Each year, couples from all over the archdiocese gather at a Mass in which we recognize their anniversaries, ranging from 25th to 50th and beyond. On rare occasions we have celebrated 70th wedding anniversaries.
|Pope Benedict XVI greets Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Courtesy photo
In the reception line I often ask a senior couple, “What is the secret to your success?” The answers vary. But one that I will long remember came from a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They told me that they have made it a practice every day of their married life to say a prayer together before they go to bed. “Otherwise,” one of them noted, “we could forget that Jesus is a part of our love, our marriage and our lives.”
The Church and her sacraments are a continual reminder to us of God, God’s love and God’s place in our lives. These great gifts to us from God are precisely so that we never forget that God is a part of our love, our lives, all that we do.
Last fall’s Synod of the New Evangelization made it clear that the Church is the place where the New Evangelization finds its home. Proposition 41 states: “The particular Church, led by the bishop, who is helped by priests and deacons, with the collaboration of consecrated persons and the laity, is the subject of the New Evangelization. This is so because in each place, the particular Church (the diocesan Church) is the concrete manifestation of the Church of Christ and as such initiates, coordinates and accomplishes the pastoral action through which the New Evangelization is carried out.”
The sacraments of the Catholic Church are the means by which Christ’s redemptive work in his passion, death and resurrection are present for all time and for all the faithful. The sacraments are the continuation, in every age, of the signs and wonders that Jesus worked while he walked on the earth some 2,000 years ago. We believe that the sacraments are, as it were, arms of the Savior himself by which he extends his action throughout place and time to give life, to bless, to renew, to heal and to multiply the bread of life.
Three of the sacraments — baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist — are concerned with Christian initiation. In its Proposition 38, the synod notes the key role of the sacraments of initiation in the New Evangelization. Here we read, “The synod wishes to state that Christian initiation is a crucial element in the New Evangelization and is the means by which the Church, as a mother, brings forth children and regenerates herself.”
Baptism makes us members of the Church. But to become a member of the Church is to be radically changed; it is to be grafted on the vine (see Jn 15:4-6) and joined vitally to the Body of Christ. Through an all-pervading bond of life, we become members of God’s covenanted people. All this is effected in the Paschal Mystery: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you” (Lk 22:20).
Confirmation exists to extend to the Church of every time and place the gift of the Holy Spirit sent to the apostles on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is the gift of Christ:
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth. ... The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you. ... When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father ... he will testify to me” (Jn 14:16-17, 26; 15:26).
Christ’s promise was fulfilled for the apostles on Pentecost:
“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2:1-4).
Confirmation is thus the sacrament whereby the apostles and their successors, by the laying on of hands and anointing with chrism, communicate to the whole Church and all its members the gift of the Spirit received at Pentecost. It is Pentecost extended throughout the world, perpetuated and made ever present in the Church. It is a call to spread the kingdom of Christ, to spread the message of salvation.
The Eucharist is at the heart of the Church’s life. In the Eucharist, Christ himself is present to his people in the Paschal Mystery. Rich in symbolism and richer in reality, the Eucharist bears within itself the reality of Christ and mediates to us his saving work: “This most holy mystery,” writes Pope Benedict XVI, “needs to be firmly believed, devoutly celebrated and intensely lived in the Church” (Sacramentum Caritatis, No. 94).
At the Last Supper, the Lord instituted a new memorial sacrifice. The true “Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29) was about to be slain. By his cross and resurrection he was to free not just one nation from bondage but all humanity from the more bitter slavery of sin. He was about to create a new people of God by the rich gift of his Spirit.
Jesus became the new Passover, the unique and final sacrifice by which God’s plan of salvation was accomplished. In God’s holy plan it was determined that the Word of God, made flesh in Jesus Christ, would be the expiatory sacrifice that would take away the sins of the world. In fact, we continue at the celebration of every Eucharist, in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, to proclaim before we receive the body and blood of Christ in Communion, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world” (Roman Missal).
The sufferings of Jesus and the glory of his resurrection are inseparably joined in the Paschal Mystery. The preface for Easter proclaims, “By dying he destroyed our death and by rising he restored us to life.” The Father saved us not only by delivering up his Son for us but also by raising him from the dead (see 1 Pt 1:3-5). It is for this reason that we say the cross of Christ points toward and is fulfilled in the Resurrection. The Paschal Mystery includes both the death and the Resurrection, both the expiation and the glorification, both the dying and the rising to new life.
The center of all Christian life is Christ himself. By his Incarnation and work of redemption we are healed and called to share in a new life, a life that binds us together as children of God and sharers in the life of the Trinity. The Eucharist is the Sacrament in which the gifts of God are made accessible to men.
There is still another sacrament that looms very large in the renewal of the life of the Church and particularly in the New Evangelization. The synod recognizes the central place of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the New Evangelization. As Proposition 33 states: “The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is the privileged place to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. It is a place for both personal and communal healing. In this sacrament, all the baptized have a new and personal encounter with Jesus Christ, as well as a new encounter with the Church, facilitating a full reconciliation through the forgiveness of sins. Here the penitent encounters Jesus, and at the same time he or she experiences a deeper appreciation of himself and herself.”
The Church believes in the forgiveness of sins. Not only did Jesus die to wash away all sin and not only in his public life did he forgive sin, but after his Resurrection Jesus also extended to his Church the power to apply the redemption won on the cross and the authority to forgive sin.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the story of God’s love that never turns away from us. Apart from the Eucharist, there simply is no greater gift that the Church can give her people than the gift of reconciliation. As the synod fathers noted, penance is the sacrament of the New Evangelization because it offers us “a new and personal encounter with Jesus Christ, as well as a new encounter with the Church.” We can always come home to God, and to the Church, if we have been away for a long time, or even if we have been there all along but recognize our need to find new life in Christ through this sacrament of healing and hope.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl is archbishop of Washington, D.C. This is an excerpt adapted from his new book, New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today (OSV, $4.95).