Doors to the Sacred: Introduction—Themes of the Sacraments by John Alonzo Dick

This is the first installment in a multipart series on the sacraments by John Alonzo Dick, professor emeritus of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven. We conceive of this series as a kind of seminar or “retreat in writing” that aims to give an historical, pastoral, and theological overview of the sacraments and how our understanding of them continues to evolve. As a general introduction, the following piece offers some concepts and ideas to begin to orient our minds to the inner workings of the sacraments that will be explored in subsequent essays—Ed.

I would like to help people think about how much the understanding and practice of the sacraments has changed over the past 2,000 years. Change is a fact of life, even in the church.

What follows are a few historical observations, organized by topic as a kind of “glossary” for this series on the sacraments. These short entries are intended to inspire and engage our thinking about the sacramental life.

Remember: Sacraments are not just a Catholic concern. Sacraments are Christian realities.

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Acts of the Apostles
The Acts of Apostles enlarges the scriptural picture of the early church with some references to the Lord’s Supper and a number of stories about baptisms. Acts also mentions another ritual action, the laying on of hands, which in this context usually results in charismatic activities such as speaking in tongues, and which is sometimes described as “receiving the Holy Spirit.” See, for instance, Acts 2:4: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

Up until the eighth century CE, anointing of the sick was a widespread if not uniform practice. It was performed by Christians for their relatives, by men and women with a reputation for healing, and by monks, nuns, and priests. Especially noteworthy, however, is the fact that anointing of the sick remained primarily a lay practice.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 states that the seven sacraments were instituted by Christ. This understanding was carved in stone by the 16th-century Council of Trent. Historically speaking, however, there is no direct evidence that Jesus of Nazareth ever created a well-defined or complete set of seven sacramental rituals such as appeared in the church many years after his death and resurrection.

Confirmation emerged from baptism as a separate ritual in the fourth century, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Holy Orders
The sacrament of holy orders has a complex history. The historical Jesus did not ordain anyone at the Last Supper. Ordination began not as a way to pass on “sacred power to consecrate the Eucharist,” but as a form of quality control—a way to assure communities that their leaders were competent and people of genuine and solid faith. Today historical theologians would say that we have no direct evidence of ordinations during the first three centuries of Christianity.

The synoptic Gospels (Matt. 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23) mention the ritual immersion practiced by John the Baptizer in which Jesus himself participated. Matthew 29:18–20 also portrays the risen Lord, in a post-Resurrection narrative, commanding his disciples to baptize using a Trinitarian formula. Biblical scholars suggest that the words likely came not from the historical Jesus, but from early church practice around the year 80 CE.

Laying On of Hands
The laying on of hands is an action mentioned numerous times in the Hebrew scriptures. It involved placing one or both hands, palms down, on the top of another person’s head, usually while saying a prayer or blessing. It was a common practice used by parents to bless their children. Jacob in the book of Genesis blesses his two grandsons by laying his hands on their heads (Gen. 48:14).

The laying on of hands was also used to bless someone for ministry. In the book of Numbers, the people of Israel lay hands on the Levites to dedicate them to the Lord’s service (Num. 8:9–10). Moses laid hands on Joshua as his successor in leadership (Num. 27:18–23; Deut. 34:9).

Jesus followed the tradition of the laying on of hands. His most common practice in healing was touch, often described as “laying his hands on” the one to be healed (Matt. 9:18; Mark 5:23; 6:5; 7:32; 8:22–25; Luke 13:13). Jesus also “lays his hands” on the little children who come to him to bless them (Matt. 19:13–15; Mark 10:16). Only centuries later was the laying on of hands strictly understood as a uniquely Christian “ordination ritual.”

The Letters of Paul
The earliest canonical writings, the letters of Paul the Apostle (5 CE–64 CE) mention some ritual practices of the first followers of Jesus. Most notably are the immersion of converts in water (baptism) and the sharing of a commemorative meal known as “the Lord’s Supper.”

The Lord’s Supper
The synoptic Gospels describe Jesus’s Last Supper with his disciples, during which he instructs them to continue the practice in his memory, and which ostensibly was the model for the early Christian Lord’s Supper. An agape (“love feast”) was a communal meal shared among early Christians. The Eucharist was usually part of the agape. At some point, however, probably between the latter part of the 1st century and 250 CE, the two became separate.

In 1 Corinthians 11:34, for instance, Paul asks the richer people to eat their meals at home. By doing this, Paul eliminated the annoyances and occasional problems with drunkenness that had become problematic in some Corinthian agape gatherings. Inequality and partisan discrimination were issues within the diverse Corinthian community. Paul’s exhortation about love in 1 Corinthians 13 makes very understandable sense here.

The first official declaration of marriage as a sacrament was made in 1184 at the Council of Verona. However, it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in 1563 that marriage was officially deemed one of the seven sacraments.

Medieval Eucharistic Practices
Between the eighth and ninth centuries, altar placement and worship-space arrangements changed. The celebrant no longer faced the people but the apse when celebrating Mass. This practice was first adopted in the basilicas of Rome, and then became common across Europe.

What was lost was the sense that the congregation was the body of Christ. Mass became the celebrant’s ritual and not a community liturgy. The celebrant “said Mass.” The congregation watched everything from a distance, often praying in their own way with their own devotions. Where present, stained-glass windows were a source of devotion. If the congregation made too much noise and the celebrant found them disturbing, bells were rung to keep the people quiet.

Moving beyond the early Christian understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a community celebration and sharing of and in the presence of Christ, the Eucharist, especially around the 13th century, began to be understood and ritualized in a very narrow way. It became not so much a sacrament to be received but a sacrament to be venerated and adored.

If they received communion at all, most medieval people received communion just once a year. The purpose of the Mass became to consecrate and preserve the Eucharist wafer so that it could be venerated. The celebrant—with his back to the congregation of course—raised the consecrated wafer, the Host, above his head so that it became visible to all in the congregation. Some people only came to church when the Host was about to be elevated. So that people would come into the church for the short time necessary to see the elevation of the Host, the ringing of an announcement bell from the church tower was introduced.

Since some celebrants, now called “priests,” found it difficult to raise the Host for a long time (especially in their heavy vestments), altar servers lifted the priest’s ornate chasuble and supported his elbows to help secure the maximum elevation. Medieval laity wanted to adore Christ at the elevation of the consecrated bread during Mass. Many people, in fact, left Mass immediately following the elevation and never thought about receiving communion.

Monstrances, ornate display cases, were created to display the consecrated Host outside of Mass. They were first created in response to the Feast of Corpus Christi (i.e., the Feast of the Body of Christ) established in 1263. The feast of Corpus Christi was proposed by Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Doctor of the Church, to Pope Urban IV (1195–1264) in order to create a feast focused solely on venerating the Holy Eucharist. Aquinas wrote special hymns for the occasion. The monstrances were placed on altars and enabled the faithful to see, venerate, and adore the consecrated Host. Monstrances were also carried in processions.

Unfortunately, the medieval Eucharistic rituals ignored the biblical understanding of the body of Christ as, first of all, the community of believers. Recall here Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:27 (“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it”) and the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20 (“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”) and John 15:5 (“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”)

Reconciliation or “Confession”
In the New Testament there is no description of a ritual or ceremony associated with penance or reconciliation. Even a quick reading of the Gospels, however, shows that Jesus was greatly concerned with the forgiveness of sins and the reconciling of sinners. And Jesus clearly told his followers to forgive sinners—see Matthew 6:14–15, for example.

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation
Martin Luther (1483–1546) and other reformers rejected the ritual sacramentality of medieval Catholicism. Using the New Testament, they acknowledged baptism and the Eucharist, which are both explicitly mentioned in the scriptures, as genuine sacraments. But they regarded the other five as ecclesiastical inventions.

In response to Luther and the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent, meeting for 25 sessions between 1545 and 1563, initiated a Catholic Counter-Reformation. The greatest weight in the council’s decrees was given to the seven sacraments, refuting the claims of the Protestant Reformers. The bishops insisted on numbering the sacraments as seven and emphasizing that all seven were instituted by Jesus Christ.

Before the 13th century, there was no talk of just seven sacraments, because Christians had a variety of rituals and symbols; church practices and Christian beliefs were far from uniform. By the end of the 13th century, however, Catholic discussion of sacraments was limited to the familiar seven.

Women in Ministry
For centuries, women had been ordained as deacons and abbesses in the church, and even as presbyters and bishops. This was certainly the case until the 12th century. Gary Macy’s book The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West is very helpful here. Macy, a professor of theology at Santa Clara University, shows that references to the ordination of women exist in papal, episcopal, and theological documents of the time, and that the rites for these ordinations have survived.

Not everyone has been comfortable with accounts of ordained medieval women. I would suggest that when the institutional historians and theologians in leadership positions were male, it was easy and convenient for them to declare findings like Macy’s a “misinterpretation.” As Macy himself once said: “This is a history that has been deliberately forgotten, intentionally marginalized, and, not infrequently, creatively explained away.”

♦ ♦ ♦

It is important for us to have a clear sense of the evolution of sacramental rituals. But that is not enough. Sacramental actions today need to regain their dynamism. We need better understandings of the sacraments, for sure. But changes in ritual structure and regulations are absolutely essential. Sacraments are not just appropriate rituals for various stages of life. As my friend the author, professor, and social activist Joseph Martos so often said and wrote, they are “doors to the sacred.” Today, with people hungry and searching for a taste of the divine, those doors need to be opened wide. ♦

John Alonzo Dick is a retired professor of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). He holds licentiates in historical theology from the University of Nijmegen and KU Leuven, and doctorates in religious studies and historical theology from KU Leuven. For 30 years he taught courses about religion and values in American society at KU Leuven and the University of Ghent. He is the author of The Malines Conversations Revisited (1989), From Malines to ARCIC (1997) with A. Denaux, and Aggiornamento?: Catholicism from Gregory XVI to Benedict XVI (2013) with J. Mettepenningen and K. Schelkens. This year he published Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington. He maintains a weekly blog at

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