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God’s grace through the sacraments


Catholic News Service

In 1517, when Martin Luther went public with his 95 Theses or proposals against the selling of indulgences, he expected a reasoned debate similar to others he had encouraged with previous proposals. Little could he have dreamed or expected that he would unleash a religious maelstrom that is today known as the Reformation.

Reformers throughout Europe, fortified by their personal reading of the Bible, began to challenge all aspects of Catholic belief and practice that could not be found specifically mentioned in the Bible. One of the areas challenged most aggressively was that of the sacraments.

As a response to the Reformation, which both challenged the Catholic Church’s beliefs and practices and brought political turmoil and violence to most of Europe, the Council of Trent was convened by Pope Paul III in 1545 to make clear the church’s teachings.

The council, which met in 25 sessions over a period of 18 years, presented its teaching in direct response to the teachings of the reformers. For example, Canon 1 from the seventh session reads as follows:

“If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord; or that they are more or fewer than seven that is: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, order and Matrimony; or that any one of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament; anathema sit.”

Here, for the first time, the church sets the number of sacraments at seven and names them specifically. Prior to Trent the number of sacraments would vary both in number and name over time.

In addition to naming and numbering the sacraments, the Council of Trent also stated that the sacraments were instituted by Jesus himself, that they were a means for salvation, and that God’s grace is offered through them regardless of the intention of the priest or the recipient. These teachings have not changed.

Two of the sacraments, baptism and Eucharist, were almost universally accepted by the reformers, although differences arose over the age when one should be baptized (some argued that one must choose to be baptized as an adult, making infant baptism invalid) or whether the bread and wine actually became the body and blood of Christ. Questions were also raised about the validity of the other sacraments. The bishops at Trent answered these questions and many more.

The teachings of Trent, written as they were in response to challenges raised by various reformers, remained the teaching of the Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). No longer faced with a world on fire with religious zealotry, the bishops at Vatican II could take the time to return to the ancient sources and to even consider some of the suggestions proposed by the original reformers.

Many of these, especially those raised by Martin Luther, found their way into the thinking of the council members, which has led to a call for Christian unity and mutual dialogue (ecumenism) between the Catholic Church and the reformed Christian Churches.

(Mulhall is a catechist living in Louisville, Kentucky.)

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St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) stands out among the figures of the Counter-Reformation.

A faithful and serious man, Charles displayed his devotion to the church at a young age when he received a clerical tonsure at only 12. He was given custody of the Benedictine abbey in Arona, Italy, his hometown, and he ensured that the revenues of the abbey be allotted for the poor.

After his uncle, Gianangelo, became Pope Pius IV, he made 21-year-old Charles a cardinal and appointed him as administrator of the See of Milan. Under Pope Pius, the previously suspended Council of Trent reconvened, thanks in part to Charles’ effort and influence, and Charles assisted with the drafting of the catechism and reform of liturgical books and church music.

Yet Charles longed to return to his diocese. This was itself a sign of renewal, as bishops at the time rarely lived in their dioceses. After the death of his uncle, Pope Pius V allowed him to return to Milan. He began implementing reform, establishing seminaries, arranging retreats for priests and directing parish priests to hold public catechism classes.

When famine struck Milan, he fed thousands daily. After the plague, he arranged care for the sick, burial for the dead and food for thousands. He founded a society of secular priests, the Oblates of St. Ambrose.

At a prayer vigil at World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI named St. Charles Borromeo among other saints who were “true reformers.” In contemplating such saints, we learn “what it means to live according to the measure of … Jesus Christ and God himself,” Pope Benedict said.

(Source: “Butler’s Lives of the Saints”)