THE SACRAMENTS: An Introduction
by Matthew A. C. Newsome ©2003
One aspect of the Catholic faith that perhaps seems most foreign to the average Protestant is the notion of sacrament. Many Protestant churches, having abandoned the traditional seven sacraments, maintain only one or two that they might call “ordinances.” Baptists, for instance, only have two “ordinances,” baptism and “The Lord’s Supper.” However, they see these as merely symbolic acts that confer no actual grace. Catholics, steeped in a sacramental culture, may at times take it for granted that non-Catholic Christians know what sacraments are and understand their significance. To many coming into the Catholic Church, they can be quite a foreign concept.
St. Augustine said, “There can be no religious society, whether the religion be true or false, without some sacrament or visible symbol to serve as a bond of union. The importance of these sacraments cannot be overstated, and only scoffers will treat them lightly. For if piety requires them, it must be impiety to neglect them.”
A sacrament, as defined by the Catholic Church, is a symbol – but not a symbol in that it is merely symbolic, in the way we use the term today. It is a symbol in the classical sense because it is a sign. The sacraments are specific signs that were instituted by Christ to signify and effect the sanctification of man. A sacrament is an outward sign of God’s grace that actually effects what it signifies. Augustine compares them to the sacrifices of the Old Testament. He writes, “those sacrifices signified the things which we do for the purpose of drawing near to God, and inducting our neighbor to do the same. A sacrifice, therefore, is the visible sacrament or sacred sign of an invisible sacrifice.”
So what does a sacrament signify? Sacraments signify, and actually impart, grace, the undeserved gift of God. As Peter Kreeft says in Catholic Christianity, “God’s grace is God Himself, God’s own life in our souls. For God is love, and the lover’s primary gift to the beloved is the gift of himself.” Sacraments are the way in which we become intimate with God.
The grace effected by the sacrament is said to be ex opere operato, which means “from the performance of the act itself.” In other words, it is real, not dependent upon your personal thoughts or feelings. The grace imparted by the sacrament is objective, not subjective.
When you receive a sacrament, you actually receive God’s grace regardless of any emotional impact you may or may not feel. It is not dependant on your mental, physical, or emotional state, or that of the celebrant. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient but by the power of God.” In other words, your priest does not himself have to be perfectly holy to administer the sacraments, because he is not the source of their grace. God is.
Though the sacramental grace is imparted by the act itself, the fruits of that grace do depend upon the disposition of the person receiving the sacrament. In other words, the graces imparted by a sacrament really come alive and grow in a Christian who worthily receives them and actively seeks to nourish a sacramental life. St. Cyril of Jerusalem says, “Cleanse your vessel, that you may receive grace more abundantly. For though remission of sins is given equally to all, the communion of the Holy Ghost is bestowed in proportion to each man’s faith. If you have labored little, you receive little; but if you have wrought much, the reward is great.”
What constitutes a sacrament? A sacrament must take a particular form. The Catechism teaches us that because the Church’s faith was handed on from Christ and thus precedes the faith of the believer, and the believer’s faith must adhere to that of the Church. “For this reason no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minister of the community.” So the particular form of the sacrament must be one prescribed by the Church.
Sacraments consist of things (matter) and words (form). For instance, the sacrament of baptism consists of water as the matter and the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” as its form. Both must be present for a valid sacrament. St. Augustine gives an example of this, speaking on John 15:3. “’Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.’ Why does He not say, You are clean through the baptism wherewith you have been washed, but ‘through the word which I have spoken unto you,’ save only that in the water also it is the word that cleanses? Take away the word, and the water is neither more nor less than water. The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament, as if itself a kind of invisible word.”
Many looking on from the outside may mistake the formula of the sacrament as a type of magic. But it is not for many reasons. First of all, when one attempts sorcery or magic, one is attempting to bend the forces of nature to one’s own will. The sacraments, on the other hand, are a participation in the Divine Will. The difference is summed up in the prayer, “Thy will, not mine, be done.” Also, a person performing magic is hoping to cause a result from his own power. The effects of a sacrament come from the power of God, and not from either the recipient or the celebrant. Christ is the priest that bestows the sacraments upon us. The celebrating clergyman is simply His minister.
The sacraments are above all else continuing signs of the Incarnation. Just as God came down to be physically present here on earth in the person of Jesus Christ, God continues to make Himself present to us through His sacraments. Each sacrament is a “mini-incarnation.” Peter Kreeft describes the sacraments as “a meeting place between earth and heaven, time and eternity.” By participating in the sacraments, we are participating in the work of Christ. Jesus choosing to make Himself available to us through His creation is why St. Augustine can say, “We are now permitted to seek Christ everywhere.”
To participate in the sacraments, certain things are required. These are valid matter, valid form, valid intention, and valid mind. Valid matter would be the physical matter of the sacrament (for example, water for baptism or wheat bread for the Eucharist). Valid form would be the essential words or formula of the sacrament. Valid intention would be the intention to do what the Church does through her sacraments (for example, the Church does not recognize the validity of Mormon baptism, even though they use the proper matter and proper Trinitarian formula, because their idea of the Trinity is not compatible with Christian teaching). A valid mind is proper faith and understanding on the part of the recipient. A person must be a Christian to receive Christian sacraments. Thus a non-Christian marriage is not recognized as a sacramental marriage, and someone not in communion with the Catholic Church cannot receive the Eucharist.
There are seven sacraments recognized by the Catholic Church as being instituted by Christ. These are Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Confession (also called Penance or Reconciliation), Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick (also called Last Rites, or Extreme Unction). These correspond to the various stages of the Christian life: birth (Baptism), maturation (Confirmation), growth and strengthening by food and drink (Eucharist), repair and restoration (Confession), vocation, or service to others (Matrimony and Holy Orders), sickness and preparation for death (Anointing of the Sick).
Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist are referred to as the sacraments of initiation. They are the foundation of the Christian life. Certain sacraments leave an indelible mark on the soul – that is a permanent effect that cannot be removed or repeated. These are the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders. Thus these sacraments can only be received once. The Eucharist, Confession, and Anointing of the Sick can be received as often as necessary. The Eucharist and Confession, in particular, are the meat and potatoes of the Christian life. Peter Kreeft says The Eucharist and Confession “are to the soul as eating and washing to the body.”
While the seven sacraments are specific signs established by Christ to effect specific graces, there are many sacramentals that are less specific in nature. Sacramentals are “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments.” They differ from sacraments because they were not instituted by Christ Himself, but by His Church. Furthermore, sacramentals do not work ex opere operato, as do the sacraments, to confer grace. Rather, through the prayer of the Church, they prepare us to receive grace and cooperate with it.
What is used as a sacramental may vary according to time and place. Any ordinary material object used toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God is a sacramental. These could be sacred relics of the saints, statues, churches, holy water, rosaries, icons, scapulars, and even more mundane objects that we impart with some special significance. But sacramentals are not limited only to physical objects. A particular time, place, or event can also be sacramental, such as a pilgrimage, a feast day, a religious procession, or holy landmark.
Sacramentals are useful tools in our prayer life and our sanctification, but they are not sacraments themselves. They do not represent God’s immediate presence in the same way the sacraments do.
They are alike in that they both use physical matter to convey something spiritual. Catholicism is a religion of the real world. It’s a religion of the senses and the human body. It recognizes the goodness of God’s creation and the fact that mankind was created with both a body and a soul. And so, like our Savior who used mud made from common earth mixed with His own saliva to effect the healing of the blind man , the Church uses the elements of God’s creation to signify and faithfully transmit His grace to the faithful. Likewise elements of creation are used in our worship and prayer, in praise of the Creator. Candles, incense, colors, music and bells all are directed towards heaven in a sacramental fashion, to aid us on our journey there.
We believe that God works through His physical creation, and we can use His creation to worship Him. In particular, we believe that God has chosen specific elements and forms to be the ordinary conduits through which He imparts His Grace to us. This is one teaching that makes Catholicism stand out among the many Protestant sects. But do not make the mistake that many non-Catholics do in characterizing wrongly Catholic belief in the sacraments. The sacraments were created by God for man, not by man for God. God works through the sacraments but is not limited to them. We will come to a deeper appreciation of the sacraments and how God uses them as we study each one individually.
The most important thing to remember is this. “The sacramental life calls us to continual conversion. We are always on the way toward greater union with God” (Peter Kreeft, Catholic Christianity).