Over the last several weeks, we have looked at the Ten Commandments and the Precepts of the Church – focusing on the particular details of each commandment and precept toward seeing how right living of the commandments is possible through Christ, who is the fulfillment of the law. Now we begin another significant segment of our survey of basics of Catholicism by exploring the Church’s sacraments as the primary way that God’s divine life (grace) is given to us so that we might live in Him and He in us – in accord with the commandments and especially as the first fruits of the true life for which He made us: to share eternal life in heaven.
In introducing the sacraments, we begin with the very straight-forward definition of sacrament given in Lesson 23 of The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism: that each sacrament is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” In particular, each sacrament gives us both God’s “sanctifying grace” that places the Holy Spirit in us to dwell in us and which makes us His children and heirs of heaven (See Lesson 9 in The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism), along with particular graces related to each sacrament, called “sacramental graces” – such as the forgiveness of original sin in baptism. Through these gifts of grace, God both comes to dwell within us and He offers us a proper share in His life so that we can live as His children. In this way, each sacrament draws us closer to Christ, conforming us onto the life of heaven for which we were made.
There are seven sacraments in the life of the Church. The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism distinguishes the seven sacraments in two separate lists: those which are considered the “sacraments of the dead” (baptism and penance) which give life to souls that were previously dead in their sins; and those which are called “sacraments of the living” (confirmation, eucharist, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony) that increase God’s grace within those who are already living the life of grace.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1131 defines sacraments as “Efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.” The catechism divides the seven sacraments into three groups: the “sacraments of initiation” (baptism, confirmation, and eucharist); the “sacraments of healing” (penance and anointing of the sick); and the “sacraments of service” or vocation (holy orders and matrimony).
In the next two installments, more will be said to introduce us to the sacraments – including an explanation of the word “liturgy” which we use when speaking of the Church’s acts of worship, along with further defining how the sacraments are both acts of worship and gifts from God. Following these installments, we will launch into a detailed explanation of each of the seven sacraments, with at least three installments being given on each sacrament to describe: 1 – the history and origin of the sacrament; 2 – the rite of each sacrament and the graces received; and 3 – the minister and proper recipient of each sacrament. Finally, this major section will be concluded by a look at what are called “sacramentals,” private devotions, and the funeral rites of the Church.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1113 – 1134 give an overview of the sacraments as outward signs of the grace of Christ and how grace is given to us through them.