In order to begin, we have to take a step back and consider what a sacrament is. For those of you old enough to remember your Baltimore Catechism you will recall that a sacrament is defined as, “an outward sign, instituted by Christ to give grace.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church in its Glossary defines a sacrament as “an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit (cf. CCC 774, 1131).” It is important to see these two complementary definitions and see the emphasis they make in defining a sacrament.
The first emphasis these definitions place upon a sacrament is that it is instituted by Christ. A sacrament, in order to be a sacrament, must be instituted by Christ Himself – it is not up to us to create or dispense with a sacrament, because they flow from the divine mandate of the Son of God Himself. In fact, each of the sacraments carries on in the life of the Church one of the essential aspects of Christ’s ministry. The second important thing to point out about these definitions is that a sacrament is a “sign” – in other words, it is something visible. This does not mean that one can always see the effects of the sacrament, but it does mean that its celebration can be seen. This is why every sacrament uses something physical in its administration. These physical realities become, thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit, vehicles which can bring about spiritual realities. For instance, the oil used in the Anointing of the Sick, is the vehicle for the graces of that sacrament to be conferred on a person – we can see that oil, it can be touched and felt, and for that sacrament to be conferred oil must be used. We will look at this more in-depth as we examine each sacrament individually. For now, it’s important to point out that this is what is known as the “matter” of the sacrament, what physical reality is used in the sacrament is called the “matter” whereas the proper prayers that accompany the sacraments are called the “form” of the sacrament. It’s part of our Catholic understanding to see God’s creation as imbued with the gifts of God and which can be used to reveal Him. This is known as a “sacramental” understanding or worldview, this is why Catholics love to have tangible reminders of their faith – statues and religious images and rosaries and incense and pilgrimages – physical realities manifesting and making more clear spiritual realities. The third thing these definitions point out is that sacraments are given to us to confer grace. Grace is defined by the Catechism as “the free and undeserved gift that God gives us to respond to our vocation to become his adopted children.” In this sense then we see that grace is nothing less than a share in God’s own life. There are different types of grace, in the case of the sacraments we are speaking of sacramental grace which are gifts of the Holy Spirit to help us to live out our Christian Vocation. Finally, the definition of the Catechism shows us that the sacraments are integral and foundational part of the life of the Church, they have, in fact, been “entrusted to the Church.” The Church then, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, regulates the celebration of the sacraments and guards them. In our next article, we will look at the number and types of sacraments.
(This article is part of a series of articles on The Sacraments which will appear in the bulletin over the course of this year.)