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Our Common Path to Holiness in the Sacraments
Remarks by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila
Regis University’s Claver Hall, Room 306
10:30-11:00 a.m.

Thank you: Archbishop Alexander, Regis University, your fellow speakers (Judge Dennis Gallagher and Dr. John Jackson) and all present.

It is a true joy to be here with all of you to anticipate and celebrate the fact that the Orthodox and Catholic Churches will celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on the same day this year.
This occasion brings to mind some profound remarks that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew delivered at the site of the Resurrection during Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land in May 2014. Standing in front of the tomb of Jesus, Patriarch Bartholomew said:

It is with awe, emotion and respect that we stand before “the place where the Lord lay,” the life-giving tomb from which life emerged. And we offer glory to the all-merciful God, who rendered us, as His unworthy servants, worthy of this supreme blessing to become pilgrims in the place where the mystery of the world’s salvation transpired. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28:17)

We have come as the myrrh-bearing women, on the first day of the week, “to see the sepulcher” (Matt. 28:1), and we too, like they, hear the angelic exhortation: “Do not be afraid.” Remove from your hearts every fear; do not hesitate; do not despair. This Tomb radiates messages of courage, hope and life. [1]

Today, we are gathered here at Regis University to speak about our Common Way in Christ and what unites our Churches. Our gathering here has two inter-related purposes. First, to contribute to healing the wounds that exist in our unity as Christians by holding up what we have in common. And second, to rejoice over the happy occasion of our Churches celebrating Easter on the same date.

This noble and essential work reminds me of Pope St. John Paul II’s words in his encyclical on ecumenism Ut Unum Sint, whose title is the Latin version of Jesus’ prayer that his followers might all be one. In that work John Paul II said: “To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father’s plan from all eternity. Such is the meaning of Christ’s prayer: ‘Ut unum sint.’” [2]

The Orthodox bishop, Mark of Ephesus, in a letter to Catholics whom he disputed with at the Council of Florence, also urged engaging in dialogue. He wrote:

There is truly a need for much investigation and conversation in matters of theological disputation, so that the compelling and conspicuous arguments might be considered. There is profound benefit to be gained from such conversation if the objective is not altercation but truth, and if the intention is not solely to triumph over others … [3]

The world we live in today urgently needs a coherent Christian witness. Indeed, it desires to see Christianity authentically lived out, even if it doesn’t realize it. All one needs to do is look at the Millennial Generation’s desire for jobs and lives that have a meaningful purpose, at their demand for authenticity, or at the culture’s constant promotion of “love” – even if what it calls love is far from it.

As Archbishop Alexander and Judge Gallagher have already explained, we are united by Christ’s Passion and inspired by the witnesses of the saints. Together as Christian believers, we must draw on these sources of strength, and above all on the power of Christ’s resurrection, to give witness to an increasingly God-less society with courage and hope.

If the quest for unity among Christians that Jesus prayed for is to be achieved, then we must allow our discussions, friendships and actions to be nourished by the life-giving power of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This morning, I am speaking about another source of strength in our efforts to be leaven in the world: the gift of the Sacraments or Holy Mysteries. As the great theologian of Beirut, Fr. Jean Corbon, said, after the resurrection, “the economy of salvation takes on the form of liturgy.” Today, God continues his work of salvation in the liturgy, and it is here that we can find common elements and mutually enriching traditions.

I’d like to begin with a brief examination of the origin of these two different terms, since I believe it provides a study-in-miniature of how our two traditions can enrich each other.

When Catholics speak about the sacraments, we call them “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.” [4]

But the Greek word for the sacraments is mysterion, which is translated into Latin by two terms: mysterium and sacramentum. [5] Although the use of mysterium is present in the oldest liturgical books of the Western Church and even in the recent Eucharistic Prayer crafted under the authority of Blessed Paul VI, it is true that, frequently, in the Latin world we have tended to focus on the sacramental aspect of this reality. Catholics can forget that the sacraments are not just holy but also mysterious, especially in a world that is consumed with carefully quantifying and defining everything. It is helpful to be reminded that the visible signs we see point to an invisible reality that we only perceive “indistinctly, as in a mirror.” [6] This is but one example, and I’m sure that there are insights that Catholic theology and tradition offers that are beneficial for Orthodox believers.

My talk today is titled, “Our Common Path to Holiness in the Sacraments.” We are blessed to share a common belief in the Seven Sacraments, but this morning I am going to focus specifically on the Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation and the Holy Eucharist as sources of mutual inspiration and unity.

To begin correctly, some Catholic history is in order.

Historically, Catholics received the sacraments of initiation in the same order that the Orthodox Church confers them today: Baptism, Confirmation and then Eucharist. However, over time, the age of First Communion for Catholics fluctuated until Pope Pius X intervened and lowered it to the age of reason with his 1910 letter Quam Singulari. In doing so, he seemed to assume that the practice of confirming at the age of reason would be maintained, but for various reasons it began to be delayed until around 12 or 13 years-old. As most of you probably know, this is the common Catholic practice today, even though it is not the historic practice.

In Denver and other places, however, we are working to restore the order of the sacraments of initiation to their original order. I have decided to do this because the graces of Confirmation or Chrismation are inherently ordered toward the Eucharist. In addition, children today are in urgent need of every spiritual grace they can obtain. For that reason, and with the encouragement of Pope Benedict XVI, I restored the order of the sacraments of initiation when I was Bishop of Fargo and shortly after I arrived in Denver in 2012. By the year 2020, all parishes in the Archdiocese will baptize infants and confer confirmation and First Eucharist in the third grade, during the same ceremony. This return to the traditional order is not unique to Fargo and Denver. It is a recognition that is slowly spreading to other parts of the Catholic Church, after being highlighted by the Second Vatican Council and the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Now that you are aware of the local Catholic situation, which is more closely aligned with the Orthodox practice of conferring Baptism, Chrismation and Frist Eucharist for infants, I will offer some reflections on our complementary understanding of Baptism.

Baptism comes from the Greek word baptizein, which means to “plunge” or “immerse.” It signifies our burial into Christ’s death and our resurrection with Him as a new creature. [7]

In his famous work, The Life in Christ, the 14th-Century Orthodox mystic Nicholas Cabasilas speaks about Baptism in similar terms. He says: “‘New birth’ and ‘new creation’ mean nothing else than that those who are born and created have been born previously and have lost their original form, but now return to it by a second birth. … It engraves an image and imparts a form to our souls by conforming them to the death and resurrection of the Savior.” [8]

Here is a point of unity for us. Since we are united by our baptism with Christ, we are also united – albeit imperfectly [9] – in the Mystical Body of Christ. That is why the Second Vatican Council declared, “Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” [10]

In other words, Catholic and Orthodox Christians are purified by the same blood and water that poured from the side of Jesus Christ as he hung on the Cross. This blood and water has been seen by our great Fathers, both Eastern and Western, such as St. John Chrysostom [11] and St. Augustine, [12] as the source of the mysteries, the font of life of the Church. From there we receive the water of Baptism and the Blood of the Eucharist.

The water that gushed forth from Christ’s side on the Cross is poured out on us in Baptism and makes us brothers and sisters. And from this water, we are also called to a common mission to carry the Gospel to the world. According to 1 Peter 2:9, we are “‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own’” and we therefore have the mission of announcing the praises of him who called us “out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

Both Orthodox and Catholics believe that the graces of Confirmation complete those of Baptism, [13] so let us now turn to that mystery.

In the sacrament of Chrismation or Confirmation, we are strengthened and sealed for our Christian life by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In Confirmation, the graces of our Baptism are completed and our souls receive an indelible spiritual mark. [14]

The renowned Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann (pronounced Sh-meh-man) points out that our anointing with the Holy Spirit is not confined to our souls. He writes, “And again, it is not his ‘soul’ alone … that is thus confirmed, but the totality of his human being. His whole body is anointed, sealed, sanctified, dedicated to the new life” of living in the graces of the Holy Spirit. [15]

We know from 1 Corinthians 14 and the descent of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, among other places in Scripture, that the Holy Spirit pours out different gifts on different people. As Fr. Schmemann states, “The confirmation is the confirmation of man in his own, unique ‘personality.’ It is, to use again the same image, his ordination to be himself, to become what God wants him to be, what He has loved in me from all eternity.” [16]

As we search for areas in which we can edify one another, Catholic and Orthodox Christians should search out how the Holy Spirit is pouring out his gifts on each other. These inspirations of the Spirit in our brothers and sisters could provide avenues for engaging in works of mercy together or perhaps ideas for evangelization.

Finally, I would like to turn our attention to the Holy Eucharist or Divine Liturgy.

St. John Chrysostom’s Divine Liturgy beautifully expresses the depth and weight of what Christians encounter when they worship and receive Holy Communion. As he begins the portion of the liturgy in which Communion is received, the priest prays:

Hearken, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, from Your holy dwelling place and from the throne of glory of Your Kingdom, and come to sanctify us, You Who are enthroned with the Father on high and are present among us invisibly here. And with Your mighty hand, grant Communion of Your most pure Body and precious Blood to us, and through us to all the people. [17]

One can hear in the prayers of the Divine Liturgy and the Mass how the Eucharist is the sacrament of sacraments, the culmination of our worship. This is why the Second Vatican Council called it “the source and summit of the Christian life.” [18]

When we gather together as believers to participate in the Divine Liturgy or Mass, we join ourselves to the heavenly banquet, receiving spiritual nourishment and giving thanks (eucharistein) to Christ for his sacrifice on the Cross, for the constant graces he pours out upon us, and for the gift of Creation. [19] Put another way, our offering of thanks “is the entrance of the Church into the joy of its Lord.” [20]

It must be said that while Catholics and Orthodox do not share in each other’s Communion, since we are not yet united in all our beliefs, we do partake in a sacrament which shares the same eternal orientation. The Eucharist, in the words of the 1982 Munich meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, “brings to mind the possibility given to man, and through him, to the whole cosmos, to experience the ‘new creation,’ the kingdom of God here and now through material and created realities.” [21]

We can take solace in the fact that Catholics and Orthodox are both participating in and striving to reach the Kingdom of God. We are also sent to make it present in the world. This mission orientation is apparent in both the Divine Liturgy and the Mass. As the Orthodox priest leaves the altar he declares, “Let us depart in peace.” And at the conclusion of Mass, the priest or deacon if one is present, says, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.”

Our common eternal and missionary orientations are a point of unity for us.

We have covered quite a bit of territory in these last few minutes, and in the limited time we have today it is difficult to address these points of unity at the level that they deserve. Indeed, hundreds of books have been written and countless hours of discussion have taken place on these very topics.

It is my hope that you will leave here today with a renewed appreciation for the many points of agreement and unity that Orthodox and Catholic Christians already share, and a renewed interest in pursuing opportunities for making our shared commitment to Christ tangible.

I began my talk by referencing the 2014 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and I’d like to end by returning to that same place.

On that occasion, Patriarch Bartholomew recalled how his predecessor Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI first visited Christ’s tomb together 50 years before. By meeting each other, he said, they “cast out fear; they cast away from themselves the fear which had prevailed for a millennium, a fear which had kept the two ancient Churches, of the West and East, at a distance from one another, sometimes even setting them up against each other. Instead, as they stood before this sacred space, they exchanged fear with love.” [22]

Pope Francis also offered words of encouragement to all Orthodox and Catholics at the 2014 gathering. He urged, “Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the basis of our hope, which is this: Christòs anesti! Let us not deprive the world of the joyful message of the resurrection! And let us not be deaf to the powerful summons to unity which rings out from this very place, in the words of the One who, risen from the dead, calls all of us ‘my brothers.’” [23]

Following the exhortation of the Apostle John to the early Christians, “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God” (1 John 4:7).

Thank you for your attentiveness and for this opportunity to promote greater Christian unity. May God bless you!


1 Remarks given by His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on May 25, 2014.

2 Pope St. John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, #9, 1995.

3 Note Bene: The Orthodox hold Mark of Ephesus (nee Manuel Eugenikos, d. 1444) to be a saint. The citation here is from Documents relatifs au concile de Florence, vol. 1 Patrologia Oreintalis XV, Fasc. 1, No 72.

4 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131.

5 CCC, 774.

6 1 Corinthians 13:12, NABRE.

7 CCC, 1214.

8 Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, p. 67, St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1974.

Unitatis redintegratio refers to our unity as “imperfect,” hence the use of “partially.”

10 Second Vatican Council’s, Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis redintegratio, 81.

11 John Chrysostom, “Homily 85,” in Saint John Chrysostom. Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist. Homilies 48-88, trans. Sister Thomas Aquinas Goggin, S.C.H. (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1960), 435. MPG 59, 23-482.

12 See Augustine, “Tract 120,” 2, in St. Augustine. Tractates on the Gospel of John 112-24. Tractates on the First Epistle of John, ed. John W. Rettig (Washington D.C., Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 46. CCSL 36.

13 CCC, 1304; Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 75, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963.

14 Cf. CCC, 1302-1305.

15 Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 75.

16 Ibid. p. 76.

17 The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, First prayer offered by the priest in the Holy Communion section.

18 Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 11.

19 CCC, 1356-1372.

20 Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 26.

21 Second Plenary Meeting of the Joint Commission for Theological Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, The Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, Munich, 1982.

22 Remarks given by His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on May 25, 2014.

23 Remarks given by Pope Francis at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on May 25, 2014.