August 21, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: The other sacraments

John F. Fink(Twenty-eighth in a series)

Besides the Eucharist, which I wrote about last week, the Catholic Church has six other sacraments.

Sacraments, by the way, are defined as “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1131).

By “efficacious signs,” we mean that they are effective. Each of the sacraments brings some particular grace special to that sacrament. We believe that Christ instituted every one of the sacraments at some point during his life and gave them to the Church that he founded. Through the sacraments, we receive divine life, or holiness.

The Church groups the seven sacraments into three categories. Baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist are called the sacraments of initiation. Penance (or reconciliation), and anointing of the sick are sacraments of healing. Holy orders and matrimony are sacraments at the service of communion.

Baptism is necessary for salvation. Jesus told Nicodemus, “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5). There was a time when babies were baptized shortly after their birth because of high infant mortality. The Church still wants babies to be baptized early, but not before parents are properly prepared to raise them as Catholics.

Confirmation is usually for children in their early teens. Adults are also frequently confirmed, especially those who enter the Church on Holy Saturday. This sacrament is sometimes called the sacrament of the Holy Spirit because the third person of the Trinity comes upon the person to strengthen him or her for an adult service to the Church. We believe that Christ instituted this sacrament on the night of his resurrection when he breathed on the Apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22).

Jesus instituted the sacrament of penance during that same appearance to the Apostles when he said, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23). This sacrament requires contrition and a firm purpose of amendment on the part of the sinner, confession to a priest, absolution by the priest in the name of Jesus, and an act of penance as a way to make satisfaction for the sins confessed.

Jesus healed the sick, and the Church continues his ministry of healing through the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. In this sacrament, the primary effect is spiritual healing, the sick person’s sins forgiven if he or she is unable to confess his or her sins in the sacrament of penance.

This sacrament was once called extreme unction, or the last rites, and was administered to someone who was dying. Today the Church’s last rites include three sacraments: penance, anointing of the sick, and the Eucharist as viaticum, or food for the journey.

Holy orders is the sacrament that ordains men for service to the Church. The word “order” came from the Roman Empire, where it referred to a governing group. There are three “orders” of ordination—bishops, priests and deacons.

I’ll discuss the sacrament of matrimony next week. †

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