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Understanding the 7 Sacraments: The Big Picture

May 21, 2017 By Gretchen Filz

Do you know what a sacrament is? Do you know how many there are? Can you name them?  Do you know what they do?

These are important questions that every Catholic should be able to answer. If it's a bit fuzzy or confusing, here is a short primer that lays out the big picture of our relationship to the sacraments and what they do for us.

WHAT IS A SACRAMENT?

A sacrament is an outward sign of an invisible spiritual reality. Because humans are a unity of a physical body and a spiritual soul, God uses the means of physical objects and rituals to convey spiritual truths that we cannot detect using our senses.

This outward sign functions as a channel through which God imparts sanctifying grace into the soul.  The sacraments are seven in number and have their source in the saving work of Jesus in his passion, death, and resurrection, and were established by Him for the sanctification of every member of His Church.

 

Sacraments are external rites performed by the Church that we experience both physically and mystically. Through them God imparts actual divine grace (participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity) which enters into our soul and transforms (sanctifies) us, helping us to live a life pleasing to God so that we can spend eternity with him in heaven.

Through the sacraments the supernatural moral virtues are also infused into our souls, giving us the grace we need to overcome sin and to live a life ruled by faith, hope, and charity with increasing perfection throughout our lives.

In a nutshell, "Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification."

WHY ARE THERE SEVEN?

According the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the sacraments,

"touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian's life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life." 

Because of this broad inclusion of all stages of life from birth to death, it is fitting that there be more than a single sacrament that corresponds to each. This is for our benefit so that we can know that God is always with us, that he sustains us through all the stages of our life, and that his grace is always working to save us through His Church.

The number seven is also a spiritually significant number; it appears in many biblical passages and is associated with perfection or completeness. For example, God rested on the seventh day after creation, there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, Jesus spoke seven last words from the Cross, etc.

The Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church

 The Three Sacraments of Initiation into the Catholic Church

The first three sacraments—Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion—are collectively known as the Sacraments of Initiation into the Catholic Church, "whose unity must be safeguarded" according to the Catholic Catechism. In other words, they are a package deal, so to speak.

The easiest way to understand why there are three Sacraments of Initiation (and not just one) is by viewing them in light of the Holy Trinity.  The Holy Trinity is the Christian doctrine of God's nature: the unity of three Divine Persons in one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Each of the Sacraments of Initiation reveal one of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

Baptism is always the first sacrament to be received; it is the gateway into the Church and plants the seed of divine life into our souls, which is then increased by degree through the other sacraments throughout our lives.

The Sacraments of Initiation into the Catholic Church

The Sacrament of Baptism:  The removal of the stain of original sin and becoming a Christian, a son or daughter of God the Father.

The Sacrament of Confirmation: The seal or completion of baptism; the reception of the mark of God the Holy Spirit and His seven sanctifying gifts.

The Sacrament of Holy Communion: The reception of the God the Son in the Holy Eucharist; the body, blood, soul, and divinity of the Incarnate Jesus Christ.

So we see that the three Sacraments of Initiation follow a Trinitarian formula: being received into the divine life of the Triune God through each of the Divine Persons.

According to the Catechism,

"The sacraments of Christian initiation—Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist—lay the foundations of every Christian life. The sharing in the divine nature given to men through the grace of Christ bears a certain likeness to the origin, development, and nourishing of natural life. The faithful are born anew by Baptism, strengthened by the sacrament of Confirmation, and receive in the Eucharist the food of eternal life. By means of these sacraments of Christian initiation, they thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of the divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity." (CCC 1212)

 

 The Other Four Sacraments that Guide Us through Life

From here we can understand the other four sacraments.  Once we are received into the Church through the three Sacraments of Initiation, our life within the Church doesn't stop there.  We also regularly receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance which restores us when, during the course of our life, we through sin fall from the grace we have received in our baptism.  Serious sin cuts us off from God's grace (called a grave sin because it kills God's divine life in the soul), while sacramental confession restores it.

Next comes the question of our state in life as Christians living in the world. The vocational sacraments are the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and the Sacrament of Holy Orders. These sacraments impart God's divine life to those living out a life-long call to marriage or the priesthood.

Finally, at the end of our lives comes sickness and death and the corresponding Sacrament of Healing, also called Anointing of the Sick, Extreme Unction, or Last Rites. It is when we receive the prayer and blessing of the Church to strengthen the soul as we transition from this life to the next. The sacrament is also administered to those who are seriously ill or in danger of death.

THE ROLE OF THE PRIEST

The sacraments, as external rites, are performed by the priest who acts in persona Christi. This means that the priest, in virtue of apostolic succession, acts in the very person of Christ as he administers the sacraments to the faithful. The sacraments impart divine life into our souls through the power and authority of Jesus Christ in the person of the priest.

The seven sacraments of the Catholic Church are injections of divine grace to help us live our lives, from birth to death, in harmony with the will of God, which is intended for our happiness and well-being in this life. They are marvelous gifts of God intended to purify our souls and bring us to eternal life with Him in heaven, and we should be very grateful for them!

Understanding the 7 Sacraments and what they do for us

This article has been updated and was originally published in January 2013. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.

Comments

Jonn says
Dec 8 2018 6:40AM
Gretchen, I’m trying to understand Catholicism better. Your previous comment states that baptism is required in order to obtain salvation. In Catholicism, baptism is considered a sacrament, and only priests can give sacraments. So it follows that Catholics believe that you have to go through a priest in order to obtain salvation.

Can you provide references in Scripture that affirm this?

“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

??John? ?3:13-17?
Hello Jonn!
It is true that Baptism is a sacrament, but it is unique in the way that while a priest may the "ordinary" minister of the sacrament, a priest is not the only possible minister. Deacons may also preside at the baptismal ceremony, and in extraordinary cases (like someone suddenly about to die in the hospital) any lay baptized person may be the minister of baptism, granted that the correct matter (water) and Trinitarian form (I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen) are used.
In the Catholic Church priests consecrate their whole lives and selves to God, and are called to imitate Christ and his mission. Just as we are all called to "be Christ to others, to be His hands and feet," so priests are called to this in a more intense and concrete way, and because of this we sometimes reflectively refer to the Catholic priest as the "alter Christus" or "another Christ". The priest is the ordinary minister of most of the seven Sacraments of the Church, and he is meant to "stand in" physically to give the blessing that comes from God himself... ultimately we know that the minister, and the source of our salvation, is Christ, whom the priest represents in a particular way. I hope that gives some clarification.
Justin Kirkland says
Aug 21 2018 10:22PM
So if I am understanding this correctly, in order to receive the grace of God, we must participate in all of the sacraments?
Hi Justin, please see the longer response we left you in your other comment. Strictly speaking, one only needs baptism to possess sanctifying grace. However, due to our sinful inclination, we easily lose our baptismal grace when we commit a deadly sin that is directly opposed to God's grace within us, and drives it out so to speak (it is perhaps more accurate to say that our rejection of God makes God reject us by removing His divine life from our soul). The sacrament of confession restores sanctifying grace to our soul after we have committed a mortal sin. So, of course both are important for making sure we remain in a state of grace. Then there is the sacrament of holy communion which helps us to grow in grace continually so that we can avoid falling into mortal sin. The sacrament of confirmation helps us to respond to the movements of the Holy Spirit in our soul so that we can not simply remain in a state of grace but become heroic saints. So you can see that all the sacraments work together to get us to heaven. Yet only those in the priesthood participate in all of them. And of course those who die a sudden death do not receive the sacrament of extreme unction which is generally reserved for the seriously sick who are in danger of death. I hope that helps!
Justin says
Aug 21 2018 4:55PM
So if I understand this right, if you don't receive the sacraments, you don't receive God's grace, therefore you are not saved?
Hi Justin, this is a great question, and to understand more fully we recommend that you check out the Catechism of the Catholic Church which is cross-referenced to many places in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. There is a distinction between actual grace and sanctifying grace. Actual grace is the daily help God gives us, His providential hand that guides the circumstances of our lives. Everyone receives God's "actual" graces in various ways throughout their life. He leads all souls to Himself, yet we remain free to reject His grace. Sanctifying grace, however, is an infusion of God's own divine life in the soul. It restores us to a state of grace (friendship with God, being His sons and daughters) which was lost with original sin. God gives us sanctifying grace through the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, beginning with baptism. Baptism makes us the adopted sons and daughters of God. In essence, the sanctifying blood of Jesus Christ, which was poured out on the Cross to redeem us and make us worthy of heaven, is applied to our souls through the seven sacraments. To be "saved" is to possess sanctifying grace in the soul (and this is lost when a mortal sin is committed - mortal sin kills God's divine life in the soul. The sacrament of confession restores it). The idea that "once saved always saved" has never been a doctrine of the historic Church, that is a notion that comes out of Protestantism. To answer your question, it is better to say that one must die in a state of sanctifying grace in order to go to heaven. I hope that makes sense!
Andrea says
Aug 9 2018 11:40AM
I have a second question... My boyfriend is divorced, and we are both Catholic. He was married in the Catholic church. He has two children from his first marriage. Would there be any circumstances in which he would be able to have the marriage annulled?
Hi Andrea, for a Catholic marriage to be valid, it is required that: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they are capable of giving their consent to marry; (3) they freely exchange their consent; (4) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (5) they intend the good of each other; and (6) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister. Exceptions to the last requirement must be approved by Church authority (source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). For a marriage to be annulled, a case would have to be made that one or more of these criteria was missing from the union, and therefore it was never a true marriage. A valid marriage (which meets the above criteria) cannot be dissolved except by death of one of the spouses. A civil divorce is only civil; the marriage bond still exists in the eyes of God and His Church.
Andrea says
Aug 9 2018 11:21AM
I have a question on how the church handles divorce when the spouse later passes away. My husband was abusive, which is why we divorced. I did not have the marriage annulled. He has since passed away (but he re-married before he did). Since he passed away, does this mean I am again eligible for the sacraments - as I'm no longer married in the eyes of the church? Would I be able to receive communion? Would I be able to re-marry in the church?
Hi Andrea, it would be a good idea to talk to a priest about your specific life circumstances. If your husband has passed away, then your marriage bond with him is dissolved. A Catholic who has obtained a civil divorce is not barred from receiving the sacraments for that fact alone, unless they have contracted another civil marriage without first obtaining a declaration of nullity from the Church (which means that their "second marriage" is invalid, i.e. not a true marriage, and therefore they are living in a state of adultery). So, if you have been away from the Church, you are free to first go to Confession and then to Holy Communion (if you are not in an invalid second marriage). You are also free to marry another person who is also free to marry. You can read more about your concerns from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops here: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/divorce/index.cfm.
tap tycoon diamonds says
Mar 8 2018 12:17AM
Hmm it seems like your website ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I'll just

sum it up what I wrote and say, I'm thoroughly enjoying your blog.

I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I'm still new to the whole thing.

Do you have any suggestions for first-time

blog writers? I'd definitely appreciate it.
Hello! Firstly, pray! Especially for guidance and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. Read lots of blogs and take notes on things that you like and don't like, what inspires you and what fails to grab your attention. From there it's practice, trial and error, and openness to feedback.
Theresa Chapa Balderas says
Mar 3 2018 4:40PM
What if you were not married by a church? I was married for 21 years to the father of my 9 children. I did not want a divorce, but we were divorced by a judge, because a situation we going through, which his drug problem had alot to do with. I have not remarried. I have not found the one I feel is yet the one.
This would be a good conversation to have with your parish priest. God bless, and you are in our prayers!
Betty says
Jan 23 2018 1:02PM
Hello Mike,

Whenever I see people saying scripture alone, it breaks my heart because EVERY Catholic Sacrament is indeed from scripture, and also because it means you are not receiving Jesus in THE HOLY EUCHARIST.

Please read what Gretchen has written for more insight.
Remy Godwin Telsuk says
Jan 22 2018 4:18PM
So glad to hear from the catholic family on the Holy Sacrament of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Believe me when I say its so Educating and also give an insight into the Lord's Vineyard, tnkx.
Carolyn Barratt says
Jan 22 2018 1:02PM
One thing that should be noted is, although women cannot be ordained in the Church, there is nothing stopping women from dedicating their lives to God & the Church, if they are called to do so.

Although the Sacrament of Holy Orders is specifically for men, women who are called to dedicate themselves to God, may take Vows of Consecrated Virginity, & they will then become Brides Of Christ, & He Is their Heavenly Spouse. This isn't counted as a Sacrament, but, is more of a sacramental, for women who choose to serve God.
God gave us the Bible to guide us. It's sad to see gullible people buying into this kind of falsehood.

If EVERYONE will notice, there is not one scripture mentioned.

I could really go on but I'm not ready to write a novel.

I will say to all, please use the brain God gave you & search the scriptures. Something most Catholics are not encouraged to do.

I'll not reply anymore, study, study, study.
Hi Mike, this article isn't meant to be and exhaustive description of the seven sacraments, thus the title "the big picture" to clarify that. All of the sacraments are mentioned in the bible. You can find the scriptural references in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: https://www.catholiccompany.com/catechism-catholic-church-osv-hc-sc-i713/. That being said, the Bible admonishes Christians to hold to the traditions they have been taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter. This presumes that there are parts of the deposit of faith that are not handed down in the Sacred Scriptures, yet are retained through the handing on of Apostolic Tradition. Therefore, the Bible does not support the "Bible alone" view that you are ascribing to here in order to deny the sacraments, which Christians have been practicing since the foundation of the Church.
Karen mcmunn says
Apr 29 2016 3:56PM
Also, congratulations to all who are in the midst of conversion to the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Faith.

Jesus, and Mary, I love you, saves souls.
Karen says
Apr 29 2016 3:51PM
Gretchen, thank you for all you do! Your answers are explained with simplicity. Keep up the good work!
Thank you Karen! I am very glad to hear that! :)
Gord says
Apr 17 2016 5:33PM
Very informative God bless you
Kendall says
Apr 13 2016 10:28PM
Thank you for this! I am learning more about the Catholic faith and want to convert, but I never really understood what exactly the Sacraments are. This gave me a perfect explanation! I do have a question; if I am already a baptized Christian in the Baptist denomination, which will I be doing out of the first three? I am 18 years old if that helps. Thank you!
Hi Kendall, we're so glad to hear that this post helped you! Generally speaking the Catholic Church does recognize baptisms done in the Baptist tradition, if it is done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (form) and the pouring or immersion of water (matter). So if you went through the process of RCIA to convert, you would just receive Holy Communion and Confirmation.
William (Bill) Bagwell says
Mar 25 2015 9:11PM
Thanks for this summary. Hope to regain access to the sacraments very soon !!
PEGGY says
Mar 24 2015 9:17PM
I was born and raised Catholic..After 36 years of marriage I left and divorced. I raised 3 wonderful boys . They were raised Catholic . I have just re-married outside of the church..My question is I have received all my Sacraments why can"t i receive the Blood of Christ ? I love my God with all my heart
Hi Peggy, the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony was instituted by Jesus, and He declared to his disciples, "What God has joined together let no man separate." All of the sacraments have norms which make them valid or invalid. For example, the Sacrament of Baptism must be administered according to the Trinitarian formula and using water, or it is invalid (because it wasn't really a true baptism). The same with the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, there are certain things that make it valid or invalid. For example, for Catholics, unless your first marriage was found to be invalid by the Church and you have received an annulment, it is not permitted for Catholics to remarry (because it isn't really a true marriage if you are not free from the previous marriage bond in order to remarry). If you do remarry civilly without the annulment and outside the Catholic Church, you are still in actual fact bound to the first marriage. The second marriage cannot then be recognized by the Catholic Church, and the second relationship is therefore mortally sinful (adultery). No one living in mortal sin is permitted to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion (the real body and blood of Christ) without first confessing the mortal sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and amending the sinful way of life - and this is true for everyone no matter how much a person loves God. Here is a good resource on what to do next if you are remarried civilly without receiving an annulment: http://www.catholicsdivorce.com/On-Remarriage-and-Communion
Virginia Patino says
Jan 29 2013 8:06PM
Great Job! Carry on. God bless.

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Commentary by

Gretchen Filz Gretchen Filz

Gretchen is a Lay Dominican with a passion for fostering an increase in Catholic faith and devotion through content writing and journalism. She works as a digital content writer, creator, and marketer for The Catholic Company. In addition to blogging at GetFed.com, she is also editor of the MorningOffering.com daily devotional email and author at GoodCatholic.com. She holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics and converted to the Catholic Church in 2011. She is also active in R.C.I.A., pro-life work, and various faith-based web projects.

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