In one way or another each of the sacraments speaks to us of loving intimacy. They are a common, sacred currency shared by God and humanity, involving us in His life and Him in ours. They are, I believe, vital contributing factors to the sanity of the world. As long as a significant number take advantage of them there is reason to hope for universal progress. I speak principally but not exclusively of the seven sacraments as first listed by the Church in the 12th century. But the word continues to have a broader meaning so as to include any recognized manifestation of God's power and love in space and time.
In fact, the first sacrament is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. To quote Mark Francis of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago: "It is from the Word taking flesh in the person of Christ in His living, suffering, dying and rising again, that all sacraments ultimately derive their power. The Church is also a sacrament insofar as it is a continuation of Christ's presence on earth until the end of time. It is the Church, existing in time and space that proclaims God's powerful love for humanity in and through the Paschal Mystery of the Risen Lord."
The Sacraments are God's gift to us. They were never intended to be, on the one hand, part of a reward structure and on the other, a convenient context within which to inflict punishment.
Every day we celebrate the sacrament that is most central, most precious to Catholic Christians. The Eucharist. Indeed we identify our selves as a Eucharistic People. It is the key to our individual intimacy with Jesus and our consequent relationship to each other. What, after all, can be more binding than a flesh and blood relationship?
It grieves me that there has always been, among some members of the clergy, a tendency to use that precious source of belonging, consolation, strength, joy, peace, and hope as though it were theirs to bestow or refuse as they saw fit. In some ways this punitive approach to the Eucharist has become institutionalized while in others it appears to be whimsical. I suspect that the problem lies with an implicit rejection of the potential compatibility of unity and diversity.
A teaching Church need not be a commanding Church as much as a compelling Church. If we are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, it is not because we are ill equipped or under staffed. It is very likely because of a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit. A lack of trust manifested in a passion for regulating, threatening, controlling and ultimately alienating. To what end?