As Catholics, we are a sacramental people. We learned about the
sacraments when, as children, we were required to attend catechism
classes. The basic text was the Baltimore Catechism.
This was when we first learned that our faith had seven
sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist,
Penance or Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and
Matrimony. We also learned that the Church itself was the universal
sacrament of salvation.
The Baltimore Catechism defined "sacrament" for us. It
stated: "A sacrament is an outward sign initiated by Christ to give
grace." The sacramental Church started with Jesus' ministry on
The sacrament of Baptism most certainly began when John the
Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Jesus, in his early
ministerial teachings, laid the groundwork for confirmation and
penance. These are the three sacraments of initiation emphasized in
catechism classes. We receive all three sacraments when we are
officially welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church.
Later, we learned about the sacraments of healing: Penance or
Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. As youngsters, we were
not too concerned about Holy Orders and Matrimony. These were
sacraments for adults.
Eucharist: Central to Our Faith
The most singular sacrament is the Eucharist, which is central
to our faith. This is where we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus.
It is the sacrament where we immerse ourselves into the sacrifice
of the Mass. It absorbs our full concentration, or it should do so.
Nothing else is as important as that Eucharistic moment.
One Catholic priest said that, as he celebrates the Eucharistic
liturgy, he is totally focused on it to the exclusion of all other
exterior influences. Indeed, so should we be as focused.
The Eucharist is called the Most Blessed Sacrament and it is the
third sacrament of Christian initiation, the one the Catechism
of the Catholic Church says "completes Christian
Sacramentum is the Latin translation of the original
Greek word mysterion, or mystery. St. Augustine defined
the sacraments as visible signs of God's word of promise.
Two of the sacraments have their foundation in the Bible.
Baptism and the Eucharist are recognized as having unmistakable
biblical foundations. Christ was baptized by John the Baptist, and
then He instructed His disciples to baptize others. At the Last
Supper, Christ established the foundation for communion, or the
Bishops First, Then Priests
In the early Church, the three sacraments of initiation -
Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist - were celebrated in the same
ceremony by adult catechumens at the Easter Vigil. The catechumens
descended into a pool, where they were baptized in the name of the
Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
They ascended and were clothed with a white robe, and the bishop
laid hands on them and anointed them with oil. The catechumens then
proceeded to a place of honor among the community of worshipers and
participated in the Eucharist for the first time. Initiation was
one event and the climax was the celebration of the Eucharist.
The bishop was removed from anointing at Baptism for several
reasons. After Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the main
religion for the Roman Empire in the fourth century, more and more
persons were being baptized. Thus it was not always possible for
the bishop to be present at every rite of initiation.
So Baptism in the Western Church was turned over to the local
parish priest. The bishops still retained the function of
performing the initial anointing and the laying on of hands.
In the Eastern Church, the bishops solved the problem by
delegating the three sacraments of initiation to the presbyter and
reserved for themselves the anointing with the oil used in the
rite. To this day, the Eastern Church initiates with all three
sacraments at one time.
In the West, the celebration of the sacrament of Confirmation
was done at a later time than the sacrament of Baptism.
Constantine's mandate of Christianity for the Roman Empire prompted
increased conversions; hence the move to infant baptism. Not enough
bishops were available to be present at the sacrament of
It Begins with Jesus
We embrace the seven sacraments with fidelity and love. The
sacraments all start with Jesus. By reading Scripture, we begin to
know Jesus. To grow ever closer to God through His Son Jesus is our
primary goal. The sacraments are the steps by which we are baptized
into the risen Christ, and we also become a sacrament.
We should not think of a sacrament as something we receive;
rather it is what we are. And if we are the Church, then the Church
itself is also a sacrament. The sacraments are also the celebration
of our Christian story. If sacraments are worded signs, then
Scripture is the word; then the Gospel story makes the sacramental
signs that much more meaningful.
Matrimony is a sacrament that provides the grace for the
specific mission of building up the Church. This sacrament
consecrates the union of two people, thereby giving them holiness
in their married life. It provides the grace for accepting the
responsibility and upbringing of their children.
For those who hear the call to the religious life of priesthood,
Holy Orders is the sacrament by which a man is made a bishop,
priest or deacon and is dedicated to be an image of Christ on
A bishop is the minister of this sacrament. In ordination, a
bishop confers the fullness of the sacrament upon the one called to
be a priest. Ordination as a priest will align him to Christ and
make him a representative of Christ on earth.
The priest will also be configured with the bishop with power to
celebrate the sacraments and other liturgical actions such as the
Eucharist. The ordination of a deacon aligns him to Christ in
service to the Church, such as preaching the Word of God and
performing charitable works.
Four Elements of Reconciliation
The sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance has four elements:
contrition (the penitent's sincere remorse for a sin or
wrongdoing), confession to a priest (only a priest has this power),
absolution by the priest, and penance (usually dictated by the
priest). In administering this sacrament, the priest is bound by
the seal of confession. It is forbidden for a priest to violate
this seal and betray the penitent.
The second sacrament of healing is the Anointing of the Sick,
intended for those with sickness, disease or infirmities. In this
sacrament, the priest anoints the sick with oil that is
specifically blessed for this purpose. This sacrament also has
other applications, such as in the Last Rites, also known as
Extreme Unction. When someone is in danger of death, the priest
administers the Last Rites as a final healing of the soul.
The sacraments order our spiritual lives in myriad ways and
assure us that we are on the right path in our journey to grow
closer to and be with God. The liturgical life of the Church
revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments, as
stated in the Catechism.
In the Eucharist, Catholics believe that Christ is present in us
and nourishes and strengthens us through His sacrifice on the
cross. The sacraments make clear God's plan for the world. We are
the instruments for implementing that plan. We are sacrament and
instruments of God's grace.
Thomas J. Rillo, oblate