First Three Centuries

During the first three centuries of Christianity, when Christians married they did so according to the civil laws of the time, in a traditional family ceremony, and often without any special “church” blessing on their union. There was no liturgical ceremony for marriage, as we saw for baptism and eucharist.

Even though Constantine (272 – 337) gave bishops the authority to act as civil magistrates, there is little indication that they were given any marriage cases to decide. Marriage under Roman law was still by the mutual consent of the parties involved, which often meant by the consent of their parents.

Even after Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380, there was no great change in the civil marriage laws, with the bride’s father playing the chief role in the wedding ceremony.

The usual marriage custom was that, on the wedding day, the father handed over his daughter to the groom in her own family’s house. The bridal party then walked in procession to her new husband’s house for concluding ceremonies and a wedding feast. The principal part of the ceremony was the handing over of the bride, during which her right hand was placed in the groom’s, and the draping of a garland of flowers over the couple to symbolize their happy union. There were no official words that had to be spoken and no ecclesiastical ceremony.

Late Fourth Century

In the late fourth century, it became customary in some places in the Eastern Roman Empire for a presbyter or bishop to give his blessing to the newly wedded couple either during the wedding feast or before it. Presbyters or bishops were not in charge of nor did they conduct the ceremony. Their presence was honorary and not necessary for the marriage to be valid.

Interestingly, by the early fourth century most bishops and presbyters (priests) were married but told to abstain from sex. The Council of Elvira (306) in southern Spain is often seen as the first to issue a written regulation requiring married clergy to abstain from sexual intercourse. Its canon 33 decreed: “Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives and from the procreation of children. If anyone disobeys, he shall be removed from the clerical office.” Nevertheless, even up into the tenth century most rural priests would be married and many urban clergy and bishops would have wives and children.

Fifth to Seventh Century

In the fifth century, especially in Greece and Asia Minor, the clergy began to take a more active role in the main ceremony itself, in some places joining the couple’s hands together, in other places putting the garland over them. Nevertheless, this ceremony was not mandatory. Throughout the seventh century, Christians could still get married in a purely secular ceremony.

East and West Developments

By the eighth century, liturgical weddings had become quite common in the eastern empire, and they were usually performed in a church rather than in a home. In the western half of the Roman Empire, however, marriage developed along quite different lines.

The first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (714 – 814), initiated legal reforms in his European empire, in both church and civil governments. In 802 Charlemagne passed a law requiring all proposed marriages to be examined for legal restrictions (such as previous marriages or close family relationships) before the wedding could take place. Clandestine marriages were a problem, especially in matters of property ownership.

Interestingly, Charlemagne himself had five wives in sequence, numerous concubines, and 18 children via his wives and concubines. Only three legitimate sons lived to adulthood. The youngest of them, Louis the Pious, survived to succeed him.

In 866 Pope Nicholas I (800 – 867) sent a letter to missionaries in the Balkans who had asked about the Greek Church’s contention that Christian marriages were not valid unless they were performed and blessed by a priest. In his reply Pope Nicholas stressed that in Rome the wedding ceremony took place in the absence of any church authorities and consisted primarily in the exchange of consent between the partners.

And…Pope Nicholas added that, after the wedding, there could be a Mass at which the bride and groom were covered with a veil and given a nuptial blessing. He noted however that a marriage was legal and binding even without any public or liturgical ceremony.

Eleventh Century

By the eleventh century, all marriages in Europe effectively came under the jurisdictional power of the church. It became customary to hold weddings near a church, often in front of the church, so that the newly married couple could go inside immediately afterward to obtain a priest’s blessing. But the priest did not officiate at the wedding.

Twelfth Century

In various parts of Europe, however, it was not until the twelfth century that a church wedding ceremony was conducted by the clergy.

At the entrance to the church, the priest asked the bride and groom if they consented to the marriage. Once they said yes, the father of the bride gave his daughter to the groom and gave him her dowry. The priest then blessed the ring that was given to the bride, after which he gave his blessing to the marriage. In some places, after the day’s festivities had concluded, the priest gave an additional blessing to the wedding chamber where the newly married couple would consummate their marriage.

In order to address again the problem of clandestine marriages, church laws increasingly required that all marriages be witnessed by the local priest and recorded in the parish registry, where baptisms were also recorded. This led to weddings being conducted in churches rather than in homes, and to priests being asked to bless the newly married couple.

Eventually, priests displaced the parents who had previously conducted the wedding ceremony. So, by the late twelfth century, the exchange of wedding vows had become a church ritual.

Nevertheless, marriage was still understood – as it is today – as a commitment between two people.

Marriage as a Sacrament

Historically, there was much medieval debate about the number of sacraments. The Benedictine monk and later cardinal, Peter Damian (1007 – 1072), for example, had listed eleven including the solemn blessing of kings. Hugh of Saint Victor (1096 – 1141), a major theologian who spent most of his life at the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris, enumerated close to thirty.

Hugh also said the ideal Christian marriage was one of union between husband and wife — preferably without any sexual intercourse. Hugh was strongly influenced by the theology of Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) and considered sexual activity not only unnecessary but dangerous and sin-laden. His ideal historical marriage was that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her always celibate husband Joseph. Like many medieval churchmen, Hugh believed that Mary was a perpetual virgin, before, during, and after the birth of Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit, not Joseph, had mystically impregnated her.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that marriage was not found on some medieval lists of sacraments. In its place was the solemn consecration of virgins, which, like ordination could only be done by a bishop.

Marriage was often viewed negatively as a remedy against the desires of the flesh rather than positively as a way to become holy. Many church authorities, like Albert the Great (1200 – 1280) the teacher of Thomas Aquinas (1225 -1274) considered sexual desires themselves as sinful or at best dangerous. Most theological writers held that sexual activity which was motivated by anything other than the desire for children was sinful. In general the western theological tradition taught that marriage was good even though sexual activity was usually sinful.

Gradually, however, the development of a Christian wedding ritual in the presence of the clergy and blessed by the clergy came to be understood as the official church’s positive affirmation of sexual relations in marriage. Sexual experiences within marriage were no longer considered sinful. But the primary purpose of marital sexual activity was understood as propagation not marital pleasure.

By the early thirteenth century, marriage and not the solemn consecration of virgins came to be viewed as one of the church’s seven official sacraments. This was confirmed by the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1213, the Council of Florence in 1439, and was reaffirmed by the Council of Trent, meeting off and on from 1545 to 1563. Nevertheless, the bishops at Trent condemned the ongoing practice of priests getting married and strongly declared that Catholics had to believe that virginity and celibacy were superior to marriage.

Seventeenth and Later Centuries

To safeguard the permanence of marriage, Roman Catholicism gradually developed an elaborate system of church laws and ecclesiastical courts, which was challenged by the Protestant reformers as being unscriptural and unnecessary.

Today many Catholic theologians and canon lawyers say it is better to let the legal regulation of marriage be a matter of civic control, without denying that church weddings are important communal celebrations or that Christian marriages are sacramental. And…marriages are sacramental because two baptized people make a commitment to each other. The priest or minister is an official witness.

Civil Marriage Today

As part of the eighteenth century French Revolution, civil marriage in France became the legal norm. There could still be religious marriages, but only for couples who had already been married in a civil ceremony. Napoleon (1769 – 1821) later spread this custom throughout most of Europe. Today, a religious ceremony can be performed after or before the civil union, but it has no legal effect.


People who marry in the Catholic Church today have about a 50 percent chance of later getting divorced. Divorce and remarriage have become big issues.

The apostle Paul allowed for the possibility of divorce in certain circumstances (1 Corinthians 7:15), and divorce was allowed by law in the Roman Empire even after Christianity became the state religion.

Some bishops from the second to fifth century cited Mark 10:11–12 to prove that divorce is a sin, while others cited Matthew 5:32 to prove that sometimes it wasn’t. Nevertheless, it is a matter of historical fact that for eleven centuries Christians in the Western Latin church could divorce and remarry, and that Christians in the Eastern Greek Orthodox tradition have always been able to do so.

The sixteenth century Council of Trent declared, however, that God instituted marriage and rendered it perpetual and indissoluble. “What God hath joined together let not man separate.” And the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:

      “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery.”

Contemporary Pastoral Ministry

Times change. We acquire new knowledge and new insights about our human identity. In many respects we have better biblical and historical perspectives on the past. Our understandings evolve. Accepted patterns of human behavior do change.

Contemporary pastoral ministry confronts a number of issues and concerns. Some have been resolved in other Christian traditions but remain problematic in the Catholic tradition, because many in church leadership have difficulty understanding that all church doctrines are time-bound and provisional.

We all need to be alert to and reflective about the signs of the times. A golden thread does indeed link us with the past but it does not strangle us nor make us blind to new discoveries today and tomorrow. Some examples:

Unmarried but living together: For many people the wedding ritual is no longer a rite of passage from being single to being married. Many couples live together before getting married, as though they were married. In fact, such living together has become quite socially accepted by family and friends.

Unmarried couples often have children. How does one best minister to couples living together before marriage or living together without marriage? Are condemnation and discrimination appropriate pastoral responses? I hardly think so. Compassion, communication, and collaboration are better Christian responses. We grow and learn together.

More than ever, we need a strong and supportive pastoral ministry that promotes inter-personal marital growth, communication, and reconciliation.

From the 1500s onward, until around the year 1800, the average life expectancy throughout Europe hovered between 30 and 40 years of age. Marriage for life meant something quite different than it does today, when average life expectancy is around 80.

Yes times change. I can understand that some married people grow apart. Can’t they also grow back together with help and support? For some couples, of course, divorce and often remarriage with new partners becomes a fact of life. How do we best minister to the divorced? Should we have a ritual for that? And how can the Christian community best welcome and minister to the remarried?

And what about annulment? In Catholic church law, an annulment is a declaration of marital nullity: a legal declaration that a valid marriage was never contracted. Since the marriage was an apparently valid marriage, entered into in good faith by at least one of the partners, Catholic teaching is that any children born from such an invalid union are not considered illegitimate.

I have always seen annulment as a Catholic dilemma. What does one say about a couple seeking an annulment who had pledged their love and fidelity to one another and who had enjoyed the fruits of their relationship for more than a few years?

For Catholics who had married outside the church the annulment process in preparation for a second marriage in the church is very simple. But the practicing Catholic who gets married in the church has to endure a lengthy, arduous, and expensive process of a canonical trial. What is on trial in an annulment process is the bond of marriage. Did it or did it not take place at the time of the marriage?

When one thinks about the complexities of the annulment process, one can truly ask: “Is this what Jesus would have intended?”

And then of course, we have “same sex marriage.” One of my very good friends is a Catholic priest who always blesses same-sex marriages and considers them sacramental. Certainly, if the partners are baptized their marriage is a sacrament.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is officially opposed to civil and religious same-sex marriage. Pope Francis has called it an “anthropological regression.” Several well-known figures in the Catholic hierarchy actively oppose civil same-sex marriage as well as adoption by same-sex couples.

An official “Responsum” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dated March 15, 2021 was quite clear:

It is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage (i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life), as is the case of the
unions between persons of the same sex….the blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit. This is because they would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing invoked on the man and woman united in the sacrament of Matrimony, while in fact there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

Nevertheless, there is strong and growing support from Catholics around the world for civil unions and same-sex marriage. Among North American and Northern and Western European Catholics, there is stronger support for LGBT rights — civil unions, civil same-sex marriage and protection against discrimination – than is found in the general population at large. Indeed…the signs of the times.


The Greek word, agápē, is usually translated as “love” in the New Testament. It really means care or caring. When Jesus tells his followers to love one another, as we read for instance in John 13:34–35, he is telling them to care about each other and to take care of one another.

Jesus never said it mattered if someone was gay, lesbian, trans, or straight. Agápē is not a feeling word. It is an action word. Loving and committed people are bound together in agápē.

  • Jack

P.S. Next week we look at holy orders and ordination.


[This post is a bit long. But I wanted to capture high points of the entire history.]


Jesus of Nazareth was a charismatic individual and a living symbol of salvation. To the poor he promised relief. To the sorrowing he gave reasons for joy. To the blind he gave sight. And to the discouraged he brought good news. The ultimate symbol of salvation was Jesus’ resurrection. Raised from the dead he became the great affirmative sign that people who lived in God had nothing to fear about death.

We can truly say that the first phase of Christian sacramentality was the primordial sacramentality of Jesus the Christ. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, my greatly respected professor, Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009), had stressed that in his lectures and his 1987 book: Christ the Sacrament of Encounter with God.

Certainly an important phase in Christian sacramentality, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was the communal sacramentality found in the small and scattered first century Christian communities. They met regularly to give thanks in his memory.

Giving Thanks

The word “eucharist” comes from the Greek verb eucharistein meaning to give thanks. At Jesus’ Last Supper, he gave thanks, giving special significance to the bread and wine he passed to his male and women disciples. Bread and wine had long been used in Hebrew religious practices. When Jesus said the bread and wine were his body and blood, he was speaking about giving his life for his followers.

Paul refers to the Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. Acts of Apostles mentions three occasions when the early followers of Jesus gathered to give thanks and break bread together (see Acts 2, 20 and 27). The eucharistic service was presided over by leaders of the local Christian community, who were the heads of households. The leaders were men and women, who presided at the eucharistic celebrations. Ordination was not yet a requirement for eucharistic leaders. Something worth remembering as we face a shortage of ordained ministers today.

Early Christians understood, much better than the medieval Christians who would come centuries after them, that social realities can be powerful spiritual realities. For them the Body of Christ, as Paul stressed, was the Christian community. The Gospel According to Matthew is very clear: Jesus says “Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Interestingly, when the Gospel According to John describes the Last Supper, he mentions the washing of feet but not Jesus’s actions with bread and wine. Nevertheless, John is very strong in his affirmation of the presence of Christ in the community. Jesus says “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity.” (John 17:20-26)

Second Century

By the late first and early second century, the weekly ceremonial meal of the Christian communities was called a “thanksgiving” (eucharistia). They recalled the words of Paul to the Corinthians: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (I Corinthians 11:23-24)

The Palestinian Christian leader named Justin (c. 100 – c. 165) argued that the Christian Eucharist had replaced Hebrew sacrifices. Justin took a text from Malachi, the last book of the Hebrew Bible, and applied it to Christians in his own days: “Everywhere a pure sacrifice is offered to my name because my name is great among the nations, says the Lord almighty.” (Malachi 1:11)

A “pure sacrifice” in the ancient world was a religious meal, shared by individuals who were ritually pure. Some of the food was offered to a god, some was offered to the temple priests, and the rest was consumed by the attendees.

Centuries later, when the full meal had evolved into a symbolic meal of bread and wine, the concept of sacrifice was still applied to Christian worship. But the meaning had shifted. Instead of putting emphasis on the sacred meal, it was put on the sacred food.

The sacred food, in the minds of medieval Christians, who had little or no knowledge of the Hebrew tradition, was the body and blood of Christ. The ritual performed by priests was understood as a sacrifice. But this was no longer understood as a sacred meal but as Jesus’ death: as a sacrificial offering of God’s Son to God his Father.

Using this mistaken understanding of sacrifice, medieval theologians misinterpreted Justin’s quotation from Malachi. For them Jesus, who was sinless, was taken to be the pure sacrifice spoken of by the prophet. This newly created theological perspective was greatly promoted by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) with his satisfaction theory of atonement. Frankly Anselm created a theological distortion with his understanding of God not as a loving Father but as a hard-nosed, vengeful, and judgmental monster, demanding the death of his own son.

In reality the eucharistic celebration is not a sacrifice in either Justin’s understanding or Anselm’s, even though Catholics would speak about “the holy sacrifice of the Mass” during the 16th century Tridentine era and up to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

The disappearance of the communal meal in Christian worship was gradual. One reason for its discontinuance may have been the kinds of excesses as found in Corinth, where some people became drunk and disorderly. More likely, however, the growth in the size of the Christian communities simply made it impractical.

Third Century

We find the most complete descriptions of early eucharistic worship in The Apostolic Tradition, a work attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – c. 235) and in the writings of Tertullian (c. 155 AD – c. 220) the North African theologian often called the founder of Western theology.

Tertullian mentioned that Christians met for the Eucharist before dawn on Sundays as well as other days. He noted as well that those who wished could take the eucharistic bread home to share with others and to eat before their own meals.

During the first three centuries, therefore, the form of Christian worship evolved from a communal meal to a ritual meal, with prayers in the general style of the earlier Hebrew thanksgiving but with no set words except the words used by the historic Jesus at his Last Supper.

Fourth and Sixth Centuries

Between the fourth and sixth centuries, Christian eucharistic worship evolved from a comparatively brief and simple ritual into a richly elaborate ceremonial liturgy. The change in Christian worship also led to a change in the way people spoke about it. When the communal meal was dropped, the words “offering” and “liturgy” became more common names for the ritual action. Noteworthy is that the word “eucharist” was not used now for the ritual act of thanksgiving but for the sacred elements of bread and wine. The word “liturgy” came from a Greek word that originally referred to any work done for the people – a service done for the common welfare.

Sixth Century

In the sixth century another word change came. The eucharistic liturgy was now called “Mass” or “Missa.” The English noun “mass” is derived from the Latin missa. The origins of the term missa probably come from the dismissal at the end of the service, when the priest said, “Ite, missa est” meaning “Go, the dismissal is made”

The most significant sixth century change, however, was the start of the private Mass. Eucharistic worship during the first Christian centuries had been a community experience. Now however, the private Mass, offered by a single priest with no attending congregation, began developing. It began first of all in monasteries, because many monasteries had a large number of priests. Not all of them could easily gather around the chapel altar to celebrate together. Those who wanted to offer Mass daily began to do so privately. In churches and cathedrals, side altars were added for offering private Masses. Some priests, for payment, said many private Masses in the course of a day to pray for the spiritual wellbeing of their benefactors.

Thirteenth Century

By the thirteenth century the Mass that had once been a communal prayer was now a clerical ritual separated from the congregation by barriers of language and architecture. The Mass was in Latin, which most people did not understand, including many poorly educated priests who had simply memorized the key prayers. The main altar was now far removed from the congregation, often separated from the congregation by an ornamental wall, with just a small opening leading into what had now become the clerical sanctuary. When the people in the church became too noisy and disturbed the clergy, bells were rung for a bit of crowd control.

A change in theology also underlined this linguistic and architectural change. Instead of celebrating the Christian mysteries, the liturgy itself had become a mystery. The greatest mystery of course was how the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ. Theologians said it was linked with priestly power and the priest’s recitation of the Latin words for consecrating the bread and wine. The phrase Hoc est corpus meum: “this is my body body,” for example, were seen as a kind of religious alchemy. In fact the first three words evolved into the formula used by magicians “Hocus Pocus.”

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) noted significantly that the Eucharist was different from the other sacraments because it was not just a sacred ritual action but a sacred object: made possible by the priest’s sacramental power, given through ordination. Medievalists believed that Jesus had given that power to his male apostles at the Last Supper and that it had been handed down from them, via ordination, to contemporary priests through “apostolic succession.”

The presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a result of Christ’s “real presence” in the sacrament under the appearance of bread and wine. Popular piety began to shift more and more toward the adoration of the eucharistic bread: the “host.” Among other things, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 CE) decided that it was not necessary for Christians to receive communion regularly. The Blessed Sacrament (the name given to the consecrated bread), however, was to be adored.

As a natural development, the feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ), with strong support from Thomas Aquinas, was established in 1264 by Pope Urban IV (1195 – 1264) shortly before his death. The worship of the consecrated host greatly expanded into the public adoration of the sacrament exposed on the altar. Stories about bleeding hosts and apparitions of Christ in the consecrated host were widespread. Superstitious beliefs about the host’s ability to effect cures and ward off evil were commonplace.

Indeed, by the end of the Middle Ages, the Mass had been transformed from an act of public worship into a clerical prayer focused on adoration of the consecrated bread.

The Counter Reformation Council of Trent

Protestant reformers reacted to many eucharistic aberrations.The variety of Protestant teachings about the eucharist forced the bishops at the Council of Trent (1545 -1563) to rethink the meaning of the sacrament and to come up with a unified Catholic position.

The Council of Trent produced three documents on the Eucharist, based on Aristotelian scholastic theology. The bishops declared that “Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really and substantially contained under the appearances of bread and wine.” This presence, due to “transubstantiation,” was based on medieval Aristotelian metaphysics. It was understood as “the real presence,” localized in the sacramental bread, and not just a spiritual presence. The bishops at Trent believed that this understanding of the Eucharist had always been the understanding and the doctrine of the church, going back to the historical Jesus.

Thanks to Trent, tabernacles that had once been rather small containers for consecrated hosts became magnificent receptacles for the Blessed Sacrament, with a burning candle in front of them. They became the focal point of eucharistic piety: a eucharistic piety almost entirely divorced from the liturgy.

Liturgy and Eucharist in the Twentieth Century

As my friend Joseph Martos, who died on March 24, 2020, so often observed, the Catholic Church officially still recognizes the doctrines of the Council of Trent but contemporary Catholicism is quietly laying them aside.

Most contemporary Catholic theologians no longer speak about the Mass as a sacrifice. Few urge special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The term “transubstantiation” is virtually unknown to younger Catholics. Even the word “mass,” though still in popular use, is disappearing from the professional vocabulary of Catholic theologians and liturgists.

Yet, conservative Catholics agree with the former Pope, Benedict XVI, and his desire to return to the good old days. Many contemporary U.S. Catholic bishops, I fear, resonate with him. They were very upset by the Pew Forum study, issued in August 2019, that showed that 69% of all self-identified U.S. Catholics believe the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are only “symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” The other 31% believe in the “real presence of Christ” in the Eucharist, via transubstantiation.

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, reacted on Twitter: “It’s hard to describe how angry I feel after reading what the latest @pewresearch study reveals about understanding of the Eucharist among Catholics. This should be a wake-up call to all of us in the Church.”

During their November 2021 annual meeting, the U.S. Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly (201 – 17) to launch a three-year Eucharistic revival initiative that will culminate in a National Eucharistic Congress in 2024. The bishops intend to set up a nonprofit organization to handle logistics and to raise $28 million over the next two years to hold the event in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana.

I would suggest that although later Christians came to believe that Jesus brought about a metaphysical change in the bread and wine at the Last Supper, and that priests have the power to produce the same metaphysical change in bread and wine, it is very unlikely that Jesus or his early disciples were ever thinking in these terms. And, there were no ordinations at the Last Supper. It did not exist in the days of Jesus.

Changes in Catholic Eucharistic Theology

Catholic theologians today prefer to speak of the Mass as the Eucharistic Liturgy.
They have a keen understanding of symbolic rituals. They understand sacraments as ritual actions of words and gestures, which embody and reveal not only human realities but also divine realities.

At his Last Supper, Jesus changed the meaning of a common Hebrew ritual to a memorial of his own death and resurrection. He changed the meaning of the bread and wine from what they signified for the Hebrew people to a sacrament of his body and blood. Just as the Word of God is present in the reading of Sacred Scripture at each liturgy, Christ is also present sacramentally in the bread and wine that are offered to God in praise and thanksgiving and are distributed to the community as signs of spiritual communion with him. As Paul the Apostle said, Christians are the Body of Christ, and so by sharing in the Eucharist they both affirm and become what they are.

The eucharistic celebration is a prayerful action of a Christian community, gathered as the Body of Christ in remembrance of Jesus death and Resurrection: in which they continue to participate in and with the presence of Christ.

The worshiping Christian community, the Body of Christ, makes it possible for Christ to be present in the proclaiming of God’s word in the Scriptures, in the thanksgiving that it offers to God, in the remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper, and in the giving and receiving of the eucharistic bread and wine.

If we believe the Christian community gathered for Eucharist is the Body of Christ, it is not enough to just believe it. We must also live it: practicing love of God and love of neighbor as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7).

We recall the words of Jesus in the Gospel According to John: “I am the vine and you are the branches. The one who remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 16:5) Indeed, living as a member of the Body of Christ is often much more of a challenge than simply believing in it.

Our Christian faith is not a relic of the past. It is a life-giving program for today and for tomorrow. We are called to be in dialogue with the times and the world in which we live, faithful to the word of God, and striving to harmonize life and faith.

  • Jack

PS Next week we look at marriage.

Penance – Reconciliation

Apostolic Christianity

The earliest Christian penitential practices did not differ greatly from their Jewish predecessors. Around 57 CE Paul wrote that he was shocked that the community in Corinth had not expelled one of its members for marrying his stepmother, a practice that was expressly forbidden by the Torah. The Christian community was to be a holy community, free of wickedness, and Paul counseled them to cast out from their midst those who worshiped idols, who got drunk, and who fell into other immoral practices (1 Corinthians 5:1–13).

This practice of restricting someone from normal involvement with the community and later lifting the restriction was known in rabbinical writings as “binding and loosing.” The rabbis did it on the authority of Jewish law, but the early Christians saw themselves doing it on the authority of Christ.

Neither the Gospels nor other New Testament writings indicate any specific ritual connected with this discipline. The only ritual of forgiveness known to the earliest Christian community was baptism, and today biblical scholars view almost all the texts that speak of a call to repentance as a call to baptism and moral rectitude after baptism. Penance was seen as part of baptism. There was no separate sacrament as we have it today.

Clearly the early Christians understood that Jesus began his ministry with a call to repentance (Mark 1:15), and to those who showed sorrow for their sinfulness he announced that they were forgiven by the power of God (Luke 5:18–26; 7:36–50). When asked how many times one person should forgive another Jesus said, in effect, “every time.”

Second Century

By the second century Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 110) and other second-century bishops continued to speak of personal correction and praying for others as a means of combating sin. Polycarp of Smyrna (69 – 155) wrote that pastors should be compassionate and merciful to the sheep in Christ’s flock who went astray.

By the middle of the second century, however, there was a new development. There could only be one penance after baptism for the serious sins of apostasy, murder, and adultery.The public sinner would have to confess sins to the bishop. During liturgies, the public sinner had to sit behind the community and wear penitential clothing. The public sinner was not allowed to stay for Eucharist and had to leave after the Gospel.

Depending on the sin, some sinners had to pray and fast until their death. Church regulations were so strict that many people waited until they were dying for the opportunity to be forgiven. Others put off being baptized until close to death.

In some places this practice lasted into the fourth century. We know that Constantine the Great (c.272 – 337) legalized Christianity in 312 CE but he was not baptized until shortly before his death in 337. Constantine had put off baptism as long as he did so that he could be absolved from as much of his sin as possible.

Third Century

By the third century a general pattern for the public reconciliation of known sinners began to appear in many churches. Those who wanted to rejoin the community went to the bishop and confessed their error, but before they could be readmitted to the ranks of the faithful they had to reform their lives. They had to perform works of repentance, fasting and praying, and giving alms to the poor to show that their repentance was sincere. The period of their penitence could be a few weeks or a few years depending on the penitential customs of their community. In effect serious sinners were thrown out of the community: excommunicated. When their time of penance was over, the bishop imposed his hands on their heads as he had done after their baptism.

There were extremes in interpretation. The rigorists claimed that excommunication for sins like apostasy and adultery should be permanent. At the other extreme were the bishops who generously readmitted people who seemed to be sorry for what they had done.

Local bishops were relatively independent and could set their own policies. In some places penitents were required to stay away from public amusements. In others they were forbidden to hold public office or were barred from the clergy. In yet others they had to abstain from marital intercourse during the whole penitential period. And occasionally, for heinous offenses like bestiality, penances of twenty or thirty years were imposed. In reality, however, rules were strict and post-baptismal penance could only be done once in a lifetime.

It is particularly noteworthy that most bishops did not see their forgiveness as “causing” divine forgiveness. It was the other way around. Divine forgiveness always came to those who turned from sin and mended their ways, and the church simply declared that they were forgiven by God when it was sure that they had truly reformed their lives. Reconciliation with the church, then, was a sign that reconciliation with God had already taken place.

Fourth Century

Starting in the fourth century, with the Roman Empire becoming Christian, bishops became civil judges, and sin was seen as breaking the law rather than fracturing one’s relationship with God. Bishops were given the right to act as judges in civil suits and their decisions had legal force. And their decisions in matters of church discipline were increasingly regarded as spiritual laws. Clearly a more legalistic understanding of penance emerged. It was understood as a kind of payment to satisfy the demands of divine justice. Bishops were acting as God’s representatives.

This change was greatly facilitated by a narrow interpretation of passages like Matthew 18:18 by Bishop Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) and Pope Leo the Great (c. 400 – 461). They ignored earlier verses indicating a process for Christians to follow when dealing with a believer who refuses to repent of sinful behavior. That process ends, as a last resort, with the person being removed from the community.

Most importantly, Augustine and Leo understood that it was the “disciple” and not God who did the forgiving, though only after true repentance. As a result, sin —which had earlier been thought of as a break in the relationship of love and trust between members of the community, and as a violation of the covenant relationship between the community and God — was increasingly conceived of in legal terms, as a breaking of a divine law or the violation of an ecclesiastical law.

Penance became a very public matter. But it was still normally received only once in a lifetime. The majority of Christians, however, felt no need for public penitence. They were not great saints but they were not great sinners either.

Late Fourth and Early Fifth Century

During this time we see a new development especially in Ireland. (And I am writing this on St. Patricks Day😀) The Celtic practice of penance became the seeking of private spiritual advice. Ecclesiastical canonical penance had little or no effect on the lives of ordinary Christians. Devout Christians, in some places already by the beginning of the fourth century, were encouraged to personally confess their shortcomings with a spiritual “guide” or “physician” who would give them direction in works of prayer and repentance. They did this to lead more holy lives. The person to whom they went, note well, was not necessarily a priest. Confession could be made to a layperson, usually a monk or a nun.

Sixth Century Penitential Books

Penitential books containing church rules concerning penance were also first developed by Celtic monks in Ireland in the sixth century. They gave lists of sins and the appropriate penances prescribed for them. They became a type of manual for confessors. The number of penitentials and their importance is often cited as evidence of the particular strictness of Celtic spirituality in the seventh century. As priests heard confessions, they began to compile handbooks that dealt with the most commonly confessed sins; and they wrote down set penances for those sins. The penitential book composed around 650 by an Irish monk named Cummean became an important handbook for confessors. For stealing, Cummean prescribed that a layman should do one year of penance; a priest, five; and a bishop, six.

Twelfth to Sixteenth Century

In the twelfth century, the rules changed. Only priests could listen to the confession of sins. The formula that the priest used after hearing a person’s confession changed as well. What had been “May God have mercy on you and forgive you your sins” was changed to “I absolve you from your sins.” Thomas Aquinas, with his limited knowledge of the early centuries of church life, mistakenly asserted that the changed formula was in fact an ancient formula.

It was also in the twelfth century that the understanding of purgatory developed. Medieval theologians said sins were forgiven but that, after death, sinners’ souls still needed to be cleansed before they could enter heaven. Purgatory was suggested and presumed to be a place of a cleansing or purgatorial fire, outside the gates of heaven, to enable the deceased to achieve the holiness necessary for them to enter the joy of heaven.

Indulgences were later introduced as a way to reduce the “days” of purgatorial punishment one had to undergo before entering heaven. One could get an indulgence for saying special prayers, visiting holy shrines, performing good deeds, and later by contributing money to the church.

The main funding for the early stages of building St. Peter’s basilica at the Vatican, for example, came from the sale of indulgences. The German Dominican friar Johan Tetzel (c.1465 – 1519) gathered indulgence money for the St. Peter’s building project. Although it is now disputed, the old legend was that Tetzel had said: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

In the twelfth century the decision was also made that people could receive the sacrament of penance many times during one’s life. In 1215 CE, the Fourth Lateran Council, meeting at the Lateran Palace in Rome, initiated more changes.“Penance” became known as “confession;” and the council commanded that every Christian who has reached the age of reason had to confess all of his or her sins at least once a year to a priest.

(The Lateran Council also ordered that Jews were not to hold public office and that Jews should be distinguished from Christians in their dress. The Council mandated a special dress code for Jews to distinguish them from Christians so that no Christians would come to marry Jews ignorant of who they were. And so… What about penance and reconciliation for grossly antisemitic bishops?)

When Pope Leo X (1475 – 1521) excommunicated Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) from the Catholic Church in 1520, the bill of excommunication also condemned forty-one of his ideas, including six on indulgences and twelve on penance. Luther himself was somewhat ambivalent about the sacramentality of confession. If confession was a sacrament at all it was only a sacrament in the broad sense, a sacrament instituted by the church, through which Christians could experience the forgiveness of God.

In the mid-16th century the bishops at the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563) stressed the private confession approach to the sacrament of penance. In fact Trent’s bishops were mistaken in assuming that private confession dated back to the days of the Apostles. And they understood that the historic Jesus had created the sacrament of penance. The Council of Trent’s medieval conception of sin and its remission through the confession of guilt and the performance of penitential works lasted into modern times because the Catholic Church retained its medieval cultural form, while the world around it changed.

Second Vatican Council

The Roman Catholic approach to penance began to change again after the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) when the name of the sacrament was changed from penance to to reconciliation, and when the rite allowed for a meeting of priest and penitent that was more like counseling than confession.

Thoughts About Reconciliation Today

How should Christian communities practice reconciliation today? People do need to acknowledge their sinful behavior and seek forgiveness. But forgiveness also requires reconciliation. I suggest that at the local parish level, Christian communities should devote resources and personnel to focus on conversion and reconciliation about racism, misogyny, and homophobic discrimination. They should also focus on reconciliation within families: between husbands and wives, between parents and teenagers, between brothers and sisters who are angry with each other, and perhaps even between extended family members.

Such a ministry of reconciliation would also require specially trained men and women as ministers of reconciliation. Then indeed the local Christian community would truly become a sacrament of reconciliation.

  • Jack

P.S. Next week we will look at the development of Eucharistic understanding.

Baptism and Confirmation


A sacrament, coming from the Latin word sacrare meaning “to consecrate,” is not so much something one receives but a symbolic ritual in which one participates. Each sacrament dramatizes and points to something that is happening in the lives of people who belong to the Christian community. They live in the spirit of Jesus because they have been graced and have become a cause of grace in others.They grow in their understanding of what Jesus meant when he said: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Grace is a quality of life not a spiritual thing that one gets and builds up like a spiritual investment portfolio.


The word “baptism” is derived from Latin and Greek words meaning to immerse or to plunge, as in water. Historically people have participated in baptism by being dipped or immersed in water, having water poured on their heads, or even just splashing some water on the head of the person being baptized. 

John the Baptizer

John the Baptizer was an itinerant Hebrew preacher active in the area of the Jordan River. John used baptism as the central symbol of his pre-messianic movement. In the first chapter, the Fourth Gospel describes John the Baptizer as “a man sent from God” who “was not the light,” but “came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that through him everyone might believe.” Most scholars agree that John baptized Jesus and that certainly some of Jesus’ disciples had been participants in John the Baptizer’s religious movement. John acknowledged that Jesus, the one who would come after him, would not baptize with water but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).  Around 30 CE, John the Baptizer was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded by Herod Antipas (born before 20 BCE – died after 39 CE) who officially ruled Galilee.

The ritual performed by John the Baptizer is mentioned in each of the four Gospels. Being baptized by John demonstrated a desire to refocus one’s life and make a commitment to follow God’s law in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival. The ritual is never described in detail, because it was commonly performed in a river or nearby pool and entailed full or partial immersion. 

Jesus’ Baptism

For Jesus, his baptism marked a moment of personal discernment and preparation for his own public ministry, which was far greater than the ministry of John the Baptizer. Mark, Matthew, and Luke depict the baptism in parallel passages. In all three Synoptic Gospels the Holy Spirit is depicted as descending upon Jesus immediately after his baptism accompanied by a voice from Heaven. Mark and Luke record the voice as addressing Jesus by saying “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” In Matthew the voice states “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23; Matthew 3:13–17) After his baptism, Jesus withdrew to the Judean desert to fast and pray for forty days.

Baptism and the Jesus Movement

That a ritual immersion in water was important in the earliest decades of the Jesus movement is clear from the many references to it in the New Testament. When Paul speaks of being “immersed in one spirit” and “into one body,” he is talking about the ritual’s marking an entrance into the community and sharing a communal spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). But for Paul, the body into which they have been immersed is not just a group or social body. It is also the Body of Christ, for it is united and animated by the spirit of the risen Lord (1 Corinthians 12:12–27). Paul did not develop an elaborate theology of baptism. Borrowing from Hebrew ideas with which he was familiar, Paul saw it as a symbolic immersion and an initiation not only into the community of believers but into the very way of life that Jesus himself had lived. 

Adult Baptism

The understanding and practice of baptism developed greatly in the third century. By the fourth and fifth centuries, however, baptism had become a several-weeks-long exercise involving prayer, instruction, and learning the creed: all leading up to the actual baptismal washing on Easter. The ceremony was usually conducted by the overseer, the bishop, of the Christian community. The word “overseer,” episcopus in Latin, comes from the Greek words epí meaning “over” and skopós meaning “watcher.” In English the word evolved into “bishop.” (The Latin episcopus, became the Old English biscop. Then Middle English bisshop and lastly bishop.)

Those to be baptized at Easter disrobed, were anointed with oil, renounced the devil, confessed their faith in the Trinity, and were then immersed in water. They were then anointed by the overseer (bishop) with special holy oil (chrism), received the laying on of hands by the bishop, and were dressed in white. They were then led to join the congregation for the Easter Eucharist celebration.

Infant Baptism and Augustine of Hippo

Although some infants were being baptized in the third and fourth centuries, infant baptism did not really become widespread until the fifth century, thanks to the introduction of his Original Sin understanding by Bishop Augustine of Hippo.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE), also known as Saint Augustine, was a theologian and the bishop of Hippo Regius, the ancient name of the modern city of Annaba, Algeria.

As a young man Augustine had an active hedonistic sexual lifestyle. He had at least one child born out of wedlock, via a concubine with whom he lived for more than fifteen years. He never married. It was in 386 at the age of 31, however, that he became strongly anti-sex Platonic and converted to Christianity. He and his son, Adeodatus (372–388 CE), which means “Gift from God,” were baptized in 387 by Bishop Aurelius Ambrose of Milan (c. 339 – c. 397 CE).

Augustine’s creation: Original Sin 

For many traditionalist Christians, the doctrine of “Original Sin” is firm and definite. In fact, however, there are no biblical and no historical indications that Jesus knew of or believed this doctrine. Neither did the early church. Original Sin is a theological construct created by Augustine of Hippo in the late fourth century.

Augustine was the first theological author to use the phrase “original sin” (Latin: peccatum originale). Most contemporary biblical scholars consider Adam and Eve mythic figures in the Hebrew Bible’s creation myth. Augustine, however, considered Adam and Eve real historical people who were responsible for what he called the “Original Sin” by which all humans, through sexual intercourse, inherited a tainted nature. Augustine identified male semen as the means by which original sin was inherited and passed on. He stressed however that the historic Jesus of Nazareth was free of Original Sin because he was conceived without any semen. 

Augustine believed that sexual desire itself was a consequence of Original Sin. Most importantly for its impact on baptism, Augustine held that unbaptized infants went straight to hell as a consequence of Original Sin. He therefore became a strong advocate of infant baptism. In the church, thanks to Augustine, infant baptism would become the norm for baptisms.

Quite honestly, Augustine’s understanding of human sexuality and his introduction of the Original Sin doctrine were problematic theological aberrations.

Returning to Adult Baptism

Some post-Reformation Christian traditions strongly rejected infant baptism. The Anabaptists, started in 1527 by Michael Sattler, believe that baptism is valid only when candidates freely confess their faith in Christ and request to be baptized. (The word “Anabaptist” comes from the Greek word ana meaning “again” as in “baptized again.”) Anabaptist groups still present today are mainly the Amish, the Brethren, and the Mennonites. 

Other contemporary Christian traditions, of course, stress the importance of adult believer’s baptism. “Baptists” form a major branch of Evangelical Christianity distinguished by baptizing adult professing Christian believers and doing so by immersion. The earliest “Baptist” church was started in 1609 in Amsterdam with the English Separatist John Smyth as its pastor. In 1638, Roger Williams, who founded Providence Plantations, established the first Baptist congregation in the North American colonies.

Baptism as initiation into the community

In many ways I can resonate with the stress on adult baptism but doubt very much that infant baptism will disappear. Regardless, baptism is an initiation into the community of faith. The communIty of believers, therefore, has a major responsibility to support and promote the healthy Christian development of all of its members. Just as parents, family, and friends promote the physical, mental, and intellectual development of babies and children, so too parents, family, and Christian communities bear a heavy responsibility to promote and support the Christian faith and values development of their babies and children.


As a former catechetical teacher, parish religious education director, and professor of historical theology for many years, I have always considered confirmation a sacrament in search of its identity.

The Practice

In many Christian denominations, such as the Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed traditions, confirmation is a rite that often includes a profession of faith by an already baptized person. In the Catholic tradition, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “…reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace.” Confirmation is not practiced in Baptist, Anabaptist, and other Christian traditions that stress the importance of believer’s adult baptism. 

When it started

Confirmation as a separate sacramental ritual in western Christianity did not exist before the third century. And, it did not become a regular practice in Europe until after the fifth century. What was originally a bishop’s blessing administered after baptism, later became separated from the water ritual. 

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE, there were, rather quickly, more baptisms than a single bishop in each city could handle. Presbyters (priests) were then allowed to do the baptizing but only the bishop was allowed to “confirm” the baptisms. Many people really did not see the necessity of this confirmation. For the most part it fell into disuse. 

Medieval practice

In the ninth century, however, reform-minded French bishops made an attempt to revive confirmation, suggesting that it bestowed the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, by the twelfth century, confirmation was mostly received by those who wanted to enter clerical orders. 

In 1563 the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent stressed the importance of the Sacrament of Confirmation because the bishops believed it was established by the historical Jesus and had the following effects on the confirmed person: (1) an increase of sanctifying grace which makes the recipient a “perfect Christian;” (2) a special sacramental grace consisting in the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; and (3) an indelible character by reason of which the sacrament cannot be received again by the same person. Trent and later RCC regulations made confirmation a requirement before entering into marriage or holy orders.

Contemporary meaning

Over the centuries confirmation has gone through a number of changes in understanding and ceremonies. Some bishops say it should be received very close to baptism. Others say close to one’s first communion. And yet others advocate it as an adolescent faith commitment ritual, like a Christian Bar or Bat Mitzvah – a coming of age ceremony for boys and girls when they reach the age of 12 or 13. As friend, Joe Martos, often said: “Theologians today are hard put to say which is the meaning of the sacrament…” 

Celebrating lived realities

Meaningful sacraments are not those that just celebrate beliefs but those that truly celebrate lived realities. If confirmation is truly a rite of passage, it needs to facilitate or at least to celebrate a genuine change in people’s lives. 

Before confirmation, children are told that they are going to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, even if they get nothing out of the ceremony. So how does confirmation today truly become and celebrate a genuine change in people’s lives?

A dynamic and meaningful confirmation should connect people, whatever their age, with an experienced spiritual reality: an experience of the Sacred in the depth of our human lives and in the natural world. Such an experience gives people what we so desperately need today: faith, hope, courage, optimism, truthfulness, patience, reliability, and trust. Perhaps we all need to spend more time studying and reflecting on Christian spirituality.

Next week, some reflections about penance and reconciliation.

  • Jack

Sacraments – Historical Thought Starters

I call this week’s post “historical thought starters.” I would like to help people think about how much the understanding and practice of sacraments has changed over the past two thousand years. Change is a fact of life…even in the church. Today therefore a few historical observations. All seven sacraments will be explored in more detail between now and Easter.

Sacraments of course are not just a Catholic concern. Sacraments are Christian realities. 


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


The earliest canonical writings, the letters of Paul the Apostle (5 – 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 “The Lord’s Supper.” 


The Synoptic Gospels describe Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, during which Jesus instructs them to continue the practice in his memory, which 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 meal annoyances and occasional drunkenness problems which had become problematic in some Corinthian agape gatherings. Inequality and partisan discrimination were big problems in the quite diverse Corinthian community. Paul’s exhortation about love in I Corinthians 13 makes very understandable sense here.  


The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 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.The words came probably not from the historic Jesus, biblical scholars suggest, but from early church practice around the year 80 CE. 


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.”


The laying on of hands was 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 blessing their children. Jacob in the book of Genesis, for instance, blesses his two grandsons by laying his hands on their heads (Genesis 48:14). The laying on of hands was also used to bless someone for ministry. In Numbers, the people of Israel lay hands on the Levites to dedicate them to the Lord’s service (Numbers 8:9-10). Moses laid hands on Joshua as his successor in leadership (Numbers 27:18-23; Deuteronomy 34:9). 


Jesus followed the laying on of hands tradition. His most common practice in healing was touch, often described as “laying his hands on” the one to be healed (Matthew 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 (Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:16). Only centuries later was the laying on of hands strictly understood as a uniquely Christian “ordination ritual.”


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


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.


Between the eighth and ninth centuries, altar placement and worship space arrangements in church buildings changed. The celebrant no longer faced the people but faced the apse, when celebrating Mass. This practice was first adopted in the basilicas of Rome and then became common practice 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 some 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 way 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 thirteenth 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 and adored. 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. Often holding it for a longer time. Some people only came to church when the Host was about to be elevated. So that people could 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, wearing heavy vestments to raise the Host for a long time, 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 to 1274), Doctor of the Church, to Pope Urban IV (1195 to 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. They were also carried in processions. 

Unfortunately, the medieval Eucharistic Body of Christ rituals ignored the biblical understanding of the Body of Christ as, first of all, the community of believers. Recall, for instance, 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 of course we have the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” And we have, for example, the wonderful words of Jesus in 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.”


Up until the eighth century CE, anointing the sick was a widespread if not uniform practice. It was done by Christian people for their relatives, by men and women with a reputation for healing, and by monks, women religious, and ordained ministers. Especially noteworthy, however, is the fact that anointing of the sick was primarily a lay practice.


I will explore this in more detail on March 31. The thought starter for today: The first official declaration that marriage is 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.


This is a complex history which I will explore on April 7. 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.


Before the thirteenth century, there was no talk of just seven sacraments, because Christians had a variety of rituals and symbols. By the end of the thirteenth century, however, Catholic discussion of sacraments was limited to the familiar seven. Prior to the thirteenth century, however, church practices and Christian beliefs were far from uniform and far from what they would later become. 


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

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


Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and the other reformers rejected the ritual sacramentality of medieval Catholicism. Using the New Testament they acknowledged baptism and 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 twenty-five sessions between 13 December 1545 and 4 December 1563, initiated a Catholic Counter-Reformation. The greatest weight in the Council’s decrees was given to the seven sacraments, in some detail, refuting the claims of the Protestant Reformers. The bishops insisted on the numbering of the sacraments as seven and that all seven were instituted by Jesus Christ.


It is important for us today to have a clearer sense of the evolution of sacramental rituals. But that is not enough. Sacramental actions today need to regain their dynamism. 

We need better understandings 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 Joseph Martos so often said and wrote, they are “doors to the Sacred.” Today those doors need to be opened wide. People today are hungry and searching for that taste of the Divine. It is truly there of course.

Next week, we look at Baptism and Confirmation.

  • Jack