The meaning of sacrament

Editorial, April 2010

In October 2008 I covered the Roman Synod of Bishops for HPR. My report and summary of the synod appeared in the February 2009 issue. At a special press conference during the synod it was announced that the German publishing company, Herder, would print the collected works of Benedict XVI (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) in sixteen volumes. We were shown Volume 11, which contains his liturgical writings, as the first one to appear. The publisher said that it was the express wish of the Pope that his writings on the liturgy should appear first. That gives us hint of how important the Pope considers the liturgy to be. He also said that they would publish two volumes a year until the series is complete.

I am pleased to tell you that Ignatius Press will make these works of the Pope available in an English translation. Since I studied theology for four years at Innsbruck, Austria, where the classes were in both Latin and German, I am familiar with the language and have translated a few books into English. So I have been asked by Ignatius Press to help with the translation of this series. That should keep me busy for several years since it will take Herder at least eight years to publish the whole set and more years than that to translate all of it.

The first article I translated from Volume 11 is a talk Ratzinger gave in 1979. The English title is “On the Concept of Sacrament.” I have to admit that his German is difficult. The article is eighteen pages in length and on each page I encountered two or three phrases or clauses that were hard to translate—to find the English equivalent that makes sense.

In addition to being interested in liturgy, the Pope is also very concerned about the proper understanding and interpretation of the Bible. In the article he makes a close connection between Scripture and sacraments. The article centers on the idea of “mystery”—“musterion” in Greek. The Latin translation in the Vulgate of “mystery” is sacrament (sacramentum). One of the main points he makes in the article is that Christ is God’s mystery in history—he is the visibility of God himself. He also says that the sacraments as mystery are signs pointing to Christ, since he is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to Israel and to mankind.

Since everything in the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, points to Christ, and sacraments are signs or symbols that point to Christ, Ratzinger concludes that the words of the Bible and also the events recorded there are sacraments—they are mysteries and types of Christ. So he says that mystery, types and sacraments all basically mean the same thing.  This offers us a challenging way to reflect on the meaning of the sacraments.

The present definition we have of sacraments—visible signs of invisible grace instituted by Christ to confer his grace—was developed by the scholastic theologians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They came to see that only seven of the symbolic rites of the Church qualify as sacraments of Christ in accord with that definition. Other rites, like holy water, the Sign of the Cross, and so forth, were seen as established by the Church and were called “sacramentals.”

Another key point the Pope makes in his talk is that we must re-learn from the early Church not only how to read Scripture by looking to the past to see how the words were used in biblical times, but we must also learn how to read it looking forward to the future, since it is all ordered to Christ. It is a matter of reading Scripture as both promise and fulfillment. He says that sacraments, in their full reality, refer to past, present and future.

All of that and more are contained in the concept of sacrament. Signs and symbols, which are what sacraments are, are basic to human understanding and communication. According to Ratzinger, Christianity adds a new dimension to them, since they all refer to Christ in one way or another.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.