Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 59

We begin our article-by-article exploration of Chapter III of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, examining the Council Fathers’ teaching on the sacraments in addition to the Eucharist and on the sacramentals.

Vatican website translation:

59. The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God; because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called “sacraments of faith.” They do indeed impart grace, but, in addition, the very act of celebrating them most effectively disposes the faithful to receive this grace in a fruitful manner, to worship God duly, and to practice charity.
It is therefore of the highest importance that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs, and should frequent with great eagerness those sacraments which were instituted to nourish the Christian life.

Latin text:

59. Sacramenta ordinantur ad sanctificationem hominum, ad aedificationem Corporis Christi, ad cultum denique Deo reddendum; ut signa vero etiam ad instructionem pertinent. Fidem non solum supponunt, sed verbis et rebus etiam alunt, roborant, exprimunt; quare fidei sacramenta dicuntur. Gratiam quidem conferunt, sed eorum celebratio fideles optime etiam disponit ad eandem gratiam fructuose recipiendam, ad Deum rite colendum et ad caritatem exercendam.
Maxime proinde interest ut fideles signa Sacramentorum facile intellegant et ea Sacramenta impensissime frequentent, quae ad vitam christianam alendam sunt instituta.

Slavishly literal translation:


59. The sacraments are ordered to the sanctifying of human beings, to the building up of the Body of Christ, and finally to rendering worship to God; assuredly as signs they also pertain to instruction. They not only presume faith, but also by words and deeds they feed, strengthen and express [it]; therefore they are called sacraments of faith. Indeed they confer grace, but their celebration also disposes the faithful in the best way for receiving that grace fruitfully, for worshiping God properly and for exercising charity.

In the same manner it is of greatest import that the faithful should understand the signs of the Sacraments easily and that they should attend those Sacraments, which have been instituted for nourishing Christian life, very zealously.


When the Council Fathers turn their attention to the reform of the liturgical celebration of the sacraments and the sacramentals in Chapter Three, they follow the format we have seen in earlier chapters, beginning with a theological preamble and following up with particular decrees. Here the theological preamble occurs in art. 59-62, with the practical decrees appearing in art. 63-82.

Art. 59 succinctly treats the sacraments in general. (These assertions also apply to the Eucharist which has been treated in Chapter II.) The entire article can be viewed as an attempt to unpack the axiom that the sacraments confer grace by signifying. The sacraments’ ultimate purpose is found in the order of grace: giving proper worship to God by transforming human beings in holiness and leading them into and sustaining them in the life of the Church. But this ultimate purpose, while escaping total apprehension in this world of space and time, is nonetheless signified by signs and sign-systems appropriate to each sacrament’s conferral of grace; these signs and sign-systems have cognitive and emotional impact upon human beings who celebrate the sacraments liturgically.

The article acknowledges the dialectic underlying any understanding of the relationship of sacramental celebration to Christian faith. On the one hand, without at least rudimentary Christian faith, those engaging the words and gestures of liturgical sacramental worship will not perceive the spiritual realities embodied and pointed to by those sacramental signs. On the other, the very act of engaging the words and gestures of liturgical sacramental worship actualizes to some degree the inchoate faith of those who participate in them. Thus while the sacraments confer grace ex opere operato, their proper liturgical celebration disposes the faithful toward removing any obex (obstacle) that may stand in the way of fruitfully receiving the sacramental grace conferred by the sacrament, the sanctifying grace that equips the faithful to worship God, and the actual graces to live out the Christian life nourished by the sacraments.

Finally, the Council Fathers note two desiderata for the liturgical celebration of the sacraments to have the effects outlined above. First the signs employed in sacramental celebration should be within the comprehension of those celebrating these sacramental liturgies; these signs and sign-systems include but are not limited to personnel, language, music, posture, gesture, objects, color, time, architecture and silence. Second, the faithful should regularly engage in sacramental liturgies, for without full, conscious and active participation in the sacraments regularly encountered, the effects of the sacraments on the faithful’s life of grace and intellectual and emotional development would be constrained.


Pray Tell readers may wish to discuss how well these understandings of sacramental theology have been communicated to the faithful in the past fifty years; whether or not the sacramental theology articulated here has been enriched, rejected or superceded by subsequent sacramental theology; what minimum level of faith is needed for fruitful engagement with the liturgical celebration of a sacrament; what the criteria are for determining how easily the faithful are to understand sacramental signs and sign-systems; and what the implications stemming from decreased attendance at liturgical celebrations are for deep experience of sacramental life.


  1. Because I have ministered in the same parish in one diocese for 35 years, I can only comment on the local situation. In our parish, we have solid preparation programs for baptism ( regularly celebrated at mass), First Penance, (celebrated communally), First Eucharist (regularly celebrated at one liturgy – exceptions can be made) and Confirmation. The diocese has solid Pre-Cana prep and our parish sponsors one each year. Catechesis for the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick has been ongoing – we have a communal anointing once a year and parishioners have come to ask for the anointing as they face surgery or other procedures.
    The only thing I can say about Holy Orders is that our diocese has a house of formation for pre-theology candidates.
    On the negative side, I see too much of the influence of the secularization of our society. I have been to both Baptism prep and 1st Eucharist parent meetings. When the subject of Mass attendance arises, some parents wonder what they are supposed to do if they don’t go to church (!!!!)
    They wonder why church attendance is necessary for their children to receive these sacraments. It makes one scratch one’s head and wonder why they are there at all. And it makes one pray that “the effects of the sacrament” would not be too constrained.

  2. Thank you for your insights, Fr Joncas, on this profoundly important section of SC, which even now seems immense to me in its significance. This is the pole that seems to vault the sacramental revolution begun by Pope St Pius X over the post into a new dimension, and out of the field of the Second Millennium where the sacraments were primarily considered from a juridical/cultic perspective.

  3. I have been dedicated over the past 40+ years to celebrating the sacraments in such a manner that their meaning and purpose are evident. This has also involved providing adult and parent formation classes including those for sacramental prep. Of course, the principal sacramental prep program–and one that affects the whole parish–is that associated with the RCIA. Probably nothing has contributed more than these rites to a better understanding of how sacraments are involved in building our relationship with God in Christ. But there are still many who think of sacraments as spiritual things to be obtained in connection with newborns, second graders, and teenagers. We mustn’t give up or assume we’ve accomplished the goal.

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