The old Baltimore Catechism, with which many of us grew up, gave this definition: a sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.
The words spring to mind easily, because children in Catholic schools, for approximately the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, committed to memory numerous questions and answers related to their faith. Unfortunately, (in my judgement) that is no longer so.
The Catholic Church has seven sacraments. Each one gives the recipient an opportunity to encounter Christ at a pivotal stage of life and to receive special graces or gifts from God to help him navigate that segment of his earthly journey successfully.
Each sacrament has an outward sign, something which can be perceived through the physical senses, which signifies a spiritual reality. The sign helps our limited human intelligence grasp how God is working in the soul through that particular sacrament.
Each sacrament has its origin in the life of Christ on earth. He either commanded it specifically or through implication.
Each sacrament bestows special help for the next stage of the Christian life.
Here are sacraments recognized by the Catholic Church:
1. Baptism frees the recipient from sin, and bestows membership in God’s family. The sign is the pouring of water, (cleansing) and the words of the priest or the minister of the sacrament : “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus mandated Baptism with the words of the Great Commission: ” Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matt. 28:19
2. Confirmation confers the fullness of the Holy Spirit to strengthen the recipient as he begins to assume the responsibilities of an adult Christian. It is usually received around age 13, when the young person is about to enter high school. The sign is an anointing with oil and the laying on of hands by a bishop.
Confirmation was prefigured by the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles on Pentecost to strengthen them for ministry. Acts 2: 1-4
3. Holy Eucharist is the sacrament by which bread and wine are changed into Jesus’ body and blood during Mass. The faithful consume the elements and welcome the Lord, each time, into their hearts and lives. Children receive First Communion about age 7, or whenever they attain the age of reason. The signs are bread and wine, and the words of consecration by the priest.
At the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and wine and changed them into his body and blood. He commanded the Apostles to continue the practice. Luke 22: 17-20.
4. Reconciliation or Penance is the sacrament whereby sins committed after Baptism are forgiven. The words of absolution by the priest are the sign.
The day after Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to the Apostles and said, ” Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John 20: 21-23
5. The Anointing of the Sick is the sacrament which gives strength to the soul and sometimes to the body, if it is God’s will. It may be received by anyone who is ill, or in danger of death from sickness, accident or old age, or before surgery. The sign is the anointing with oil. Jesus healed many sick people. We also have the exhortation of James, whom tradition identifies as James the Just, the first bishop of Jerusalem.
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” James 5: 14-15
6. Marriage unites a man and woman for life. The signs are the exchange of vows by the couple and the blessing by the priest in the name of the Christian community.
Jesus sanctified marriage by his presence at the wedding at Cana, the help he gave the bridal couple, and by the performance of his first miracle there. John 2:1-11
7. Holy Orders is the sacrament by which a man consecrates his life to the service of God and God’s people. The signs are the imposition of hands over the candidate by a bishop and the words of the prayer of consecration.
St. Paul expressed the priest’s calling thus: “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” 1 Cor. 4:1
These then are the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Through them, the spiritual life will proceed in a close parallel to the natural life: infancy, childhood, adolescence, choosing a state in life, right up to end of life concerns. The sacraments are invaluable gifts provided to help us manoeuvre successfully around the pitfalls on the path of our journey through life and to safely reach our heavenly home.
May we never cease to make use of them as often as possible and to express our gratitude to the loving God who provides them.