The Sacraments in General

“You shall draw waters with joy out of the Saviours fountains.” (Isaias 12:3)

The Roman Ritual tells us that “in the Church of God, there is nothing more holy or more useful, and nothing more essential or more divine that the Sacraments instituted by Christ the Lord for the salvation of the human race.” They are the principal channels through which the merits of His Passion and Death are conveyed to our souls. They are the means instituted by Him to put us in possession of the graces that He won for us on Calvary. They always give grace, provided we receive them in a worthy manner, but the amount of grace they give depends on our dispositions. A proper understanding of them will increase our reverence and devotion, and these in turn will make their reception more fruitful.

What is a Sacrament?

A Sacrament is an outward sign or action instituted by Christ to signify, and give grace. An ‘outward sign’ is something that we perceive through our senses and which gives us a knowledge of something else. For instance, smoke is a sign of fire. The outward sign signifies grace, just as smoke coming from a chimney tells us that there is fire in a house. The actions and the words used in the administration of the Sacraments signify and remind us of what the Sacraments do to our souls. For example, water is poured on an object to wash away dirt and stains. So the pouring of water on a person’s head and the words: “I baptize thee (I wash thee), etc….” indicate that God is washing the stain of Original Sin from the person’s soul.

The outward sign gives grace. The Sacraments are not mere empty signs denoting grace. They actually give grace. The pouring of the water and the words “I baptize thee…” give grace to the soul, and they produce their effects regardless of the dispositions of the minister, and while certain dispositions are necessary on the part of the recipient, the effect produced must be attributed to the Sacrament and not to the dispositions of the person.

The Sacraments were instituted by Christ. On Calvary He won for us all the graces we need. He is the Author and Source of all grace, and the actions and words used in the administration of the Sacraments could have no effect on our souls except for the fact that He attached this power to them. He instituted the Sacraments and He indicated, at least in a general way, the actions and words that were to be used. From this it follows that three tilings are necessary for a valid Sacrament.

(a) The action indicated by Christ must be used. This is called the MATTER of the Sacrament.

(b) The words prescribed by Him must be said. This is called the FORM of the Sacrament.

(c) The minister must intend to do what Christ intended.

Effects of the Sacraments

(1) Sanctifying Grace. All the Sacraments give grace provided that we receive them in a worthy manner. “Through them all true justice either begins or, when begun, is increased, or when lost, is restored” (Council of Trent). Baptism gives the first grace. Penance restores grace which has been lost by mortal sin. Since Sanctifying Grace is the true life of the soul, and these Sacraments were instituted for the benefit of souls that are “spiritually dead,” they are called Sacraments of the Dead. The other five Sacraments were instituted to increase the Sanctifying Grace which is already in the soul. As they are intended for souls that are “spiritually alive,” they are called Sacraments of the Living. To receive them knowingly in the state of mortal sin would be a sacrilege.

(2) Sacramental Grace. If all the Sacraments gave the same grace there would be no need for seven. So besides Sanctifying Grace, which is common to all, each confers a grace peculiar to itself. This special grace is called Sacramental Grace. It consists in a right, which the soul receives, to all the helps necessary to attain the end for which the Sacrament was instituted. For example, Matrimony gives husband and wife a right to the graces necessary to enable them to live happily together and to bring up their children in the fear and love of God.

(3) Sacramental Character. Another effect of the Sacraments is the character which Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders imprint on the soul. This character is a spiritual mark or seal which signifies that a person is consecrated to God as His child, His soldier or His minister. These Sacraments can never be repeated because the seal remains on the soul for ever. It adds to the glory and happiness of the Blessed in Heaven and to the shame and confusion of the damned in Hell.

When we think of the Sacraments we have reason to say with the Psalmist: “How great are Thy works, O Lord! Thou hast made all things in wisdom: the earth is filled with Thy riches.” (Psalm 103:24) In the words of Pope Eugene IV: “These Sacraments confer grace on those who receive them worthily. The first five were instituted for the perfection of the individual Christian; the last two for the government and multiplication of the Church. By Baptism we are spiritually reborn. By Confirmation we are increased in grace and strengthened in faith. Having been thus reborn and strengthened, we are nourished by the divine food of the Eucharist. If we contract illness of the soul by sin, we are healed by Penance. We are spiritually healed also by Extreme Unction, and corporally as well, if it be for the good of the soul. By Orders the Church is governed and multiplied spiritually; while by Matrimony it is multiplied corporally.”

– from The Fold, August 1953