I can recall my First Communion, but not for the reasons given in the catechism of the day. I remember the actual first communion Mass and all of its pre-game warm-ups and rehearsals as a great deal of trouble, right down to trying to find a white shirt that fit properly. The ceremony itself was stressful, and in an abundance of caution and devotion I walked very slowly (apparently too slowly) back to my pew, only to be scolded about it later at home—a memory that is rather influential in my adult attitude toward the Church today, 60 years later. The next day, however, a Monday, the First Communion class had the day off from school, and I went to Mass by myself, the early morning parish Mass with several elderly nuns and a handful of day laborers. That day I felt something special was happening, I was receiving with the grown-ups and now enjoyed the privileges of a grown-up church. I count that day as my true First Communion. (I had no idea, of course, that I was instinctively embracing something of Martin Luther’s theology of sacraments, but I have no regrets about that, though.)
The other sacramental experiences of my life varied considerably. My sixth-grade Confirmation was a let-down. Having been told of all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, I remember sitting alone in my living room after the ceremony thinking to myself that I felt no different than two hours before. My ordination to priesthood, by contrast, was a profound moment. I still recall lying on the floor as Archbishop (later Cardinal) Joseph Bernardin offered the consecrational prayer that conferred the order of presbyterate or priesthood. I felt the moment as the climax of twelve years of seminary training—from age 14 to age 26—and then I was vested in full chasuble by my professor and now fellow priest “Corky” Corcoran, the happiness and smile on his face overwhelming, and impressing on me the brotherhood of the clergy in the best sense of the word.
We can imagine that the “personal element” of sacramental experience was quite intense for first century Christians as well—probably much more intense than mine--that those who were saved from sin by baptism and who broke bread on Sunday in obedience to the Lord’s instruction (the two “sacraments” then celebrated by the post-Apostolic Church). All the same, as profoundly engaging as baptismal water and Eucharistic food might be, the subjective human experience of these rites was not powerful enough to transform their participants in totality. This is very evident from the letters of St. Paul himself, no less, addressed to churches or Christian communities he himself had founded. His letters give evidence of all sorts of human failings among baptized Christians, from incest to drunkenness at the Eucharistic banquet itself.
Paul and the other first century pastors did not coin the word “sacrament” in the sense we use it to describe our seven sacraments. (The full definition of seven sacraments was still a millennium away!) Paul would use the term sacramentum but in the sense that Romans and other contemporaries used the term, as a mystery or sign of divine action. Medieval scholars would misunderstand Paul as speaking of a sacramentum as it was understood in, say, the thirteenth century. For Paul, it was enough to say that at certain moments particular human rites connected with divine reality—in his time forgiveness of sins, rebirth in God’s new creation, and the eating of the Body and Blood of the Lord until he came again in glory.
Paul can be called the father of sacramental theology, though, because he understood that these rites combined a human experience with a divine reality. Paul believed and taught that baptism re-created a human being from a state of slavery of sin to a membership in the household of God. Clearly there were baptized persons who understood this and lived accordingly, and unfortunately there were those who after baptism returned to a life of selfishness and debauchery. For Paul, those who failed to live their baptismal promises did not just revert to their pre-baptism wretchedness, to so speak. Rather, their sin was a betrayal of their very selves, for Paul understood baptism as a pledge and a change that could never be reversed. Hence his strong words to the Corinthians that if they continued to eat and drink the Eucharist in sin, they were eating and drinking judgment unto themselves. In other words, regardless of their experience, the reality of their sacraments remained.
It would be later Church scholars, including St. Thomas Aquinas, who would expand upon the idea that certain sacramental events—baptism, confirmation, and orders, for example—changed the essence of a person; in medieval language it would be said that the soul—the metaphysical side of a person--was “marked indelibly” by certain sacraments and thus could never be repeated in the lifetime of a person. Other sacraments, though repeatable, would also impact the basic reality of a baptized person; and, as in Corinth, the participant’s reaction has consequences that can be experienced now—joy, indifference—and in the final judgment. In short, the reality of Catholic sacraments, then and today, involves both the action of the Holy Spirit through the Church and the subjective participation of the participant in faith. My sense is that in terms of Mass, for example, we are well aware that on many Sundays God does our heavy lifting--as He did for me in 1956.