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