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Evangelization Through Traditions
Deacon Bill Stimpson
As much as many Protestant churches may like to deny their reliance on tradition, there is no escaping the presence of tradition in every Christian church. Prior to being baptized into the Baptist faith, the candidate makes a profession of faith – a testimony. In the Acts of the Apostles, baptism always followed an instruction, a preparation of the recipient of baptism. Many Protestant churches claim this tradition as the argument against infant baptism. Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopals have ordinations of the priest through the laying on of hands; other Christian traditions have ordinations via a decree by some governing body. However different the ordination processes may be, the tradition remains that the priest/pastor functions from and through an authority greater than themselves. Tradition is the backbone of faith.
One of the most wonderful and powerful traditions of the Catholic Church is her tradition of Sacraments. It is true that other churches have sacraments, but through the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, the whole of Christian faith is explained and experienced. Unfortunately for the Church, there has crept into the tradition of the sacraments, an idea that the sacraments are goals, not way-points along the road of a Christian life. The Sacraments sustain faith, they do not define faith.
- Baptism – The sacrament through which one is incorporated into the universal body of Christ, the universal church.
- Infant Baptism – The understanding of infant baptism comes out of our Jewish roots. It is a Jewish Sacrament to circumcise the male child on the eighth day after birth. On the eighth day the child receives his name, and is incorporated into the Jewish faith. It is the responsibility of the parents to raise their son in the ways of the faith. In the Catholic Church, as well as for Lutherans and Episcopals, children receive their names and incorporated into the universal Body of Christ. The sacrament binds the parents and God-parents to raise their child (male or female) in the ways of Christ.
- Adult Baptism – In the Acts of the Apostles as in the history of the early church, baptism follows a period of instruction. During the lives of the apostles, baptism often followed a brief but stirring proclamation (c.f. the deacon Philip baptizes the Ethiopian Eunuch after an afternoon of explaining the Scriptures – Acts 8:26-40; Peter begins to understand the expansive nature of the church outside of his Jewish heritage – Acts 9:36 – 10:48) During the times of persecution, the length of preparation was lengthened for two good reasons:
- The Church was in the process of refining and defining its core doctrines, so there were many heresies afloat that needed clarification and rejection.
- The Church had to protect itself from spies of the Roman government. Spies would identify and report to the authorities’ members and leaders of the local churches, to Rome for persecution and execution
- Confirmation – Confirmation, in the Roman catholic Church, Confirmation is delayed until the person to be confirmed has attained an age to give willing consent to accept the faith and governance of the Catholic Church. There are other Catholic churches, not of the Roman Rite who confirm the baptized; infant, child or adult, at the time of baptism. Key to both Baptism and Confirmation is the presumption of a promise to live a life consistent with the teachings of the Church.
- Eucharist – The Eucharist is the last of the three Initiation Rites – Baptism; Confirmation; Eucharist – of the Church. The origins of the Eucharist can be found in the Jewish seder meal (The Feast of the Passover) – What is the bread of affliction at the Seder?
During the course of the seder meal, the master of the table lifts the unleavened bread and declares, “This is the bread of affliction.” Later, he says the blessing for bread, breaks it, and distributes it to everyone at the table. The “Bread of Affliction” was the bread Israel ate while they were enslaved in Egypt. The breaking of the bread and distribution of the smaller half, was a sharing in the poverty of all people. When Jesus declares His Body as the Bread of Affliction, he is reminding us of our need to share in the poverty of others, to feed, clothe and heal others. It is a reminder that we too are dependent upon God’s mercy. The climax of the Eucharistic celebration is not the moment of transubstantiation; it is not even the receiving the Eucharist; the climax is in the dismissal whereby we go forth to be Eucharist for others; strengthened by what we had just experienced – the whole Mass.
- Matrimony – Marriage is the one sacrament that neither a priest, bishop or deacon administers. Married couples offer the sacrament to each other. The Sacramental minister (deacon, priest, or bishop) is present to witness the sacrament on behalf of the church. The Best man and Maid of Honor are there to witness the marriage for the state. Through the sacrament of marriage, couples give witness to the power of love and fidelity. In the sacrament of marriage, couples imitate to the world God’s relationship of fidelity, forgiveness and care to and for humanity.
- Reconciliation – At the core of every prophetic message in the Scriptures, is God’s appeal for reconciliation. Reconciliation erases the separation caused by sin. In order for that reconciliation to be real, it requires: contrition, repentance (a turning away from sin) and penance. There are many voices in the world telling us that we only need to tell God we are sorry; that we do not need to confess to another person by be forgiven. But we must remember that sin doesn’t just alienate us from God, sin alienates us from each other. In God’s wisdom and love, God established the Church, through her authority to hold or loose the bonds of sin, on earth and in heaven (c.f. Mtt 16:13-20). The priest, through an authority handed down by the ordaining bishop is simultaneously acting in the name of civil society and the church. “I absolve you…”
- Holy Orders – It the Catholic Church today, there is much debate among groups of faithful as to the question of ordaining women; as deacons or priests. I am not entering that argument! At present, Holy Orders are reserved for men. If a man is married for a minimum of ten years, he can be ordained a Permanent Deacon. If his wife dies, it requires an apostolic dispensation (from the pope) for him to re-marry. If a man is not married, he may be ordained a deacon first, and then a priest. He cannot marry and continue to serve as an ordained minister. At present there is a number (that number unknown to me) of married men who were Anglican priests who have left that church and are accepted into the Catholic Church as married priests. While as deacons and laity, we cannot function as a priest, sacramentally, we can in many ways in our daily lives extend the ministry of the priest through reconciliation, anointing the sick, and giving away our selves for others. Living our vocations as laity or ordained, we are under the same command to love one another.
- Anointing the Sick – Prior to the Second Vatican Council, this sacrament was known as Extreme Unction, or the last rites. An essential element of this sacrament is the taking away sin and sin’s remnants, where they occur. Thus, for generations, this rite was delayed until near death, presuming the person should die before being able to confess again. Thus, this rite picked up the moniker – The Last Rites. The Sacrament of Anointing is reserved to the order of priest, but the laity and deacons are not excused from our responsibility to assist in the pastoral care of the sick – When I was sick, you visited me and comforted me (Mtt 25:36b).
Through this rather lengthy explanation of the Sacraments, both through the clerical administration and the participation by the laity, I hope to inspire the notion that the sacraments underscore the life of the Church, and that the vitality of this sacramental life depends on the clergy and laity alike. The sacraments are not goals to be achieved, but waypoints and oasis along the road of life. They give direction, they provide strength and sustenance. Evangelization is an invitation to join in this sacramental life. We must recall though, that Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi warns that if evangelization begins and ends with the goal of simply filling churches, it robs true evangelization of its richness:
Any partial and fragmentary definition which attempts to render the reality of evangelization in all its richness, complexity and dynamism does so only at the risk of impoverishing it and even distorting it.
 The Prophetic Word, Bill Stimpson, Covenant Books 2022
 Pastoral Care of the Sick, 1983 p15
 Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI #23
 Ibid #17