The Sacraments of the Catholic Church
Patrick Breen, O.Carm. This article was written to briefly explain the sacraments of the Catholic Church. A greater explanation can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), and the numbers in brackets with the word Catechism refers to the appropriate paragraphs in the Catechism.
Today, the Roman Catholic Church celebrates seven ‘sacraments.’ A sacrament is a sign of a particular grace which strengthens our faith and spiritual life and draws us into greater union and intimacy with God. Sacraments are efficacious signs of grace and they bear fruit in those who receive them. They dispense or communicate to us the fruits of Christ’s Paschal mystery through their liturgical celebration, covering every aspect of life from birth to death. The sacraments were instituted by Christ and were entrusted by him to the Church.
The sacraments can be placed into three categories, namely the Sacraments of Initiation, the Sacraments of Healing, and the Sacraments at the Service of Communion and the Mission of the Faithful.
The Sacraments of Initiation
The Sacrament of Baptism
The first of the sacraments is Baptism in which the person to be baptised becomes a member of Christ’s Church. Christ himself was baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan at the beginning of his public ministry. In St Matthew’s Gospel he sends out his disciples with the instruction “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) During the Rite of Baptism water is poured on the head of the candidate or the candidate is immersed in water in the same way that Christ was baptized in water. For baptism to be valid it must also be in the name of the Most Holy Trinity – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Baptism does not simply confer membership of the Church, it also wipes away original sin which has been passed on to us from our first parents. In baptism we become a new creation in the Lord.
Baptism places an indelible mark on the soul, or a sign or character which consecrates us for God. Because of this the sacrament, once validly administered, can never be repeated. There is only one baptism. Baptism is essential for salvation and so the tradition in the Church has been to baptise people soon after birth. However, baptism can be administered at any age. In the case of infant baptism, the promises are made for the infants by their parents and godparents who also take on the responsibility of bringing the child up in the faith. Later in life, at Confirmation, the child will renew these promises for themselves. (Catechism 1213-1284)
The Sacrament of Confirmation
The second of the Sacraments of Initiation is the Sacrament of Confirmation which confirms and perfects what was received at baptism. This sacrament leaves a mark on the soul and is only administered once. In confirmation we receive the Holy Spirit in a very special way and are united more closely with Christ and are given the necessary grace to go out and spread the Gospel – the mission to which all of us are called. In the Latin or Western Church the sacrament is received once the age of reason has been reached and therefore it is received with the consent of the candidate who is “prepared to assume the role of disciple and witness for Christ.” (Catechism 1319) The sacrament is normally celebrated by a bishop, though he may delegate another priest to do so if the need arises. (Catechism 1285-1321)
The Sacrament of the Eucharist
The Eucharist is the most important of all the sacraments and is the source and summit of all life. The sacrament was instituted by Christ during the Last Supper, or the Passover Meal, on the night before he died. During the meal, Christ took some bread and gave to his apostles saying “Take and eat, this is my body.” He also took the cup of wine and giving it to them said “Take and drink, this my blood.”
During the celebration of the Eucharist we listen to God’s Word in the Sacred Scriptures, we praise and thank him for his goodness and we ask for what we need. At the central part of the celebration bread and wine are offered and they become the body and blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Catholics, we do not believe that these elements represent the body and blood of Christ but that they really, truly and substantially are the very body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine.
“It is Christ himself, the eternal high priest of the New Covenant who, acting through the ministry of the priests, offers the Eucharistic sacrifice. And it is the same Christ, really present under the species of bread and wine, who is the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice.” (Catechism 1410) The Eucharist can only be consecrated by a validly ordained priest and only those members of the Church who have been baptized and have received their First Holy Communion (usually sometime after the age of seven years) may receive Holy Communion in the Catholic Church.
In the Eucharist, we come into greater union with Christ himself through receiving Holy Communion. With Christ present in us we are able to live life according to the values of the Gospel and to strengthen the unity and mission of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. It is therefore recommended that the faithful in a state of grace should receive Holy Communion whenever they attend the Eucharistic celebration.
The bread and wine, once consecrated, becomes the body and blood of Christ and remains so. It is therefore treated with utmost respect and reverence and the Sacred Host is reserved in Church buildings so that it may be distributed to the faithful at another time, that it may be taken to the sick and the housebound, and that the faithful may come into the presence of the Lord and pray before him whenever they enter a church or chapel. The hosts are placed in special vessels and kept in a tabernacle in a prominent place. A red lamp lights in the vicinity of the tabernacle to indicate that Christ is present in the Sacred Host. (Catechism 1322-1419)
The Sacraments of Healing
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
In baptism our sins are wiped away by the waters of baptism and our soul’s purity is once again restored. However, human nature means we have a tendency to go wrong and to fall into sin which separates us from God and from the Church. In the Sacrament of Penance we come before God, in the person of the priest, to confess our sins and to seek forgiveness. The sacrament is not simply about telling a priest how often we did something wrong but about removing the barrier we have placed between ourselves and God. It is also an opportunity to speak with the priest and to receive advice and direction on something which may be troubling us. We also hear the powerful words “I absolve you from your sins” – which in themselves can bring tremendous healing to our lives. We also make reparation to God in the form of penance which the priest gives during the sacrament. This is a most beautiful sacrament and one which the faithful need have no fear of. So intimate is the sacrament between the penitent and God that nothing the priest ever hears in the confessional may be repeated to another person, even in a court of law. Only a validly ordained priest with the proper authority may administer this sacrament. (Catechism 1422-1498)
The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick
“The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick has as its purpose the conferral of a special grace on the Christian experiencing the difficulties inherent in the condition of grave illness or old age.” (Catechism 1527) Throughout Christ’s earthly ministry he cured those who came to him and restored to life those who had died. In this sacrament the faithful who are in danger of death due to illness or old age are anointed so that they may be given the strength and patience to bear their illness. If it is the Lord’s will those who are anointed may also be restored to good health. In the sacrament, those who have been ordained priest, anoint the forehead and hands of the sick person which is accompanied by liturgical prayer. Those who are able may also receive the Eucharist, or “Viaticum,” to strengthen them in their last moments. (Catechism 1499-1532)
Sacraments at the Service of Communion
These two sacraments help to build up the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, by helping in the salvation of others.
The Sacrament of Holy Orders
All the baptised share in the common priesthood of Christ in that we all share in his mission of spreading the Good News and building the kingdom here on earth. To assist this common priesthood of the faithful there is another form of priesthood which is conferred by the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Ordination confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful by which the ordained teach the faithful, lead divine worship, and oversee the running of the Church. There are three degrees in the ordained priesthood – bishop, priest and deacon. At the head of the Church is the bishop who also represents Christ as the shepherd of the flock. Working with him are his priests who receive their authority to minister from him. Assisting these are the deacons who are servants of the Church. In the Roman and Orthodox Churches, only men may be ordained for ministerial service and only a bishop may ordain. (Catechism 1536-1600)
The Sacrament of Matrimony
For Catholics, a validly contracted marriage between two baptised people is a sacrament and is therefore indissoluble. Marriage also signifies the union between Christ and his Church. Celebrating the sacrament helps to strengthen the couple for their new life together, and to bring them into greater union with one another and with God. Marriage is also life-giving in that it gives new life to the two individuals and may also lead to the life of a new child. Because of the teachings of Christ, divorce is not allowed in the Catholic Church. Marriage can only be ended through the death of a spouse. One who is divorced and whose former spouse is still living, may not be remarried in the Church. Essential to getting married is the free and open consent of both partners to the union. (Catechism 1601-1666)
These then are the seven sacraments of the Latin and Orthodox Churches. There are also other sacred signs which are known as “sacramentals” and which were instituted by the Church. While not on the same level as the seven sacraments outlined above they do serve to strengthen and protect the spiritual life of the Christian. A blessing is a sacramental and there are many forms of blessings. Also included as a sacramental would be the sprinkling of people, places and objects with holy water. The Church itself can also be seen as a sacrament. (Catechism 1667-1679)