Gaudenzio Ferrari, Stories of life and passion of Christ, fresco, 1513, Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Varallo Sesia (VC), Italy. Selection. Wikipedia.

Listers, all seven sacraments—Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Confession, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Holy Matrimony—are outward signs instituted by Jesus Christ to give grace. Rooted in Holy Scripture, the Sacraments are deeply Trinitarian. They are works of the Holy Spirit, instituted and empowered by Jesus Christ, that bring the Body of Christ, the Church, into the divine life of God. It is in the sacraments that a person can find the portal of salvation (Baptism), the true body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ (Holy Eucharist), and the gift by which a soul can become holy and pleasing to God (sanctifying grace). Both the life of the intentional disciple and liturgical life of the whole Church are centered around the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments. The following, drawing from the threefold structure of sacraments (1) outward sign (2) instituted by Christ (3) to give grace, has as its goal a basic explanation of sacramental theology that can serve as a foundation for later studying each sacrament in greater detail.

1. What is a Sacrament?

The Church teaches, "the sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us."1 The word sacrament is rooted in the concept of mystery—expressed in Greek as mysterion and in Latin as sacramentum.2 It is fitting that at the "etymological roots" of the word sacrament is the concept of mystery, as the sacraments—instituted by Christ—find their "theological basis" in the mystery of Christ's life, death, and resurrection.3 Moreover, "in the Incarnation, Christ reveals the mystery of the Holy Trinity."4 Mystery is at the heart of Christianity, and as the Incarnation and the Trinity are the two great mysteries of the Christian faith, it is the sacraments that allow humanity to partake in that mystery, in the divine life of God. In the Latin, the word sacramentum was used as the equivalent of mysterion in Greek, but it also brought with it a sense of "something sacred, secret, involving initiation to some type of service."5 In the Roman legal tradition, the sacramentum was "the oath which soldiers took on entering the serve of the emperor," and was used by the Early Church in the context of how the sacraments initiate us into the divine life to which we take an oath of service.6 According to the Church, Christ instituted seven such sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Confession, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Holy Matrimony.7 Each one if the seven sacraments is "an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."8

2. How is a Sacrament an Outward Sign?

There are many signs in the world and many variations of the same signs. One only has to think of the various alphabets and how, even in a single alphabet, those letters can come together in many different combinations to signify many different words—and even then a single word can have many different meanings. Whether the signs are letters or traffic signs, the signs of our world are signs of convention. Humanity has created the sign and given the sign an agreed meaning. For example, nothing in the color red or of an octagon actually means to stop. In fact, the letter combination spelling the word stop is simply just a complex symbol to which humans have given meaning. Red, by contrast, can mean the opposite of stop in a different context, e.g., the red cape of the matador. A sacrament is a sign; however, a sacrament actual conveys that which it signifies. When a person comes to a stop sign, the meaning is conveyed to the person, but it is the person who chooses to stop or not. The sign does not convey stopness. It does not cause the car to stop. A sacrament, however, does actually convey that which it signifies. It is an efficacious sign.9 If the stop sign was a sacrament, it would actually convey stopness. The sacraments, as outward signs, have "an intrinsic objective efficacy, ex opere operato, which is also a special work of the Holy Spirit."10 The classic theological phrase ex opere operato means "from the work worked," which means the sacraments are objectively efficacious and are not the result of the "efforts of man."11 For example, when it is said Baptism makes a person a new creature in Christ, that effect cannot be reduced to mere sentimentality or subjectivity. It is not how the person feels that grants Baptism its meaning. Rather, the proper disposition of the catechumen is met by an objective grace in the waters of Baptism. Consequently, the waters of Baptism both signify a cleansing and convey the actual cleansing of the soul—the cleansing of original sin. The power of the sacraments are not rooted in the subjectivity of the individual but in the authority of Jesus Christ. In short, the sacraments are objectively "efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work."12

3. How are the Sacraments Instituted by Christ?

In adherence to Holy Scripture and to the teachings of the Early Church Fathers, the Council of Trent (AD 1547) declared, "the sacraments of the new law were… all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord."13 The sacraments were not "implicitly" instituted nor were they "evolutions" from Christ into the life of the Church.14 Christ explicitly "instituted the sacraments by assigning the grace and also the external rite which signifies it."15 For example, Christ instituted the Sacrament of Baptism at his Baptism. St. Thomas Aquinas comments, "through contact with His flesh the regenerative power entered not only into the waters which came into contact with Christ, but into all waters throughout the whole world and during all future ages."16 Moreover, though Baptism was instituted, Christ did not command his disciple to baptize until after his death and resurrection. As Aquinas teaches, Christ instituted the seven sacraments during his life, but the power of those sacraments flows from Christ’s Passion and resurrection.17 For another example, "Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, the night before He died."18 Christ said, "'Take ye and eat. This is my body;' and then, by taking the cup of wine, blessing and giving it, saying to them: 'Drink ye all of this. This is my blood which shall be shed for the remission of sins. Do this for a commemoration of me.'"19 In a similar way, Christ instituted the other five sacraments as demonstrated in Holy Scripture. Only Christ could institute the seven sacraments, because "God alone has power to attach the gift of grace to the use of an outward or visible sign."20

4. What is Grace?

According to the Sacred Tradition of the Church, "a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."21 Grace, according to the Catechism, is "the free and undeserved gift that God gives us to respond to our vocation to become his adopted children."22 In other words, it is "a supernatural gift of God bestowed on us, through the merits of Christ, for our salvation."23 Grace, as the “participation in the life of God,” perfects or elevates nature; it allows humanity to reach an end above what human nature could otherwise achieve—by grace humanity can achieve a supernatural end, God.24 Grace "introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life," and to our "vocation to eternal life."25

5. Are there Different Types of Grace?

Yes, in general there are two different categories of grace: habitual grace and actual grace. In Sacred Tradition, habitual grace "remains with us as long as we are not guilty of mortal sin," however, "actual grace comes to us only when we need its help in doing or avoiding an action, and it remains with us only while we are doing or avoiding the action."26 In other words, habitual grace is a "permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God's call," while actual grace refers to God's periodic interventions.27 An example of an habitual grace would be sanctifying grace, while an example of an actual grace would be the healing of a disease or a supernatural infusion of fortitude to face a specific challenge.

6. What is Sanctifying Grace?

"Sanctifying grace," according to the Church, "is that grace which makes the soul holy and pleasing to God."28 In other words, "sanctifying grace is an habitual act, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love."29 The process of receiving and increasing sanctifying grace in the soul—of living a life holy and pleasing to God—is called sanctification. Through sanctification, Catholics become more Christ-like, more God-like.

7. Do the Sacraments Convey Sanctifying Grace?

According to the Church, "some of the Sacraments give sanctifying grace, and others increase it in our souls."30 Of the seven sacraments instituted by Christ—Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Confession, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Order, and Holy Matrimony—only Baptism and Confession (Penance or Reconciliation) impart sanctifying grace.31 Baptism and Confession are "said to give grace when there is no grace whatever in the soul, or in other words, when the soul is in mortal sin;" but Baptism gives the gift of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace where it was not there before, while Confession restores sanctifying grace that has been lost due to mortal sin.32 The other five sacraments serve to strengthen sanctifying grace in us, as the Church teaches they are "said to increase grace when there is already grace in the soul, to which more is added by the Sacrament received."33

8. Do the Sacraments give any other type of Grace?

Yes, "there are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments."34 The Church teaches, "sacramental grace is a special help which God gives, to attain the end for which He instituted each Sacrament."35 For example, the Sacrament of Confirmation helps us "cling to our faith and firmly profess it," and the Sacrament of Confession absolves sin and "helps us to overcome the temptation and persevere in a state of grace."36 Therefore, every Sacrament either gives or strengthens sanctifying grace, and every sacrament gives a specific sacramental grace tailored to its specific purpose.

9. Do the supernatural ends of the Sacraments reflect our natural ends?

Yes, the supernatural ends of the Sacraments reflect the natural ends of our lives. The Sacrament of Baptism, our new creation in Christ, reflects our natural birth. Confirmation, in which we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit, reflects the natural maturation, growth, and strengthening of our natural lives. In the Holy Eucharist, in which we eat His Body and drink His Blood, reflects our natural nourishment in food and drink. The Sacrament of Confession, in which our souls are absolved of sin, reflects the healing of our own bodies. The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, also reflects healing but in addition reflects the help we all need in the hour of our death. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, in which Christ instituted the authority of the Church, reflects the natural hierarchy and authority in nature. Finally, the Holy Matrimony reflects the natural institution of marriage. Holy Matrimony is unique insofar as it is the only sacrament that perfects an already existing natural institution.

10. What is the "Matter" and "Form" of the Sacraments?

In order to be valid, each sacrament has a proper matter and form that must come together. In general, the matter of each sacrament is something visible, and the form of each sacrament is a prayer.37 The matter of the sacrament must be acted upon by the form. For example, in Baptism, the matter is "real and natural water," and the form is the Trinitarian formula as instituted by Christ—"I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."38 Immersing someone in water without the Trinitarian formula is not Baptism, so too does simply saying the Trinitarian formula without water fall short of the Sacrament of Baptism. Each sacrament has a proper matter and form, and the matter and form of each sacrament must come together for the sacrament to be valid.

11. What is the Role of the Minister in the Validity of the Sacraments?

Each of the sacraments has an ordinary minister, and "the condition, on the part of the minister for the validity of a sacrament is that he has at least the intention of doing what the Church does."39 On the other hand, "the Council of Trent declared that even a minister in mortal sin validly performs a sacrament."40 For example, in a Mass where the priest is in mortal sin, but the priest intends to celebrate the Mass, the consecration of the Eucharist is valid and the Eucharist is efficacious to the recipients. In other words, "the effect of the Sacraments does not depend on the worthiness or unworthiness of the one who administers them, but on the merits of Jesus Christ, who instituted them, and on the worthy dispositions of those who receive them."41

12. How Should We Receive the Sacraments?

The sacraments are outward signs—intrinsically objective efficacious signs—instituted by Christ that will always give grace "if we receive them with the right dispositions."42 In other words, "the sacraments cause grace ex opere operato to those who place no obstacle in the way."43 The sacraments are "efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work," thus, the recipient is not the cause of the effect of the sacrament but simply "removes [any] obstacles to their reception."44 It is similar to opening a window to allow in a fresh breeze—opening the window does not cause the breeze, but it does allow the fresh breeze to come into the house and have an effect.45 Consequently, "by the right dispositions for the reception of the Sacraments we mean the proper motives and the fulfillment of all the conditions required by God and the Church for the worthy reception of the Sacraments."46 As examples, the right disposition for the Sacrament of Confession is (1) "To confess all our mortal sins as we know them;" (2) "to be sorry for them," and (3) "to have the determination never to commit them or others again." The right disposition for reception of the Holy Eucharist is: (1) To know what the Holy Eucharist is; (2) "to be in a state of grace," and (3) "except in special cases of sickness"—to fast at least one hour before reception.47

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131. ↩︎

  2. Fr. Paul Haffner, The Sacramental Mystery (1999), 5; cf. CCC 774. ↩︎

  3. Haffner, 5. ↩︎

  4. Id., emphasis added. ↩︎

  5. Haffner, 7. ↩︎

  6. Id., especially for the sacraments of initiation, i.e., Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist; see CCC 1212. ↩︎

  7. CCC 1210. ↩︎

  8. Baltimore Catechism, Q. 574. ↩︎

  9. CCC 1131, see also ↩︎

  10. Haffner, 13. ↩︎

  11. Haffner, 15; see also CCC 1127-29; ex opere operato is in contrast to ex opere operantis, meaning "the work of the worker," see Haffner, 15. ↩︎

  12. CCC 1127. ↩︎

  13. CCC 1114, citing, Council of Trent (1547): DS 1600-1601. ↩︎

  14. Haffner, 10. ↩︎

  15. Id. ↩︎

  16. Id., citing ST III q. 78 a. 5. ↩︎

  17. ST III q. 66 a. 2, cf. Haffner, 37; Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; CCC 1257. ↩︎

  18. BC, q. 873. ↩︎

  19. BC, q. 875; see Mt. 26:17-30, Mk. 14:12-26, Lk. 22:7-39, Jn. 13:1-17:26. ↩︎

  20. BC, q. 578; cf. CCC 1114-16. ↩︎

  21. Baltimore Catechism, a. 574. ↩︎

  22. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, Grace. ↩︎

  23. BC, q. 456. ↩︎

  24. CCC 1997. ↩︎

  25. CCC 1998. ↩︎

  26. BC, q. 460. ↩︎

  27. CCC 2000; see also, Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (1955), 222. ↩︎

  28. BC, q. 461. ↩︎

  29. CCC 2000. ↩︎

  30. BC, q. 591. ↩︎

  31. BC, q. 593. ↩︎

  32. BC, q. 592; Baptism and the Holy Spirit: I Cor 6:19, Gal 4:6, Rm 8:15, cf. Haffner, 54; CCC 1274; Mortal Sin: "Mortal sin is a grievous offense against the law of God," and "This sin is called mortal because it deprives us of spiritual life, which is sanctifying grace, and brings everlasting death and damnation on the soul." BC, q. 282-83. ↩︎

  33. BC, q. 592. ↩︎

  34. CCC 2003. ↩︎

  35. BC, q. 602, cf. 601. ↩︎

  36. BC, q. 604, cf. 603. ↩︎

  37. Haffner, 16; cf. BC, q. 587. ↩︎

  38. Haffner, 41-4; see also BC q. 645. ↩︎

  39. Haffner, 19. ↩︎

  40. Id. ↩︎

  41. BC, q. 590. ↩︎

  42. BC, q. 605. ↩︎

  43. Haffner, 20. ↩︎

  44. CCC 1127; Haffner, 21. ↩︎

  45. Id., paraphrased. ↩︎

  46. BC, Q. 606. ↩︎

  47. BC, Q. 607. ↩︎