The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. (CCC 1113)
While we believe that human life is infused with the sacramental goodness of God, the Catholic Church has defined seven sacraments – instituted by and through the life of Jesus Christ. It is through the experience of the sacramental ritual that we are infused with God’s grace. The Sacraments nourish and strengthen us as they express and build up our faith.
The traditional definition of a sacrament is this: “A sacrament is a visible sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” There are three statements here:
- A visible sign An action is performed by a minister (usually a priest). For example, when a baby is baptized in the church the priest pours water over its head and at the same time says the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That is a visible sign.
- Instituted by Christ The Lord Jesus Christ instructed His church to offer the seven sacraments to His followers. For example, His directive to His disciples in Matthew’s Gospel (28/19), “Go then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples; baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
- To give grace At the risk of over simplifying something that is very complex, we could describe grace as God’s free gift of Himself as the controlling influence in our life and the decisions we make once we have committed ourselves to Him in faith.
In summary we can say that a sacrament is one of the means God has chosen to influence our life in the direction of his purpose for giving us life.
The seven Sacraments are:
Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, Matrimony
The word “baptism” comes from the Greek word baptize in which means to plunge or immerse. It has its origins in Judaism, which required converts to undergo a bath of purification as Jesus did when He was baptized by John in the River Jordan, after which He began His public life. After His death and resurrection, He told His disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Throughout history the Church has followed Jesus’ command, instructing those who desire to become Christians and then baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Baptism marks the entry of the believer into the Christian community. Along with Confirmation and Eucharist, it is one of the Sacraments of Initiation, giving access to the full sacramental life of the Church. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and joined with Christ, sharing in His divinity and destined for eternal life. Baptism leaves us permanently changed, no longer the person we once were, but a new person, dying to death and sin, and rising to new life in Christ. In the words of St. Paul, “We were buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so too may we live a new life.” (Romans 6:4)
In ancient baptismal rites catechumens were dramatically plunged into large cisterns of water and, while the celebrant said the Trinitarian formula, “I baptize you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” immersed three times to signify their death to sin and resurrection to new life. Since the reforms of Vatican II there are three separate baptismal rites: one for infants; one for children old enough to understand; and one for adults.
The essential part of the rite is unchanged, consisting of pouring water over the head while saying the Trinitarian formula. Anyone can baptize in an emergency, although the usual minister of the sacrament is a priest or deacon. Usually the rite includes anointing the forehead with holy oil to indicate that, even as Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so does the candidate now share in His everlasting life, participating in His glory as a member of His body. The newly baptized then receives a white garment and a candle lit from the paschal candle. Like Christ, who is the light of the world, the newly baptized Christian carries the light of Christ out into the world.
Before Jesus was put to death, He promised His followers that He would send His Spirit to comfort and strengthen them. True to His promise, the Holy Spirit was poured out on them on Pentecost, forty days after His resurrection from the dead. The Sacrament of Confirmation is our own Pentecost. When we are confirmed, we receive the Holy Spirit, through the anointing with oil and the laying on of hands by the bishop or a priest appointed by him. Just as soldiers in Jesus’ time were marked with their leader’s seal, we are forever marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit. As the bishop places his hands on our heads and then anoints our foreheads with oil, he says the words: “Be sealed with the Holy Spirit.” When we receive this sacred seal we show that we belong to God. By their anointing, the prophets, kings and priests of the Old Testament were elevated to a special position in their service of God. So it is with us when we receive the holy oil on our foreheads; we become part of the priesthood of all believers, witnesses to Christ and heirs to His throne.
Confirmation is one of the Sacraments of Initiation. It originally formed part of the joint rite of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist, which were all given to the new converts at the same time. Nowadays adult converts are confirmed and receive the Eucharist at the time of their baptism, but children are generally baptized in infancy, receive Communion when they are around six or seven and are confirmed some years later. This time lag between First Eucharist and Confirmation allows the young candidates to have a fuller understanding of what is happening when they receive the Holy Spirit sacramentally.
Although the Church has separated the Sacraments of Initiation, they still constitute a unity, as, properly speaking, Confirmation completes the baptismal rite. And so, without in any way devaluing their Baptism, the Church urges all its members to complete their Christian initiation by receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. Through it we receive what Jesus has promised – the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit, ever present to help us meet the challenges and demands that face us as mature Christians.
Although the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian initiation is clearly testified in the Scriptures, there is no record of a particular rite of confirmation. Similarly, the early Christians left no evidence about their specific understanding of a rite of confirmation, although there is some testimony that the bishop used the same oil during the initiation rites.
By the fifth century, the connection was made between anointing and the coming of the Holy Spirit. However, at that time, the anointing happened in conjunction with the water bath and the celebration of the Eucharist – the three rites of initiation. As Christianity spread, the rites of initiation changed in different parts of the Church. In general, the Church in the West felt that the connection between the bishop and the anointing was more important than the sequence and connection between the sacraments of initiation. As a result, separate rites of baptism with water, confirmation and first Communion developed.
The sacrament of confirmation is the second sacrament of initiation, following baptism. It essentially consists of a prayer to call down the Holy Spirit and an anointing with sacred Chrism. Through this sacrament, a Christian is given strength and promised the gifts of the Holy Spirit to live out the baptismal responsibilities. The sacrament of confirmation complements baptism, while both lead to the Eucharist. The faithful are born anew in baptism, strengthened by confirmation and sustained by the Eucharist
Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, Christ has been especially adored and praised in the Eucharist, where He is truly present in body and soul, as God and man. The Eucharist is the sacrament in which we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. The Church teaches that Christ is really present in the bread and wine that have been consecrated by the priest at Mass. Although the bread and wine still look and taste like bread and wine, the substance, what is actually there, has changed. The word “transubstantiation,” which means “a change in substance,” is used to describe this real change. Our initiation to Christian life is complete when we receive the Eucharist for the first time.
The roots of the Eucharist are in the Jewish Passover meal. This is the meal which commemorates Israel’s delivery from oppression and slavery in Egypt, when God punished Pharaoh and the Egyptian nation by killing their first-born sons. During the first Passover every Jewish household was instructed to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on their door posts. Seeing the blood, the angel of death would “pass over” them, sparing the lives of their first-born sons. Jesus spoke of Himself as “the lamb of God.” As he celebrated the Passover at his last supper with the apostles, He blessed, broke and shared with them bread and wine, declaring that it was His body and blood. He promised that He would truly be with them when they did likewise and shared bread and wine together in memory of Him.
The Mass is the new Passover, with Jesus offering His own body and blood so that we, His present-day followers, might go free. For this reason, as well as being a sacred meal, the Eucharist is also a link with Jesus’ death. When we participate in the Mass together with our fellow believers and receive Him in the Eucharist we take part in the Passover meal which He celebrates now, shedding His blood so that we may be saved.
Many lives are blighted by sin and guilt, by the need for forgiveness and conversion. The word “penance” comes from the Latin word poenitentia which means “sorrow,” or “regret.” Many of us regret things we have done or fail to do, words we have said or thoughts we have harbored, things we are too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Sometimes these hidden secrets take on much more importance than they deserve, simply because we keep them bottled up and are unable to speak about them. The Sacrament of Reconciliation gives us the opportunity to express our sorrow for things we have done wrong, to heal broken relationships, to forgive ourselves and others, and to open up the channels of communication between ourselves and God.
Confession is above all a place of healing, not a place of judgment or punishment. When we make our confession to a priest in the confidentiality of the confessional or reconciliation room, we experience healing and liberation, discovering again and again how much we are loved by God, how precious we are to Him, and how great is our dignity as His children. Once he had heard our confession, the priest says the words of absolution for our sins:
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
What the penitent makes known to the priest remains “sealed” because the confidentiality of confession is absolute. Nothing said by the penitent in confession will ever be repeated. This is an experience of mercy and reconciliation, where we can lay down the burdens of guilt and shame that we carry with us. No matter what we think of ourselves or of God, we can still be certain that God forgives us, loves us and wants only to heal us.
The Church has always had a special mission to the sick, from visiting and giving communion to a sick person at home, to building hospitals and clinics to care for those who are seriously ill. The very early Church followed the words of St. James by anointing the sick with blessed oil, as is done today in this sacrament:
“Are any among you sick? Let them call for the elders of the Church to pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick ones, and the Lord will raise them up; and if they have committed any sins, they will be forgiven.” – James 5:14-15
Sickness, pain and death are evils which are not part of God’s original plan for humankind. He does not desire them for us, nor does he watch impassive and uncaring while His people suffer. Part of Jesus’ ministry was to heal the sick, and He went about curing those who were ill or disabled, showing that suffering and death have no place in the Kingdom of God. By His sacrifice of Himself, He took hold of suffering and death and eliminated their power to separate us from each other or from God. Our faith tells us that, indeed, God suffers with us. Through Jesus’ suffering and death, God joins His suffering to the suffering of human beings. And by doing this, He transforms and gives it a new meaning. To say that through Jesus’ redemptive suffering our sufferings can have meaning isn’t to trivialize them in any way, nor does it make them any easier. Yet, by joining ourselves with the suffering of Christ, our pain, our sense of isolation and loss can become part of the saving work of Christ, who endured agony and died for men and women.
Through the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick we are assured that God will raise us up, like Jesus, from our bed of pain and sickness and lead us to eternal life. Through it we are comforted when we feel most abandoned. The sacramental act begins with the priest administering a short rite of penance, signifying forgiveness and reconciliation. This is followed by a reading. Then, in silence, the priest lays his hands on the sick person, and anoints the forehead and palms with oil, saying:
Through this holy anointing may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up. Amen.”
At our baptism, we become members of the laity (a word derived from the Greek word laos, which means “people”). As people of God, we all share in the priesthood of Christ, and so the Church speaks meaningfully of “the priesthood of all believers.” Each of us is to exercise our priesthood by strengthening and serving one another. Within the Church there are many means of service. One way of service stands out as a sacrament, namely Holy Orders, which ordains the recipient to the office of bishop, priest or deacon.
The priest’s special calling is first and foremost to preach the Good News of God’s love and humanity. In offering himself as a candidate for the priesthood, he must give evidence of wisdom and spiritual maturity, as he is called to lead the Christian community with patience and kindness. The priest says Mass and administers the Sacraments, taking an active role in offering Christ’s gift of Himself. During Mass, he represents Christ and also acts on behalf of all the people. Thus his sacramental priesthood stands for the priesthood of the whole Church.
The Church requires that its priests be celibate, although there is nothing incompatible between marriage and the priesthood. Insistence on the matter does not spring from theological difficulties but from Church discipline. A celibate lifestyle, freely chosen, can give witness to Christian values which differ from the fashions of contemporary society. It can provide a unique and valuable freedom to the priest, since it entails a radical departure from expectations, either his own or others’, which can be imprisoning. However, there have always been married priests in the Oriental Catholic rites, and married Anglican clergy who have recently become converts to the Catholic Church are allowed to exercise their priesthood.
From earliest times, deacons have had a special place in the pastoral work of the Church, preaching, ministering at baptisms and weddings, and caring for the poor and hungry on behalf of the whole Church. Nowadays, married men are more and more frequently ordained to the diaconate, where they have a strong role in assisting priests and bishops and serving the people.
Finally, bishops are chosen and ordained to supervise and lead priests and deacons, to unify, bless and teach the people and act as a sign of Christ in the local church and community.
All love comes from God, and all love reflects the love that God has for His creation. The Sacrament of Marriage is, first and foremost, a sign and symbol of this love. God has created us sexual as well as social beings, and for most people sexual love is the closest form of union we will ever know. Marriage is a sacrament of the self-giving love which two people offer to each other. The love which a couple have for each other mirrors the love God has for men and women.
The minister of the Sacrament of Marriage is the couple themselves. The priest serves as a witness. In the past, and even today in extraordinary circumstances, a marriage could be valid without the presence of a priest. It was enough for the couple to say, “I marry you” for the marriage to be valid and binding. It was in the 12th century that the first marriage rites were developed. To avoid difficulties that could arise if one member of the couple denied agreeing to the marriage, the Church demanded that the couple at least have their marriage witnessed by a priest.
For various reasons some marriages do not work. They become places of fear and violence or isolation, rather than places of love and caring. Their physical and emotional well-being and that of their family may require that a couple separate. Although the Church does not permit divorce and remarriage, there are cases where a couple may well have grounds for annulment. A valid marriage is one where both partners freely consent without fear or outside pressure to the sharing of the whole of their future life together. In order to be granted an annulment, the couple must demonstrate that they were not validly married in the first place. The Church, through its marriage tribunal’s careful investigation of requests for annulment, seeks to provide the mercy and gentleness needed by those who have suffered a broken marriage.
The joy and mutual support of married love can be a source of strength which enables married people to serve others in a very powerful way. It should spill out to their children and to those around them and become a source of life, hope and comfort for others. This is reflected in the blessing which the priest often gives the newly-married couples, saying:
“May you always bear witness to the love of God in this world, so that the afflicted and the needy will find in you generous friends and welcome you into the joys of Heaven.”