We sometimes take even the most amazing gifts for granted after a while. That’s especially easy to do with the seven sacraments. After all, their physical elements are nothing special: wheat bread, wine, olive oil, water. The words associated with them we’ve heard so many times we probably have them mostly memorized.
And yet it doesn’t take too much reflection to realize anew that they are astonishingly seismic occurrences, starting with us being made able to share God’s own eternal life.
The sacraments are vehicles of grace that Christ has sent, through the intervening centuries, to us here and now in this broken world.
They are his way of making himself present to us in a very personal and intimate way, to forgive our sins and draw us into closer conformity to him.
Some readers probably remember the Baltimore Catechism definition of sacrament: “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a lengthier description: “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (No. 1131).
In some ways, all that the Catholic Church believes is in the sacraments.
It takes attention and reflection to see beyond the simple “outward signs” and “visible rites” to what is happening underneath — the dispensing of divine life; healing and transformation by the Holy Spirit.
The following pages are a guide to the essentials of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, a look at their biblical basis and some facts and figures about the participation of Catholics in the sacraments.
Baptism is the sacrament of spiritual regeneration by which a person is incorporated in Christ and made a member of his Mystical Body, given grace, and cleansed of original sin (and actual sins, too, if the person has already reached the age of reason). The sacrament confers a character on the soul and can be received only once.
The matter is the pouring of water. The form is: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’
The minister of solemn baptism is a bishop, priest or deacon, but in case of emergency, anyone, including a non-Catholic, can validly baptize. The Church recognizes as valid baptisms properly performed by non-Catholic ministers.
The baptism of infants has always been considered valid and the general practice of infant baptism was well established by the fifth century. Baptism is conferred conditionally when there is doubt about the validity of a previous baptism.
Baptism is necessary for salvation. If a person cannot receive the baptism of water described above, this can be supplied by baptism of blood (martyrdom suffered for the Catholic faith or some Christian virtue) or by baptism of desire (perfect contrition joined with at least the implicit intention of doing whatever God wills that people should do for salvation).
A person must be validly baptized before he or she can receive any of the other sacraments.
At baptism every child should be given a name with Christian significance, usually the name of a saint, to symbolize newness of life in Christ.
The Holy Eucharist is a sacrifice and the sacrament in which Christ is present and is received under the appearances of bread and wine. It is commonly called the “source and summit of all Christian life” because it both is and creates communion with God and all his people; sanctifies us and gives us a foretaste of eternal life.
Christ — whole and entire, God and man — is present in the Eucharist in a real and substantial way.
Partaking in the Eucharist increases our union with Christ and his Church, helps renew our baptismal graces, strengthens us in charity and wipes away venial sin.
The matter is bread of wheat, unleavened in the Roman rite and leavened in the Eastern rites, and wine of grape. The form consists of the words of consecration said by the priest at Mass: “This is my body. This is the cup of my blood” (according to the traditional usage of the Roman rite).
Only a priest can consecrate bread and wine so that they become the body and blood of Christ. Conditions for receiving holy Communion are the state of grace, the right intention and observance of the eucharistic fast.
Confirmation is the sacrament by which a baptized person, through anointing with chrism and the imposition of hands, is endowed with the fullness of baptismal grace; is united more intimately to the Church; is enriched with the special power of the Holy Spirit; is committed to be an authentic witness to Christ in word and action. The sacrament confers a character on the soul and can be received only once.
“Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit,” the bishop (or priest) says as he anoints the forehead with oil, signifying consecration to Christ’s service.
The effect of the sacrament is a special outpouring — like at Pentecost — of the Holy Spirit, binding the person more closely to Christ and the Church and giving special strength to witness to the Christian faith.
In the Roman rite, it has been customary for children to receive confirmation within a reasonable time after first Communion and confession.
There is a trend, however, to defer confirmation until later when its significance for mature Christian living becomes more evident.
In the Eastern rites, confirmation is administered at the same time as baptism.
Unfortunately, the new life of grace we receive in baptism doesn’t do away with human weakness and inclination to sin. That’s why the Sacrament of Penance is necessary.
Conversion is a continuing obligation of the whole Church. For the Sacrament of Penance, the penitent makes an examination of conscience, feels contrition, confesses sins to a priest and performs acts of penance imposed by the priest. All grave sins must be confessed at least once a year, and always before receiving Communion. But confessing lesser sins is encouraged, too, because Christ’s healing mercy can boost our progress in spiritual life.
As an ordained minister of the Church, the priest acts in the Person of Christ. He is thus bound under the gravest seal not to disclose or make any use of anything he has heard with regard to the penitents’ lives.
Anointing of the Sick
This sacrament, promulgated by St. James the Apostle (see Jas 5:13-15), can be administered to the faithful after reaching the age of reason who are in danger because of illness or old age. By the anointing with blessed oil and the prayer of a priest, the sacrament confers on the person comforting grace; the remission of venial sins and inculpably unconfessed mortal sins, together with at least some of the temporal punishment due for sins; and, sometimes, results in an improved state of health.
The matter of this sacrament is the anointing with blessed oil (olive oil, or vegetable oil if necessary) of the forehead and hands; in cases of necessity, a single anointing of another portion of the body suffices. The form is: “Through this holy anointing and his most loving mercy, may the Lord assist you by the grace of the Holy Spirit so that, when you have been freed from your sins, he may save you and in his goodness raise you up.’’
Anointing of the sick, formerly called extreme unction, may be received more than once — for example, in new or continuing stages of serious illness. Ideally, the sacrament should be administered while the recipient is conscious and in conjunction with the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. It should be administered in cases of doubt as to whether the person has reached the age of reason, is dangerously ill or dead.
The sacrament can be administered during a communal celebration in some circumstances, as in a home for the aged.
Holy orders is the sacrament through which the mission given by Christ to the apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time; it is the sacrament of apostolic mission. It has three degrees: episcopacy, priesthood and diaconate. The sacrament confers a character on the soul and can be received only once. The minister of the sacrament is a bishop. The essential form is the imposition of hands by the consecrator(s) and the assigned prayer in the preface of the rite of ordination.
A bishop is said to have the “fullness” of the sacrament because episcopal ordination makes him a successor to the apostles and co-responsible with the pope and other bishops for the Church around the world. A priest is an ordained minister with the power to celebrate Mass, administer the sacraments, preach and teach the word of God, impart blessings, and perform additional pastoral functions, according to the mandate of his ecclesiastical superior.
There are two kinds of deacons: those who receive the order and remain in it permanently, and those who receive the order while advancing to priesthood. The apostles ordained the first seven deacons (see Acts 6:1-6): Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicholas.
Though long a tradition in the Eastern Church, permanent deacons were brought back in the Roman rite in 1967 by Pope Paul VI. Today, there are 16,935 permanent deacons in the United States.
Deacons have various functions, depending on the nature of their assignments. Liturgically, they can officiate at baptisms, weddings, wake services and funerals, can preach and distribute holy Communion. Some are engaged in religious education work. All are intended to carry out works of charity and pastoral service of one kind or another.
God is love, and created us for love. By creating man and woman, he calls them into an intimate communion of life and love in marriage, marked by permanence and fidelity.
In a world marked by original sin — and this with discord and infidelity — the marriage covenant is a sign of Christ’s fidelity to and love for his Church.
Unlike any of the other sacraments, the ministers of matrimony are the couple themselves — the priest serves as an official witness. With full consent, they commit to give their whole selves to their spouse for life and irrevocably.
God himself seals the consent. The graces of the sacrament help the couple grow in holiness, responsibly accept the gift of children and provide for their education.
God's unique vehicle
It would be a mistake to consider the seven sacraments, those primary liturgical moments in our lives as Catholics, as isolated events with no link to each other or no link to Christ and his Church. ... Each in their own way, they prolong in time and space the unique mystery of Jesus Christ, above all his passion, death and resurrection — out of love for us. ...
Each sacramental encounter brings us in touch with the living and risen Jesus Christ, an encounter that changes and transforms us, that is, gives us grace. It is God’s unique vehicle for reaching and changing you and me. The Catechism emphasizes that “for believers,” the sacraments are “necessary for salvation.” At the same time, even though God works primarily through the sacraments, “he also touches us through the community of the Church, through the lives of holy people, through prayer, spirituality and acts of love.”
— From “The Sacraments We Celebrate” (Ave Maria, $12.95), by Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi
Initiation, because they lay the foundations of every Christian life: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist.
“The faithful are born anew by baptism, strengthened by the Sacrament of Confirmation and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life” (Pope Paul VI).
Healing: penance and anointing of the sick.
At Service of Communion: holy orders and matrimony. They are “directed toward the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so” (Catechism, No. 1534).
By the Numbers
61% of American Catholics agree “somewhat” or “strongly” with the statement, “Sacraments are essential to my faith.”
92% have received their first Communion.
84% have celebrated the Sacrament of Confirmation.
Nearly all weekly Mass attenders and those who have attended Catholic educational institutions have received their first Communion and have been confirmed.
31.4% of adult Catholics are estimated to be attending Mass in any given week. This is equivalent to 16.1 million adult Mass attendees per week.
23% say they attend Mass every week (once a week or more often).
Mass attendance is highest among Catholics who are older, female, married to another Catholic, who have a college degree or more, and who attended Catholic educational institutions — especially a Catholic college or university.
“Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice among U.S. Catholics,” 2008 report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University
For More Information
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1210-1666
- “The Sacraments We Celebrate: A Catholic Guide to the Seven Mysteries of Faith” (Ave Maria, $12.95), by Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi
This material was prepared by OSV Newsweekly staff. Dominican Sister Janet Schaeffler, a former director of adult faith formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit, is project consultant.
This is the fifth in a 12-part series. The next, on conscience formation, appears June 20.