Sacraments as symbols?

Our archdiocese (Cincinnati, OH) uses the CNS and their “columnists” for the bulk of its newspaper - The Catholic Telegraph.

One of the regular columnists is Fr. John Dietzen, a retired priest in Peoria. Recently he answered a question about the physical presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.

To me, it seemed that the good father spoke of every form of Jesus’s presence in liturgy and exegetical things, but failed miserably in stating the teachings of the Catholic Church. He made a statement about Christ’s presence in the Sacred Scripture as being on par with Christ’s presence in Eucharist.

Now, correct me if I am wrong, but do I have to go to confession in order to the read Bible when I fall into sin? (Yes, I know too many people go to Communion in the wrong state of grace, but the teaching is pretty clear.)

Well, I wrote to my Archbishop --Daniel Pilarczyk and quoted the portions of the article that I found troubling. I got a reply that I was too harsh in my judgement of Fr. Dietzen and then here is the big line “All sacraments are symbols”

I quoted the late, great Fr. John Hardon, SJ with “While all the sacraments confer grace, only the Eucharist contains the author of grace himself, Jesus Christ”.

I use that quote as part of my PEA’s newsletter masthead.

What have I misunderstood that makes saying the sacraments are symbols compared with sacraments as outward signs, instituted by Christ as a means for transmitting sanctifying grace being contradictory in nature?

Please tell me that I haven’t had psychotic breaks when I thought Jesus, present in the Eucharist – just after consecration – called me by name and asked me when I would come to His banquet table. Because if the Eucharist is just a symbol, obviously I have lied to myself or had a break with reality.

Yes the Sacraments are outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace. Signs are symbols of a reality. The reality is that we encounter the living Christ in every sacrament. The Eucharest differs from the others in that Christ is not only spiritually present, but substantially present under the appearances of bread and wine. Christ is also spiritually present in many other situations as well; in His Spoken Word, where two or more are gathered in His name, and so on. The Church has seen fit to call only seven of these ways of encountering Christ as Sacraments with a capital “S”. They do not depend on us or the priest to make them effective as Christ, himself, is acting. How much good they end up accomplishing in us does depend on our readiness to receive those graces.I recall reading that very column and had no difficulty with it. Fr. Deitzen is capable and orthodox, but I think from time to time people think he should have explained more or better the theological point he was trying to make.

The word “symbol” comes from the Greek word “symbolon” which literally meant “to bring or throw together.” The “symbol” of the Eucharist brings the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ together with His creatures, intimately binding them together each time the mass is celebrated.

So, yes, it is a symbol, but the word “symbol” does not mean what you think it means. The same thing is true of the waters of baptism. They “symbolize” our cleansing from sin, but they also accomplish what they signify. The grace of baptism is made present.

Does that make any sense?


Thanks both of you. I figured I had to be misunderstanding something. I know that my bishop can be on the liberal side - but I know he is sincerely a shepherd of our flock. I couldn’t see where any priest who has had the opportunity to confect Jesus in the Holy Eucharist could ever down play such a miracle.

It is good to know that the definition of symbol is very different from what the common vernacular has for it helps greatly.

I remember Fr. Levis once saying that without people learning philosophy and understanding the vocabulary of it, that most apologetics would go no where because the players aren’t speaking the same language.

I guess this is one of those situations. I do wish Fr. Dietzen had given some space to the CCC’s take on Holy Eucharist as the source and summit of our faith.

If more of our separated brethren could get the spiritual smack up side the head that I got, well I guess there would be even less need for the philosophy.

My sons – ages 6.5 and 8 yrs – have gotten me into the lovely habit of acknowledging the Lord in the Eucharist every time we pass a church and the seminary that we live by. We also say a quick prayer for the seminarians and all those who help to form our future priests.

I believe Flannery O’Connor said something very much like the following in response to the usual Protestant claim that the Eucharist is just a symbol: “If the Eucharist is just a symbol, then to hell with it.”

Grace & Peace!

I would reference here the Eastern Christian view of the symbol. In the West, when we hear the word “symbol” we think to ourselves, “Oh, it must not be ‘real’ then.” In the East (and thanks to the influence of Neo-Platonism on the development of Christianity), a symbol is considered more real than your breakfast. The symbol has a relationship with an order of being which is of greater metaphysical reality than you are. So in the East, they generally detest the West’s penchant to dissect what exactly is happening in the Eucharist, and are content to call it a symbol with the understanding that the Eucharist, through its relationship with the Reality of Jesus Christ (i.e., by virtue of its symbolic nature), is Really and truly the Body and Blood of Jesus.

In the West, we’ve forgotten the difference between a symbol and a sign and think that all symbolism is merely sign-oriented. This is not the case. A sign is always only what it is. It does not point beyond itself. It is merely a placeholder. A symbol is more than it is. A symbol points beyond itself. In the West, we’ve lost this notion of symbolic thinking. Our sacred art and our understanding of the sacraments suffer because of it. We are not interested in Mystery, and therefore the idea of the sacred (which is Mystery) is frightening and scary. We bend to the scholastic impulse. We attempt to rationalize and categorize the Divine. We remove from ourselves the symbols which confuse us, or explain them away until they have only a mere intellectual value.

A symbol, in ancient times, was like half of a coin that one kept, the other half being given to an absent friend. The half of coin one possesses, brings to mind the absent half as well as the possessor of the absent half. In other words, it is the nature of the symbol to make present an absent reality. The symbol points to a reality which is greater than itself. The bread of the Eucharist is one half of the symbol–the other is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ which is made fully present and fully real in the likeness of the bread. The consecrated elements do not lack the presence of Jesus. This does not mean that the sacrament is not symbolic, however. The sacrament is more Real than you are.

Under the Mercy,

Deo Gratias!

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