How can we know anything about God or the life of a person? Probably the best way to know things is to experience them – seeing, touching, hearing, tasting. Experiencing things through the senses is part of being human. God communicates to us in these very human ways. Through the Church we have tangible, physical signs that not only tell us about God but also manifest God’s presence to us. We call these very special signs “sacraments.” They are God’s mighty works. Any sign points to something real, but sacraments do more than merely point; sacraments cause what they signify.
Christ instituted the sacraments of the new law. There are seven: Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. These seven 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. Each sacrament has its own vital place in the organic whole, yet the Eucharist uniquely is called by St. Thomas Aquinas the “sacrament of sacraments”: “all the other sacraments are ordered to it as to their end.” Jesus Christ now lives and acts in and with his Church through the sacraments.
Sacraments of Christian Initiation
The sacraments of Christian initiation – Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist – lay the foundations of every Christian life. Pope Paul VI said, “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.”
Sacraments of Healing
Through the sacraments of Christian initiation, man receives the new life of Christ. Now we carry this life “in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7) and it remains “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Our earthly bodies are subject to suffering, illness, and death. This new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin.
The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health (Mk. 2:1-12), has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members. This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing: Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick.
Sacraments of Vocation
The sacraments of initiation ground the common vocation of all Christ’s disciples: a vocation to holiness and to the mission of evangelizing the world. They confer the graces needed for the life according to the Spirit, along the pilgrimage of this life towards heaven.
The 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. All Christians are consecrated by Baptism and Confirmation, yet those who receive the sacrament of Holy Orders are consecrated in Christ’s name “to feed the Church by the word and grace of God” (Lumen gentium 11 § 2). On their part, “Christian spouses are fortified and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and dignity of their state by a special sacrament” (Gadium et spes 48 § 2).
For more understanding on the sacraments, please read Part II of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, specifically Section II on the individual sacraments. The CCC can be accessed on-line at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website: www.usccb.org. To read the above named documents and others from the Vatican II Council see the Vatican website: www.vatican.va, under resource library.