September 17, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 23
We are being saved: The Seven Sacraments
When Catholics are asked the dreaded question — “Are you saved?” — the answer must be this: “We are being saved.”
Two grammatical changes in the reply are necessary. First, the pronoun “I” must become “we,” since salvation is always through the Church. For the Church is the “assembly” of those who believe in Christ (Hebrews 12:23), who live according to his teaching, who are strengthened by his power, and who are thereby saved (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 751, 759, 771).
While Vatican Council II teaches that someone can be saved without formally belonging to the Catholic Church, nevertheless that person is joined to the Catholic Church in some way (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 836, 838–843, 847–848).
Second, the present tense of the verb “to be” (“am”) must be shifted into the progressive tense (“being”). This is because salvation is the continuous process of responding to God’s grace.
It is not a one-time event in our lives. Thus, for example, St. Paul writes that, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Salvation is completed only when our lives have been completed. For this reason, the Church teaches that at the moment of death we must be found in the grace of God in order to go to heaven (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1023, 1989–1996, 2000–2003).
The key aspects of the Catholic view of salvation are at work in the seven sacraments. These encounters with God in the Church lead Catholics along the path to eternal life. Each sacrament enables a person to experience the event of salvation: the “Paschal Mystery” or Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Acts of the Apostles provides a good illustration of the process of salvation. There, after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Church begins to celebrate the sacraments: “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes… And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (2:46–47)
As Catholics, we generally know that the sacraments are important. Many are milestones in our lives, which we celebrate with fanfare, but we do not always know why they are important.
This series of articles will explain the significance of the sacraments. The articles are not meant to provide a systematic instruction — we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church for that — but rather to address particular items of interest or concern.
This article will explain the role of the sacraments in salvation. According to the Catechism, “The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith.”
The setting for the “life of faith” is the Church, where we meet God most profoundly. This understanding contrasts sharply with an attitude prevalent in our society: “I’m spiritual but not religious.”
For Catholics, spirituality is religion; our most important encounters with God — the sacraments — take place in the Church.
A remarkable passage in the New Testament shows that Christ’s saving work continues in the Church. According to the Passion narrative of the Gospel of John, “One soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (19:34).
John’s point is that the Paschal Mystery has “overflowed” into the Church: Water and blood symbolize Baptism and the Eucharist. When the Church celebrates these and other sacraments, the recipients participate in the dying and rising of Christ.
The “overflowing” of water and blood means that the Paschal Mystery is renewed — although never repeated — in the Church’s sacraments.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ concludes his public ministry by commissioning the Apostles. The Lord shares his power with the Twelve, who are to exercise it through the administration of Baptism (and by extension, the other sacraments): “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:19–20).
Christ is now active in the Church; his work continues in the sacraments. We are being saved each time we receive these precious gifts.