Catholics are a Sacramental people. This is true regardless of the particular Catholic tradition. Eastern Orthodox, Old Catholics, Anglican Catholics, and Roman Catholics each center their faith and liturgies around the Seven Sacraments of the Church. The lives of those who fill the pews also marked by the Sacraments. The significant moments from birth to death are celebrated in the Catholic practice of the Sacraments. Birth is celebrated in Baptism. Adolescence is honored in Confirmation, Reconciliation, and First Communion. The Eucharist becomes the ongoing experience of Christ’s presence with us throughout our lives. Marriage is celebrated in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Those who are called to ministry within the Church participate in the Sacrament of Ordination. Finally, serious illnesses throughout life, and ultimately death, are marked by the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and those who are present at the funeral often participate in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, celebrating the presence of Christ with us, even as we experience the death of our loves ones, and the hope of Christ’s presence at our own eventual death.
An ancient Catholic definition of Sacrament is that “a Sacrament is a sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” A popular paraphrase of Saint Augustine’s definition of a Sacrament is that it is “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” The grace that is “invisible” is real and can be experienced. All businesses have signs letting people know what the business is. If someone is hungry, she will look for a sign that says “Restaurant,” or “Diner,” or some such thing. The sign informs her as to what is inside the building and where the food she is looking for may be found. In the same way, Sacraments point us to the grace we are looking for. Where this analogy falls short is that a Sacrament, as a sign, is also the substance. It would be like being hungry and finding a sign that says “Joe’s Diner,” you suddenly are full and nourished.
All this is simply to say that even though we routinely refer to a Sacrament as “a sign,” a Sacrament is a sign that is what it signifies. The Sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion) is a Sacrament of Christ’s presence with us, and it unites us as a Church because we all receive Christ’s presence within ourselves, and that links us to one another. This is not merely a symbolic act. Bread and wine are not substitutes for Christ’s presence, but they are actually transformed into Christ’s presence. The Eucharist is not a Sacrament that reminds us that God is with us through Christ until the end of the age. The Eucharist is the literal presence of God with us through Christ through the transformation of bread and wine (the Body and Blood of Christ) into the very real presence of Christ. The Eucharist does not simply remind us of the saving love of God and of God’s grace; it allows us to experience and receive in a very real way the laving love of God and God’s grace. This is one of the reasons why the Eucharist is the central action of Catholic worship.
The Sacraments were instituted by Christ. Christ gave them to the Church. The Sacraments are not merely rituals that the Church came up with or adopted over time. They were given to the Church by Jesus Christ. More precisely, they were given to the Apostles, who handed them down to the Church through the bishops. It is the bishops who hold the authority of the Church and who ordain and invest priests and deacons with the authority to perform their respective tasks. The bishop is the one with apostolic authority and that authority is shared by the bishop at ordination by the bishop of priests and deacons. The priests and deacons are the two hands that the bishop uses to serve the Church.
This means that for Catholics, the Sacraments do not only point to grace, neither do they participate in grace, but they somehow also are the cause of grace – that they somehow effect and confer grace upon the participant. Non-Catholics may object or balk at such a statement. “Only God can generate or confer grace,” or “Only Christ can offer confer grace,” or “God through Christ…” and Catholics would agree. The difference is a result of the difference in understanding of the origins and essence of what a Sacrament is. For Catholics, Sacraments are “instituted by Christ” and the purpose of their institution is “to give grace,” which means that the Sacraments themselves give – generate and confer – grace upon the recipient of the Sacraments. Jesus Christ is the source of the Sacraments; therefore, the Sacraments originate in Christ’s action – they are instituted from within Christ’s own body. Christ conferred His authority to the Apostles, who conferred it to the bishops. The Sacraments, which originated in the literal body of Christ were passed down from Christ to the Apostles and to the bishops, who are the authority in the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Jesus Christ had the authority to confer grace. The Apostles had the authority to confer grace, given to them by Jesus Christ. The bishops, as the heirs of the Apostles, have the authority to confer grace through the Sacraments, which originated in Christ. The Sacraments effect grace because they are encounters with Christ, who is the source of the Sacraments.
In addition to being “instituted by Christ,” Sacraments must also have valid Form, Matter, and Intent in order to effectively manifest their purpose to “give grace.” The Intent is the intended goal of the officiant and the recipient of the Sacrament. If the priest does not, for instance, believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, then it still may be a meaningful ritual, and even a meaningful symbol, but it is not a Sacrament in that participating in the grace it is symbolizing or ritually enacting. The Matter refers to the physical elements used during the Sacrament. In the Eucharist, unleavened bread and wine are used. In Baptism, water is used. Some Christian Traditions may use pizza and soda for the Eucharist, and this may even be a valid analogy of what has become staples for our diets to help people to connect with the meaning of using the ancient staples of bread and wine, but it is not a Sacrament in that the Matter is not valid, any more than using Orange Juice or Gatorade to baptize an individual would be a valid Sacrament. The Form is the liturgy used by the one officiating the Sacrament. For instance, there are specific words spoken during the Celebration of the Eucharist that must be spoken in order to transform the elements into the real presence of Christ.
There are Four Marks that identify the Church: it is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Similarly, the Sacraments are seven marks that identify Christ within the Church. Saint Paul states in his Letter to the Galatians that he bore the marks of Christ in his body (Gal. 6:17), meaning for him that he bore the physical scars and bruises that resulted from his apostolic activity. The Sacraments are the spiritual marks of Christ that the Church – the Body of Christ – bears in itself, allowing all Catholics to spiritually claim along with Saint Paul that they carry the Marks of Christ in their bodies and in their lives as they live in and among those in world. Saint Paul bore the scorn of men, but we bear the Saving Love of God.