By: Ian Nelson, Columnist
What are the sacraments, and why are they so important? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (1131). The seemingly simple acts that constitute the sacraments instill in us the life of God Himself! Since Catholics believe that the purpose of their existence is to come into union with God, the sacraments are vitally important for this end. There are seven sacraments, and each is categorized into one of three groups: initiation, healing and service. The sacraments of initiation are Baptism, the Eucharist, and Confirmation. Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick are the sacraments of healing. Matrimony and Holy Orders are the sacraments of service.
Each sacrament is comprised of three elements: matter, the physical part through which the grace is bestowed; form, the words that accompany the actions; and minister, the one who performs the actions and says the words. Each sacrament has its own place in the Christian life, and each one bestows grace upon us in its own way.
The sacraments of initiation are, as the name suggests, those by which we become members of the Church. The first sacrament is always Baptism, for by it we are cleansed of Original Sin, and all other sin on our souls, and become children of God. When the waters of Baptism are poured over our heads, all trace of sin in us is destroyed, and we are filled with sanctifying grace, the divine life. The matter of Baptism is the water, and just as water is used to clean the body, in Baptism, the pouring of the water not only symbolizes the washing away of sin, but actually causes it to happen! The form is the words “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The minister of Baptism is usually a priest or a deacon, but in an emergency, anyone can perform Baptism. Baptism is one of three sacraments that leaves an indelible, an irremovable, mark on the souls of those who receive it. Once a person is baptized, their soul is permanently transformed; they are now a member of the Church, the Body of Christ.
The second sacrament of initiation is the reception of the Holy Eucharist, the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. This sacrament makes us part of the Body of Christ more than any other, for by it, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ is made present in us and we are united to Him by the graces of the sacrament. Holy Communion is the only sacrament, besides those of healing, that can be received more than once. Frequent reception of the Eucharist is one of the best ways for us to guard ourselves against sin, for with our Lord and Redeemer physically present within us, it is much harder to fall into sin. This sacrament can only be performed by a priest or bishop within the context of the Mass. The consecration takes place when the celebrant of the Mass says over the bread and wine, the matter of the sacrament, the words, “This is my Body,” and “This is my Blood.” At that moment, the substance of the bread and wine changes; they are no longer bread and wine, but have become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. When Catholics receive the Eucharist they are filled with and strengthened by grace so that they can continue to live well and serve God.
Confirmation is the last of the sacraments of initiation. This sacrament brings to completion the graces received at Baptism. Being confirmed is like becoming an adult in the Church, just as Baptism is being born into it. Like Baptism, it can be received only once, and it leaves an indelible mark on the souls of those confirmed, for they have been permanently transformed by the graces received in the sacrament. Confirmation is normally ministered by a bishop, but can be done by a priest in the proper circumstances. Confirmation is received through anointing with Sacred Chrism and the laying on of hands while these words are said, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The completion of Christian initiation grants a greater unity to Christ, an outpouring and strengthening of Baptismal graces, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to spread and defend the faith, so that the mission entrusted to the Church by Christ may be carried out.
The sacraments of initiation bring us to new life in Christ, but as imperfect creatures striving for perfection, even though we have help from God through His grace, we will not always succeed. For this reason, God gave us the sacraments of healing, that we might have have the opportunity to turn away from our failures and return to His grace. The sacrament of Reconciliation allows us to confess our sins, make reparation, and receive forgiveness and grace. Receiving this sacrament frequently keeps our souls free from sin, helps us recognize what our greatest faults are, and gives us the grace to overcome them. Only a priest or a bishop may hear confessions and grant absolution. This sacrament is unique in that the matter is not physical, but rather the verbal confession of the penitent. The form is the words of absolution, “I absolve you of your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” When receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation, the penitent must truly be sorry for his sins and confess them to the priest with the intention of making right the wrong he committed by sinning. Once the priest grants absolution, every sin is washed away and the person’s soul is filled with grace, so that he may once more strive to live according to the will of God.
Anointing of the Sick is the other sacrament of healing, and is given to those who are seriously ill. The sick are anointed with blessed oil by a priest or bishop, who says, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” The graces of this sacrament give strength, peace, and courage to the sick, that they may place their trust in God, whether He wills that they be healed, or that they join Him in His heavenly kingdom. Anointing of the Sick is often received in conjunction with the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, so that the sick may be free from sin and united to Christ for their trials and sufferings in sickness and, if it be God’s will, for their passing over into the next life. Thus, as the sacraments of initiation prepare us for life in Christ on earth, the sacraments of healing prepare us for eternal life with Him in Heaven.
Finally, the sacraments of service give us the graces to live our lives according to the vocation God has called us to in this life on earth. The sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Orders are oriented towards the salvation of others. The first of these, Matrimony, is the union between a man and a woman. Each spouse works for the good of the other and together they raise their children in the life of the Church, guiding them toward salvation. The ministers, as well as the matter, of this sacrament are the bride and the groom, who confer the sacrament on each other through the form of the vows. Matrimony creates a lifelong bond between the husband and wife and bestows on them grace that perfects their love for one another and strengthens their unity, that they may always strive to bring each other closer to God.
The only sacrament left now is the sacrament of apostolic ministry, Holy Orders. Holy Orders, like Baptism and Confirmation, confers an indelible mark on the soul of the one ordained. There are three degrees of Holy Orders. The first of these is the diaconate. The mission of a deacon is to assist priests and bishops in carrying out their ministries. Some of these duties are assisting at Mass, distributing the Holy Eucharist, and preaching the Gospel. Deacons cannot consecrate the Eucharist or grant absolution. The second degree of Holy Orders is the presbyterate, the priests. The mission of a priest is to guide the faithful under his pastoral care along the path to eternal life. He does this by celebrating of the Mass, preaching of the Gospel, and administering the sacraments. The final degree of Holy Orders is the episcopate. A bishop is responsible not only for his own parish community, but also that of whole diocese, as well as, in communion with his fellow bishops, the entire Church throughout the world. Each degree of Holy Orders bestows upon the ordained men the special graces they require to lead the faithful as examples of Christ Himself. The ordination takes place when the bishop, the only minister of Holy Orders, lays his hands on the ordinand and prays the words of consecration, asking God to pour out the graces of the Holy Spirit upon him, that he may faithfully carry out the mission God has called him to. The imposition of the hands is a tradition going back to the first Apostles, who passed on the gifts of the Spirit through the laying on of hands. Ultimately, all three degrees of the priesthood work in unity, under the leadership of the Pope, to carry out the mission that Christ gave them and that He accomplishes through them: the salvation of the whole world.
These brief descriptions of the seven sacraments show how central they are in the Christian life. In Baptism we begin our life in Christ, which is strengthened once by the graces of Confirmation and continually by receiving our Lord in the Eucharist. Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick bring us forgiveness and strength when we begin to falter, physically or spiritually. Matrimony and Holy Orders provide the graces necessary to live out our vocation of service to others. Together, the seven sacraments unify all the faithful in the Body of Christ, the Church, allowing all Christians to be filled with grace, the divine life of God, so that we may all one day be united with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven.