What are the Seven Sacraments and How do They Work?

The seven Sacraments are among God’s greatest gifts to us, working in concert to help us get to heaven. They are outward signs instituted by Christ that signify and give grace, the grace we all require for salvation.

The Sacraments of Initiation

The Sacraments of Initiation are Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. The Eucharist, a perfect sign of unity with Christ, will be discussed in a subsequent section.

Through Baptism, Catholics are born into new life in Christ as the stain of Adam and Eve’s original sin is wiped clean from their souls. During Confirmation, Catholics “complete” or confirm their initiation into the church, begun at Baptism, as they are anointed and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

What is the purpose of Baptism?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes Baptism as “The basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC: 1213).

Baptism is absolutely required for salvation because it brings about the birth of the Holy Spirit in the baptized. Through Baptism, the believer enters into communion with Christ’s death and Resurrection and is freed from the effects of all sin. It is the remedy for original sin, which is why Catholic parents are entrusted with baptizing their infants as soon as possible and acquiring for them the grace needed to enter heaven.

Indeed, according to the Catechism, “The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit’” (CCC: 1257).

Baptism begins Catholics on their faith journey. It is the source of new life in Christ. As the baptized mature and grow in their faith, they renew their Baptismal promises every Easter season and safeguard that initial grace.

What does it mean to be confirmed?

Confirmation, then, increases and deepens Baptismal grace. The Catechism states that “By the sacrament of Confirmation, [the Baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence, they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed” (CCC: 1285).

Like Baptism, Confirmation leaves an indelible mark on our soul and fully prepares us, through the seal of the Holy Spirit, to go out into the world and spread the faith, just like the original Apostles. It strengthens the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to us at Baptism.

For this reason, the person being confirmed must cultivate a relationship with the Holy Spirit leading up to Confirmation and open his or her heart to the Sacrament. Otherwise, the recipient will not gain the full grace offered through Confirmation until they are truly faithful and ready to accept this sacred responsibility.

Sacrament of Confirmation
The Sacrament of Confirmation. Photo: Staff Sgt. Jamal D. SutterReleased

To understand why a person needs a faithful disposition to receive the graces from Confirmation, or any other Sacrament (except infant Baptism), we can look at why Christ did not perform miracles in His hometown of Nazareth.

“Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.’ So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith” (Mark 6:1-13).

Since the people in Nazareth had no faith and did not believe in Christ’s power or desire to be with Him, they did not have the proper disposition to receive His miracles. So too, if we don’t truly believe and accept Sacramental grace, we won’t fully obtain it.

Sacraments of Healing

The Sacraments of Penance (Reconciliation) and Anointing of the Sick constitute the Sacraments of Healing. Both, when received with a proper disposition, help repair our relationship with God and bring us closer to Him.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation

Reconciliation, or Confession, repairs our relationship with Christ by returning us to a state of grace, which is necessary to enter heaven. While Baptism wipes away original sin, Reconciliation forgives us of venial and mortal sins when we have a contrite heart.

Catholic Confessional
Traditional Catholic confessionals.

Being contrite, or truly remorseful and committed to reform, is crucial to having our sins forgiven. We must have interior repentance, which is “a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace” (CCC: 1431).

It’s important to remember that the priest does not forgive our sins in the confessional. Only God forgives our sins. The priest simply serves as a conduit and absolver for the confession, a ministry Christ gave to His Apostles.

Catholics must confess their sins at least once per year, although it’s encouraged to go monthly, especially if the individual has committed a mortal sin. Receiving this sacrament gives us grace to overcome temptation, so the more you go, the more strength you will have in this regard. Since sin separates us from God, Reconciliation reconciles us with Him, healing our souls like a doctor heals our bodies.

What is Anointing of the Sick?

Anointing of the sick commends those suffering from illness or who are on the verge of death to the Lord for safekeeping, “That he may raise them up and save them” (CCC: 1499).

Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick
The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

Contrary to popular belief, this Sacrament isn’t simply about receiving “Last Rites.” In fact, people can receive it before a major surgery, or even if they are suffering from old age and fragility. If someone receives this Sacrament and recovers from his or her illness, they can receive it again should another serious illness arise.

From this Sacrament, the faithful gain the strength to face their illness. Through the prayers the priest prays, their sins are forgiven and they receive special graces from God. Furthermore, they achieve a more perfect union with Christ’s Passion, contribute to the good of all the people of God and become prepared for their final journey into the next life.

The Sacraments of Vocation

The Sacraments of Vocation are Marriage and Holy Orders. As their name suggests, both confer a vocation, or calling, on the individual, be it a priest serving the Church or a spouse serving a spouse. Everyone has a vocation, and the Church encourages young people to diligently discern how God is calling them to holiness (through marriage, single or religious life).

The Sacrament of Marriage

Through marriage, man and woman “Form with each other an intimate communion of life and love” that lasts their entire lives (CCC: 1660). It is a permanent union that transforms the husband and wife into “one flesh” and is naturally ordered toward procreation and raising offspring in the faith.

Father Dindo Billote, pastor of Saint Mary Church in Mokena, calls marriage a complete and total commitment of husband to wife and wife to husband. “People like to say that marriage is 50/50, but it’s not,” says Father Billote. “Marriage is 100/100. Once you’re married, you’re all in.”

Sacrament of Marriage
The Sacrament of Marriage

Throughout the Bible, there are numerous analogies for marriage that refer to God’s love for us (His people) or Christ and His bride the Church. Although original sin interrupted the original union of man and woman, through Christ’s Sacrament of Marriage, it is restored.

“By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, [Christ] himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life” (CCC: 1615).

Holy Orders

Just as marriage is forever, the ordination of deacons, priests and bishops leaves an indelible mark on the soul and cannot be undone. Although ordained men are still prone to human weaknesses and sin, their actions are not powerful enough to “impede the fruit of grace” that Christ works through them (CCC: 1550).

Sacrament of Holy Orders
Priestly Ordination ceremony at the Diocese of Joliet in 2018. Photo: Father Dindo Billote

Like marriage, Holy Orders is a vocation, except that priests enter a permanent union with Christ’s Church as ministers. They become Christ’s representatives on earth, and He acts through them to facilitate the salvation of the world.

Indeed, it’s through deacons, priests and bishops that Christ bestows the grace of His Sacraments upon us. They are present at Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Marriage, Anointing of the Sick, the Eucharist and Holy Orders itself. They aren’t necessarily better people, or more holy than the laity. They are simply the human instruments through which God works, their frailties notwithstanding.

The Holy Eucharist

The Sacrament of the Eucharist is the literal Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. As such, it is “The source and summit of the Christian life…the sum and summary of our faith” (CCC: 1324, 1327). All the other Sacraments are oriented toward the Eucharist because Christ Himself is present there.

Sacrament of the Eucharist
Jesus Christ is truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Through Holy Communion, Christ builds a pathway for us to follow Him to the Father and to eternal life. He said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6: 51).

The Eucharist transcends our bodily senses. Indeed, it looks, tastes, feels and smells like ordinary bread and wine, which leads many to believe it’s only a symbol. It’s not. At consecration, through Epiclesis (invoking the Holy Spirit), the bread and water are transformed into the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. It is truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ.

When we partake of the Eucharist, we are united with Christ and the whole Church, including the saints in heaven. This unity nourishes our spirit and separates us from sin, even helping to preserve us from future mortal sins.

For all the saving grace the Eucharist provides, it is easy to obtain. Coming to Mass in a state of grace is all that is required to receive this vital spiritual nourishment.

>> To learn more about the Sacraments, please visit https://www.stmarymokena.org/sacraments 

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