The Sacraments: Historical Foundations and Liturgical Theology

Updated: Jul 2

by Kevin W. Irwin

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



I interviewed Father Kevin Irwin previously and read his book on the Eucharist at the same time. What a joy to my Catholicism. It is clearly and wonderfully written by a holy man of God. Irwin states: “The purpose of this book (The Sacraments) is to offer an overview of what sacraments are and what they do.” The first part of the text concerns the historical evolution of sacraments and sacramental practice from their biblical foundations through the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Part2 is a methodological bridge that describes the sources and method that will be applied in part 3 concerning the liturgy as a major and form foundation for understanding the theology of the sacraments today. “The heart of this book is about the ways in which the liturgy of the sacraments has been celebrated and understood in history and the ways in which the liturgy can influence how we understand the sacraments today.” Writing about the sacraments is meant to assist in understanding, appreciating, and ultimately, immersing ourselves more and more fully, richly and deeply in their enactment. Bur writing is no substitute for celebrating sacraments and, through them, being embraced again and again by God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to be sanctified and to be more and more fully who we are as those who celebrate sacraments and who grow in the life of faith through them.


Each of the eighteen chapters has an opening purpose of each of the chapters. It has a conclusion and discussion questions for each of the chapters. In Chapter 8 the purpose of the chapter is to summarize the teaching from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II on the theology of the liturgy and the sacraments, its instruction that all the liturgical rites of the Church should be revised, the indications the council fathers gave as to the nature of the reforms, and then the process that led to the revisions. The present rites for the liturgy in the Catholic Church in use today were revised as a result of the Constitution. The last section of this chapter summarizes a number of valuable approaches to sacramental theology that have emerged during and in light of Vatican II. Pages 151-158 are invaluable sources of information concerning the sacraments. “The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ, and finally, to give worship to God.


In conclusion the purpose of this book has been that the liturgy can and should be the basis about what we understand the sacraments to be and the way the celebration of sacramental liturgy affects our understanding and living of the Christian life. Taking this premise to be true, three words are in order about the celebration of sacramental liturgy to conclude this text. Be prepared: it should be clear that there is a great deal that goes into the design and celebration of sacramental liturgy. To pray over the Scripture readings and the prayer texts and rites before the liturgy can be one way to deepen our appreciation of what takes place in the celebration. Participate: one of the chief aims of the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II has been the active participation of the entire gathered assembly in the liturgy. Life revelation: From what has been argued here, it is clear that we can understand the sacraments in a number of ways, especially when we examine the liturgy by which we celebrate them. One of the advantages of the reformed liturgies is that it is normally celebrated in the language of the people celebrating it so that comprehension and engagement in the liturgy is facilitated. Another advantage is that the reformed liturgy repeatedly makes reference to our need for God and our living out in life what we celebrate. This is an excellent book on the sacraments and the ways they are celebrated today.


The author: In the spring 2013 Msgr. Irwin taught in the CUAbroad program in Rome and while there was a regular commentator on CNN and other media outlets on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis. At present he is assisting the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship to draft the statement "Stewards of the Tradition" to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from the Second Vatican Council to be published by the committee next fall.