An introduction to the Sacraments of the Catholic Church.
By Lino Serrano
Before beginning an in depth study of each of the sacraments of the Catholic Church it is proper to get an overview of the sacraments themselves. Fundamentally, what is a sacrament? Where did they originate? What are their purpose? What are their effect?
First off, a definition of a sacrament is in order? Sacrament, which is the English derivation of the Latin word sacramentum, literally means "mystery". Sacramentum and the Greek word mysterion (mystery) were used in the early church synonymously with one another to describe the same thing. Namely, they describe in human terms, a sign. Specifically an outward or visible sign, of internal grace. Therefore, one definition for sacrament would be, a visible or outward sign of inward grace.
Where did the sacraments originate? Catholic Christians believe that God through Christ Jesus instituted the sacraments. Since sacraments are outward signs of grace, and we believe that God alone gives grace, God is the originator of the sacraments, but only through his son Jesus Christ. (See St. John, 14:6.) Therefore, the sacraments are often times referred to as the sacraments of the new law, or new covenant that was established by Christ himself.
What are their purpose? By the very definition given above, a sacrament is a holy, visible, mystery in which Gods grace is transmitted to men. Therefore we can describe them as "channels" of Gods grace to men. Are the sacraments the only way that men can receive Gods grace? No. God can give people grace through many channels. One example would be that God can transfer grace to an individual through reading of scripture, or through private revelation. But the sacraments are very reliable methods of the grace given by God through his son Jesus. And though they arent the sole method for Gods grace they are the necessary ones. Especially the sacraments of Initiation, that are necessary for salvation.
What are the effects of the sacraments? Before answering this question it is necessary to understand the division of the sacraments. They are divided into three groups of sacraments; initiation, healing, and service of communion.
Effects of the Sacraments
First are the sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. "These sacraments lay the foundation 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)
In Baptism we are "born anew" or "born again" as some Christians like to use the term. We can see this from Christ words to Nicodemus in St. John, 3: 1-20.
In Confirmation we are strengthen by the power of the Holy Spirit. See Acts 1: 8.
In the Eucharist we receive the food of eternal life, see St. John 6: 58.
Secondly are the sacraments of healing: Penance and Anointing of the sick. ""Through the sacraments of Christian initiation, man receives the new life of Christ. Now we carry this life "in earthen vessels," and it remains "hidden with Christ in God." We are still in our "earthly tent," subject to suffering, illness, and death. this new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin."" (CCC 1420)
"The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of the healing and salvation, even among her own members. This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing: the sacrament of Penance and the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick." (CCC 1421)
In the sacrament of Penance we receive forgiveness of our sins, especially mortal or deadly sin, and are reconciled to the faith community, see St. John, 20: 23. (Mortal sin is grave sin in which salvation can be lost if the offender remains unrepentant until death.)
In the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, God heals our bodies and souls, see St. Mark 6: 12-13. The early church continued this ministry of healing, see St. James, 5: 14-15.
Thirdly are the sacraments of service of communion: Holy Orders and Matrimony. "Two other sacraments, Holy Orders and Matrimony, are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the church and serve to build up the People of God." (CCC 1534)
""Through these sacraments those already consecrated by Baptism and Confirmation for the common priesthood of the faithful can receive particular consecrations. those who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders are consecrated in Christs name "to feed the Church by the word and grace of God." On their part, "Christian spouses are fortified and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and dignity of their state by a special sacrament"". (CCC 1535)
In the sacrament of Holy Orders, Christ sets aside a special order of consecration to men of the Church called to this ministry, initially to the Apostles (see St. Matthew 28: 18 - 20) and eventually to their successors. These fathers hold special offices: Bishops (Overseers), Priests (Presbyters or elders) and Deacons (Assistants). (See 1 Timothy 3: 1 - 13 and 5: 17 - 22). This special consecration or ordination is usually conferred by the prophetic word and the imposition of hands. (See 1 Timothy 4: 14 and 2 Timothy 1: 6 - 7).
In Holy Matrimony (marriage) God joins two individuals in holy wedlock to be one body that is to remain undivided (see St. Matthew 19: 1-9).
In Conclusion, the holy sacraments are outward or visible signs of inward grace. They were instituted by God through Jesus Christ to His Church. They are channels of grace from God to the Christian believer. They are divided into three groups: Initiation, healing, and service of communion. They are seven: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.