Sacramental Life of the Church
The Masterworks of God
As Christians, we are all disciples of Christ and are called to bear witness to Christ in all that we say and do. To help us in this work, the sacraments fortify us and call us to a life of holiness. It is through the sacraments and the exercise of the virtues that the sacred nature and organic structure of the priestly community is brought into operation. The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ, and finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called 'Sacraments of Faith.' They do indeed impart grace, but, in addition, the very act of celebrating them disposes the faithful most effectively to receive this grace in a fruitful manner, to worship God duly, and to practice charity.
The Latin word sacramentum means "a sign of the sacred." The seven sacraments are the life of the Catholic Church. Each sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. When we participate in them worthily, each provides us with graces — with the life of God in our soul. In worship, we give to God that which we owe Him; in the sacraments, He gives us the graces necessary to live a truly human life.
What Are the Sacraments?
The exact definition of a sacrament is that it is "an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." The outward signs are God's way of treating us like the human beings we are. He conveys His unseen grace into our spiritual souls through material symbols which our physical bodies can perceive.
The outward signs of the sacraments have two parts: the "thing" itself which is used (water, oil, etc.), and the words or gestures which give significance to what is being done. We know that no human power could attach an inward grace to an outward sign - not even the divinely guided, but humanly applied, power of the Church. Only God can do that. Which brings us to the second element in the definition of a sacrament: "instituted by Christ." Coming now to the third element in the definition of a sacrament, we have its essential purpose: "to give grace." Sanctifying grace is that marvelous supernatural life, that sharing-in-God's-own-life that is the result of God's Love, the Holy Spirit, indwelling in the soul. As each additional sacrament is received (and repeated, when it can be) the level of spiritual vitality rises in the soul - just as the brightness of a fire increases as you add more fuel.
The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life. The seven sacraments are divided into three groupings: the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist); the Sacraments of Healing (Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick); and the Sacraments Serving the Church and the mission of the faithful (Holy Orders, Matrimony).
Baptism is the first and sanctifying sacrament of rebirth. Baptism is the means by which its recipients are incorporated into the Church in a sacramental bond of unity.
Confirmation enriches the baptized with the Holy Spirit, binding them more perfectly to the Church, and strengthening them in their witness to Christ.
The Eucharist is the most august sacrament, in which Christ Himself is contained, offered and received, and by which the Church constantly lives and grows. The Eucharistic Sacrifice, the memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, is the summit and source of all Christian life.
Through Penance, the faithful receive pardon through God's mercy for the sins they have committed. At the same time, they are reconciled with the Church community.
Through the Sacrament of Anointing, Christ strengthens the faithful who are afflicted by illness, providing them with the strongest means of support.
The Sacrament of Matrimony, like Holy Orders, is a sacrament that consecrates for a particular mission in building up the Church. It is seen as a sign of the love between Christ and the Church, which is established between spouses in a permanent and exclusive bond, sealed by God. The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership for the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.
- Holy Orders is the sacrament by which bishops, priests and deacons are ordained and receive the power and grace to perform their sacred duties. The sacred rite by which orders are conferred is called Ordination. The apostles were ordained by Jesus at the Last Supper so that others could share in His priesthood.
The Catholic sacraments are quite extraordinary: they are ordinary signs that do God's own work. God in His wisdom chose to bestow His grace in a visible way to give us the quieting certainty that we had received grace when He did give it. Christ has given us so many tremendous gifts. In His sacraments, He continues to provide those gifts to us, beyond all measure, whenever we need them.