Presenting the Sacraments

by Joyce Stolberg

We have celebrated with great joy the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, God become man; we now observe the feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles --- that is --- to the whole world.To capture the awe and wonder of this feast, we turn to the antiphon preceding the Magnificat of Evening Prayer II for the feast of the Epiphany:"Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the River Jordan to bring us salvation." The key word here is "today".The incarnation, birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are all aspects of the one Paschal mystery: in this portion of the Christmas season the Church celebrates will of God to extend the grace of Salvation to each of us and to every human being.Through our work in the RCIA,we become the donkey on which Jesus rides to reach the open hearts entrusted to us.The Sunday readings for the Epiphany, the Baptism of Jesus, and the early Sundays of Ordinary Time seamlessly unravel the mystery of God's saving grace for us today.

The feast of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan concludes the Christmas season and begins Ordinary Time.This year, on the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, we continue with St. John's account of Jesus' baptism.These readings offer us the perfect liturgical opening for our instruction on the sacraments, through which the saving grace won for us by Jesus Christ becomes available to us today.

Almighty God honors our human nature and values the gifts this earth offers.In the sacraments, God touches our spirit through the use of physical elements.Chapter 11 of God Calls You by Name presents general information concerning the sacraments and the "economy of grace". Sacraments are efficacious signs: through the use of material elements, combined with the words of the sacramental minister, they actually make happen the action of grace in the soul that they signify. They are instituted by Christ: Jesus touched and changed those among whom he walked while he was on earth. This ministry of Jesus is extended to us in the sacraments. Jesus became for us a sacrament, or a living, visible encounter with the invisible God. The sacraments were entrusted to the Church by Jesus Christ through the " laying on of hands" --- the visible passing on of power from Jesus to his apostles and down in direct succession to the priests of today. Through the sacraments, divine life is dispensed to us, not through empty cults or magic, but through full rich ritual celebrations that honor and affirm the essential goodness and heal the weakness of our human nature. God wills that his saving grace comes to us through the very essence of our human nature.

Present this general information, which defines the basic nature of the sacraments.Then discuss each sacrament individually --- see Chapters 12 through 15 of God Calls You by Name. You need not attempt to achieve a week by week correlation with the Sunday readings. When presenting the sacraments, it is strongly advisable to obtain speakers who can offer some lived experience of each sacrament. We always attempt to have a married couple present the Sacrament of Matrimony, (the deacon in our parish works in marriage preparation, and loves to teach this segment) and we invite our bishop or priest to present the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This lends authenticity to the teaching. I usually add a short segment on the tremendous value of religious consecrated life, the evangelical counsels, and single life, with or without the vow of chastity, dedicated to the service of the Church.

At this time, the Gospel readings move from Jesus' baptism by John, through his call of the apostles, to the Beatitudes and teachings on Christian living and forgiveness contained in his Sermon on the Mount.Pay attention to the rich content of these readings.Interestingly, the rather lengthy Gospel for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 13, discusses anger and reconciliation, as well as divorce and adultery.Conversely, you do not hear the delightful reading from John about the wedding feast at Cana this year.Therefore, I strongly recommend combining the tremendous energy evoked by the Feb. 13 Gospel passage with the emotional vigor generated by the secular feast of Valentine's Day to develop a powerful teaching on the Sacrament of Matrimony and the holiness and permanence of the married state.But --- be very sensitive to those who have suffered through a divorce; this passage is extremely painful for them to hear. Very often, your best teaching on the Sacrament of Matrimony is intensely difficult for divorced persons undertaking the RCIA process.Offer special encouragement to those who are undergoing the diocesan process leading toward a declaration of nullity.Offer them realistic expectations: if they are remarried, their participation in the rites and sacraments will be delayed until the process is concluded and the declaration of nullity is granted.Yet, in every other way, they can become part of the community and receive the loving support of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

In addition, January brings the time to begin serious discernment concerning candidates and catechumens' readiness to receive the sacraments at Easter.As you return from your Christmas and year-end break, you might begin to gauge the spiritual development and committed interest of your candidates and catechumens.Remember: active interest can be estimated, not only by attendance and participation, but also through the participants' assuming of responsibility for material missed when an excused absence is necessary.Have they grown in virtue and in habits of prayer?Have they set aside vice?The willingness to make lifestyle changes as needed to come into conformity with the demands of the Ten Commandments and the moral requirements of the Church is an important indicator of readiness to prepare for the sacraments.Don't wait until March!

You will also want to assess the development of sponsor-participant relationships.Useful (but not obligatory) tools include holding a meeting with sponsors at this point, and/or making individual phone calls.Remind sponsors that they will be called to affirm publicly, both before their local assembly and before the bishop, the moral uprightness and readiness of their catechumen/candidate to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at Easter.To do this honestly, they must be aware of their participant's lifestyle.If these relationships are developing throughout the RCIA process, then the work of discernment concerning this readiness will proceed smoothly through February and March.

January also reminds us to document in a timely manner the valid reception of the Sacrament of Baptism by candidates for full communion with the Catholic Church.They need to obtain baptismal certificates, copies of church records, or at least a letter from someone who directly witnessed their baptisms.The Catholic Church vigorously affirms that baptism, conducted using the Trinitarian formula (in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) combined with pouring water over the head of the person being baptized, is the gateway to Christian life and is to be performed only once.(Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism, USCCB)At the November, 2010 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Roman Catholic bishops signed a statement recognizing that baptism establishes the bond of unity existing among all Christians who are already a part of Christ's body.Go to the USCCB website, and access the document: COMMON AGREEMENT ON MUTUAL RECOGNITION OF BAPTISM. This document affirms the mutual respect among Christian churches of one another's baptism; it affirms clearly and concisely the practice of recognizing Christian baptism, properly performed. This means that when you conscientiously follow the list of Christian denominations that is available from your diocese, whose baptism the Catholic Church recognizes, you can be morally certain that a candidate providing documentation of his or her baptism is properly baptized.

Taking these actions now will enable you to prepare in a timely manner for both the Rites of Sending and Election at the beginning of Lent and for the powerful celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil.May the grace of God be with you as you continue your journey with your candidates and catechumens toward the joy of the Sacraments of initiation.