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 earth.
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 initiation."
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 Eucharist.
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 Baptism.
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 earth.
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