Rediscovering the Seven Sacraments

Editor’s Note: David Bonagura will be writing a series of columns on the Seven Sacraments over the next several months, and a final one on Vatican II’s understanding of the Church as sacrament.

It has been said that if the doctrine of the Holy Trinity were abolished, many Catholics would not notice. Sadly, it seems that if the same were to happen to the seven sacraments of the Church, many Catholics would not feel deprived of anything significant. Fewer couples are presenting themselves for the sacrament of marriage, and such couples are less likely to present their children for baptism. Those who have their children baptized are returning less and less frequently for first confessions, first communions, and confirmation. Fewer candidates for holy orders mean fewer priests available to anoint the sick and dying. It seems all seven sacraments are being pulled away in the rip tide of secularism.

Five centuries ago, the Church fought another attack on the seven sacraments, though the challenge was quite different. The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century quickly dismissed five of the seven sacraments in their newly created theologies, leaving only baptism and the Eucharist, while, in many cases, altering the meaning behind them. The Council of Trent responded vigorously to this challenge: it defined all seven sacraments of the Church as instituted by Christ, that they confer actual grace upon recipients, regardless of the holiness of the minister, and that they are necessary for salvation. (Lest the comments pour in, the Church teaches that desire for the sacraments is sufficient for salvation.) This last point highlights the necessity of reawakening the need for the sacraments among Catholics today and the power of sacraments to reinvigorate our Catholic identity in an age of religious indifference.

St. Augustine interpreted the word “sacrament” broadly, defining it as “a sign of a sacred thing.” Under this definition he included nearly everything that points to God: creation, prayers, blessings, and sermons – things we call “sacramentals” today – are all signs of God. Nevertheless, St. Augustine saw some sacraments as more important than others, and medieval theologians later developed his thinking, defining seven liturgical sacraments in terms similar to the definition found in the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “A sacrament is an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.” This beautiful definition requires some unpacking to comprehend the full import of the sacraments for the lives of Christians.

As an “efficacious sign of grace” a sacrament is a physical sign that really confers grace, the sublime gift of God that elevates the soul to share in the divine life of the Trinity. Sacraments are not mere social signs of belonging to the Church, nor are they intended to bring about psychological comfort alone (though they may). Rather, they actually communicate God’s grace directly to recipients, who receive the power to live their Christian vocations through them. Each sacrament is a particular sign with its own particular effects: baptism forgives sins, confirmation confers the Holy Spirit, and so on.

All seven sacraments were “instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church.” Although Scripture does not attest to specific rituals and formulae for them, the sacraments are all rooted in the life and work of Christ and the ministry of his apostles. The Church, as one theologian has put it, “is at the same time both community of the redeemed and the redeeming institution.” The members of the Church have received the grace of salvation, and it is to this community of God’s people that Christ entrusted his sacraments for the salvation of all. Sacraments communicate God’s grace through the ministry of the Church; therefore, they do not depend on the holiness of the priest administering the sacrament. As the Catechism explains, every sacrament “is an encounter between Christ and the Church.”

As important as Catechism definitions are, understanding why (insofar as we are able) God willed our salvation through the sacraments is essential to recapturing their significance today. Just as Jesus Christ made the invisible God visible for sensual human beings – we all have an element of Thomas the apostle in us – Christ instituted the sacraments to make God’s invisible work of salvation visible through ordinary physical signs. God does not need the sacraments, but human beings do so that faith can be grounded in manifest realities.

Our age accepts the theories of science on faith, yet demands proof for doctrines of religion. The sacraments remind us that the physical matter of scientific experimentation is subject to and can be transformed by God. It certainly requires faith to see God working in the sacraments. But if we ask for faith, God will help us see the sacraments not as mere occasions or milestones, but as powerful and sublime gifts intended to help us reach the ultimate goal: living the commandment of charity on earth and eternal union with God in Heaven.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.