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Sacramental Life Assures Eternal Life

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The most important word we have to explain in the title of this conference on “Sacramental Life Assures Eternal Life” is the word life. We cannot begin to talk about the sacraments unless we first understand that there are two forms of life. There is the natural life of our body which is animated by our soul. This life begins at the moment that we were conceived in our mother’s womb.

But there is another, and higher, life which we call supernatural. This is the life that our souls must possess when our body dies. Unless our souls are supernaturally alive with the grace of God, our faith tells us we shall die the first death--of the body; but also the second death of the soul. Another name for the second death is eternal death. This means eternal separation from God.

The subject of our present conference is “Sacramental Life Assures Eternal Life.” What are we saying? We are saying that, in God’s Providence, the sacraments which Christ instituted are the divinely ordained means for obtaining supernatural life, for growing in the supernatural life, and restoring the supernatural life if it has been lost by mortal sin.

My plan for this conference is to answer two questions:

  • What are the Sacraments?

  • How the Sacrament of the Eucharist Assures Eternal Life?

What are the Sacraments?

We may define a sacrament as a visible sign instituted by Christ which effectively communicates the grace it signifies.

Each of the seven sacraments is something visible or sensibly perceptible. The water poured in Baptism, the oil used in Confirmation, the bread and wine for the Eucharist, along with the words pronounced and the ritual seen, are all perceptible to the senses.

The sacraments are not only perceived by the senses: They are also signs which signify. They manifest something beyond the visible ritual performed. Thus water signifies washing, oil signifies strengthening or healing, eating and drinking signify being nourished. In each case the external sign signifies some internal change taking place in the human spirit. And always this change is in the supernatural order, including some area or aspect of divine grace.

But the sacraments are not merely signs that grace is received. No, the heart of the sacraments is that they actually produce the grace which they signify. They are like instruments in the hands of Christ who, through them, confers the graces proper to each sacrament.

Over the centuries the Catholic Church has had to defend the fact that Christ Himself instituted all seven sacraments. He did so personally and immediately. He determined the substance of each sacrament; its essential ritual and content; who is empowered to confer the sacraments, and on whom they may be conferred; what material is to be used; and essentially how each sacrament is to be an effective sign of grace.

As Catholics, we recognize two sources of divine revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Consequently, we do not expect to find explicit evidence in the Bible for Christ’s institution of all the sacraments. No matter. The Church teaches infallibly that “the sacraments of the New Law were all instituted by Christ,” that “these same sacraments of the New Law differ from the sacraments of the Old Law,” and that “there are neither more than seven nor fewer than seven sacraments” (Council of Trent, March 3, 1547).

How necessary are the sacraments? They are necessary for salvation, even if not all are necessary for each individual. The actual reception of a sacrament can, in some cases, be replaced by at least the implicit desire for the sacrament.

The Second Vatican Council declared that Christ established the Church “as the universal sacrament of salvation” (Constitution on the Church, VII). Among other things, this means that the sacraments of the Church are somehow necessary for the salvation of the world.

Absolutely speaking, God, who is almighty and perfectly free, could have chosen to confer grace without the sacraments. Why then, did He choose to dispense His grace through the sacraments? He did so in order that the mysterious effects of His infinite power should be made intelligible by means of certain signs that are evident to our senses. If we were disembodied spirits, God might have dispensed His graces directly, without the use of material things. But since we are creatures of body and soul, God chose to use bodily means to confer His spiritual blessings on our souls. Christ instituted the sacraments because He knew how much we depend on external, visible signs to sustain our faith in His promises.

Moreover, the sacraments are a continuation of Christ’s work of redemption. They are the link, as it were, between His Passion on Calvary and our present needs on earth. They are the channels by which His saving merits are now conveyed to a sinful world.

The sacraments provide a marvelous bond of visible unity among the members of Christ’s Church. They distinguish the followers of Christ from all others, while those who belong to the Mystical Body are thus joined together by a sacred bond.

By means of the sacraments we make a public profession of our faith, and others witness to what we profess to believe. In this way our faith is strengthened by its external sharing with others, and they with us, the sacred mysteries of Christianity.

Finally, the sacraments afford us a constant check on our pride. They encourage us to the practice of humility, by making us submit to material things as a condition for obtaining the graces that we need for the spiritual life.

How the Sacrament of the Eucharist Assures Eternal Life?

The best way to begin to answer how the sacrament of the Eucharist assures eternal life is to quote at some length from the first encyclical of our present Holy Father. He says:

The Church lives by the Eucharist, by the fullness of this sacrament, the stupendous content and meaning of which have often been expressed in the Church’s magisterium from the most distant times down to our own days…
Indeed, the Eucharist is the ineffable sacrament! The essential commitment and, above all, the visible grace and source of supernatural strength for the Church as the People of God is to persevere and advance constantly in Eucharistic life and Eucharistic piety, and to develop spiritually in the climate of the Eucharist…
With all the greater reason, then, it is not permissible for us, in thought, life, or action to take away from this truly most Holy Sacrament its full magnitude and its essential meaning…
It is at one and the same time a sacrifice-sacrament, a communion-sacrament, and a Presence-sacrament (The Redeemer of Man, IV, 20).

Remember our focus is on how the Holy Eucharist assures us of eternal life. In other words, we are asking how the Eucharist will bring us to heaven. In the light of what the Holy Father has just said, the Eucharist is the most powerful means we have to reach our eternal destiny. There is nothing on earth which is a more powerful source of grace than the Eucharist. And it is a source of grace three times over: as the sacrifice-sacrament of the Mass, as Holy Communion, and as the Real Presence.

The Grace of Self-surrender.  The first of the three forms of the Eucharist as sacrament is the Sacrifice of the Mass. On each of its three levels as a sacrament, the Blessed Sacrament confers its own specific form of the virtue of charity. What is the specific form of charity which the Mass confers? It is the charity of self-surrender.

We commonly define sacrifice as the surrender of something precious out of love for God. What is the most precious possession we have? It is the surrender of our wills to the will of God.

God asks us to surrender our wills to His in a thousand ways. I use the verb “asks” us. But this asking can be very demanding. Leave it to God. There is no limit to the ways that God can require us to give up what we like, or endure what we do not like. The secret is to see His divine will in every circumstance of our lives, in which we have to let go what is so pleasant to us, or suffer what can be agonizingly painful.

How we need strength from our Lord to make these sacrifices which are at the heart of our Christian life. When the Savior told us we are His disciples if we take up our cross daily and follow Him, He was saying more than our fertile minds can imagine.

My favorite definition of the cross is a verb, the cross in our lives is whenever the will of God crosses our lives, in either demanding that we let go of what we like or put up with what we utterly dislike.

Our Catholic faith teaches us that the principal source of strength we need to carry the cross is the Holy Eucharist as the Sacrifice of the Mass.

One obvious conclusion is that we should assist at Mass as often as we can. I never tire telling people that the Christians of the first three centuries, which we call the Age of Martyrs, went to Mass every single day. Why? For the obvious reason that they needed strength to either die a martyr’s death or live a martyr’s life. If only today’s Catholics realized that our century is the Age of Martyrs. If they did, our churches would be filled with attendance at Mass seven days every week.

The Grace of Selfless Charity.  At the Last Supper, our Lord gave us what He called the New Commandment. He told us that we are to love one another even as He has loved us. His love for us was the reason for the Incarnation. The second Person of the Trinity became man, so that He might be able to die on the cross to redeem us from our sins.

Consequently, His commandment that we are to love one another as He has loved us, means nothing less than our readiness to die in body, in order to practice the humanly impossible charity which the Savior demands of His followers. Given this fact of our faith, you might say Christ had no choice but to provide us with the means to live out the selfless love which He expects of us. What are these means? In one word they are the sacrament of the Eucharist that we receive in Holy Communion.

Remember this conference is on, “Sacramental Life Assures Eternal Life.” Among the sacraments which assure us of eternal life, none is more necessary than the reception of the living Christ in Communion. This is true because Christ said so in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. He could not have been more clear, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54-55).

However, it is also true because the one virtue without which no one can reach heaven is the virtue of charity. We need Holy Communion to practice the selfless love which Christ tells us is the precondition for our salvation.

The Grace of Living a Heroic Life.  If there is one verdict of the last 2000 years of history, it is the fact that ordinary Christians cannot survive. This was true in the first three centuries of Christianity when the laws of the Roman Empire forbade the followers of Jesus of Nazareth even to be publicly identified. I will never forget the inscription, etched in stone, on one of the walls of Pompeii. It was carved in the year 70 A.D. and reads, “Christiani delendi sunt, Christians must be exterminated.”

We are now living in an age when anyone who wants to follow Christ without compromise must expect opposition, rejection, and, I mean the next word, extermination. As we saw in our last conference, we are now living in the Age of Martyrs. A martyr, as we know, is one who witnesses to his faith in Christ even to the shedding of his blood.

Where do we obtain the strength to remain faithful to the Incarnate God who died on the cross in witness to the Truth? Where else but from Him, who was crucified on Calvary and rose from the dead and lives among us in the Blessed Sacrament.

The Gospels are filled with predictions of the price we have to pay for our loyalty to Jesus Christ. He tells us, “Blessed are you when they revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you” (Mt 5:10-12).

The letters of St. Paul are a litany of fulfillments of this prophesy of the Savior. The lives of all the men, women, and even children who sincerely walked in the footsteps of Jesus crucified are all biographies of persecuted Christians who paid dearly for their loyalty to Jesus Christ.

Where else did they obtain this superhuman courage except from the same Christ who told us, “Do not be afraid. I have overcome the world.” He told this to His contemporaries in first century Palestine. He is telling this to His contemporaries in twentieth century America.

Adoration of the Holy Eucharist is more than worshiping the God who became man so we might come to Him and tell Him how much we love Him. It is obtaining from Him what no one else in heaven or on earth can give us, the strength to persevere in our love and the fortitude to die as a proof of our love.

Believe me these are not words of pious rhetoric. They are the fruit of a lifetime of experience. Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist to give us the superhuman power we need to die for Him in this world so we might possess Him through all eternity in the world to come.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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