christendom. Evangelisation for Christendom consists in reaching out to the pagans and converting them in order to make them beneficiaries of this Christian and Catholic way of life. As the pagans accept the Gospel, so they enter with zest into sacramentalisation without having to be asked and without complexes.


The unthinkable rupture between faith and worship. between faith and sacraments and between faith and religion. which is everywhere endemic today, dates from the appearance of the self-styled specialised Catholic Action of the 1930’s. Its apostolate based on the idea of converting the milieu by the milieu was systematically laical and practically autonomous in methods and aims. It was bound to raise a barrier between this lay, secular Action and the traditional and hierarchical functionaries of Divine Worship and the faithful to whom those functionaries distributed the sacraments.

The apostolate of prayer and the parish ministry were gradually pushed into the background whilst the lay apostolate with its specialised chaplains, who have since become our Bishops, secreted a new Christian, or rather a purely human, faith, having no connection with the practice of worship and no allegiance to the clerical institution, so that in the end it might be free to propagate itself in a resolutely democratic, liberal, neutral society, without having to upset it or christianise it, come what may. They would present a modern Christ, fully integrated with secular culture and so an inoffensive Christian witness would replace Catholic worship and morals !

The protagonists of the secularisation of the Christian message are known by name. They are Emmanuel Mounier with his review Esprit, and Jacques Maritain with his “ Integral Humanism ” advocating the advent of a new Christendom – one that would no longer be sacred, but profane ! It is not surprising that fifty years later their combined efforts should have ended in a total disjunction of the faith (...).


A triple reaction is developing, however.

The first reaction is that of theological understanding. I have already quoted Schillebeeckx; I could also have quoted admirable pages from Karl Rahner on the sacramental dimension of faith and Christian piety (Écrits théologiques 2, p. 113-145). I, however, recommend the last chapter of Vergote’s recent work “ Interpretation of Religious Language ” (Seuil 1974), « The rite, an effective expression », which deals with the problem of the sacraments in their immediate relation to Christian faith and life (...).

The second reaction is that of the true apostles of the popular masses (…). The most important pastoral document in our time since Fr. Godin’s France Pays de Mission in 1944, is, I have no hesitation in saying, Robert Pannet’s Catholicisme Populaire (Centurion 1974). By allowing the people to speak for themselves, in face of the pastoral technocrats, he demonstrates with a very elaborate enquiry and statistics, but even more so by listening directly to the popular masses without any hostile a priori, that the faith remains with them often meritoriously and heroically, despite their being orphaned and browbeaten by every form of power and means of collective psychological pressure, including that of the Church Herself. His conclusion is that the faith subsists precisely through the sacraments, which the technocrats wish to suppress (...).

The third reaction is that of Catholic Nationalism. What has this to do with the pastoral theory of the sacraments ? Well, the sacraments are part and parcel of an eminently social religion, which is ritualistic and sumptuous and is lived out in the Catholic Church who for a thousand years fashioned Christendom as an extension of Her own life. Modern culture, politics and life, however, are the contradiction of Christendom, a contradiction that is essentially Protestant (...).

Therefore, we want to conduct a Counter-Reformation to restore our peoples of the West to their deep-seated and authentically religious Catholicism, wherein each one, even an entire people, will live his encounter with God, not in the emptiness of the soul, but in the Mystery of the Divine Liturgy at the heart of the Church and in the joy of Her Sacraments.