What Is a Sacrament?

A Lesson Inspired by the Baltimore Catechism

The Last Supper, by Marten de Vos
The Last Supper, by Marten de Vos (1532-1603). Found in the collection of National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A sacrament is a symbolic rite, in which an ordinary person can make a personal connection with God—the Baltimore Catechism defines it as "an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." That connection, called inner grace, is transmitted, with Christ's intercession, through the application of a particular substance by a priest or bishop who uses a specific set of phrases in a special ceremony. Each of the seven sacraments used by the Catholic church is mentioned, at least in passing, in the New Testament of the Bible. They were described by St. Augustine in the 4th century CE, and the precise language was codified by the Early Scholastics in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Why Does a Sacrament Need an "Outward Sign"?

As the current Catechism of the Catholic Church notes (para. 1084), "'Seated at the right hand of the Father' and pouring out the Holy Spirit on his Body which is the Church, Christ now acts through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace." That means that while human beings are creatures of both body and soul, we rely primarily on the senses to help us understand the world. Grace is a spiritual gift rather than a physical one, and by its very nature, it is something that the recipient cannot see. 

That is where the "outward sign" of each sacrament comes in. The "words and actions" of each sacrament, along with the physical items used (bread and wine, water, oil, etc.), represent the underlying spiritual reality of the sacrament and "make present… the grace that they signify." These outward signs help parishioners understand what is happening when they receive the sacraments.

Seven Sacraments

There are seven sacraments which are practiced in the Catholic church. Three are about initiation into the church (baptism, confirmation, and communion), two are about healing (confession and anointing of the sick), and two are sacraments of service (marriage and holy orders).

  1. Baptism celebrates the first initiation of an individual into the church, whether as an infant or as an adult. The rite consists of a priest pouring water over the head of the person being baptized (or dipping them in water), as he says 'I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' In the New Testament, Jesus asked John to baptize him in the Jordan River, in Matthew 3:13–17.
  2. Confirmation is held near puberty when a child has completed his or her training in the church and is ready to become a full-fledged member. The rite is performed by a bishop or priest, and it involves anointing the forehead with chrism (holy oil), the laying on of hands, and pronouncement of the words 'Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.' The confirmation of children is not in the Bible, but the Apostle Paul performs a laying of hands as a blessing for baptized people, described in Acts 19:6.
  3. Holy Communion, known as the Eucharist, is the rite described at the Last Supper in the New Testament. During Mass, bread and wine are consecrated by the priest and then distributed to each of the parishioners, as the real Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. This rite is conducted by Christ during the Last Supper, in Luke 22:7–38. 
  1. Confession (Reconciliation or Penance), after a parishioner has confessed their sins and received their tasks, the priest says "I absolve you of your sins in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." In John 20:23 (NIV), Christ tells his apostles, "If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."
  2. Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction or Last Rites). Conducted at a bedside, a priest anoints the parishioner, saying "By this sign thou art anointed with the grace of the atonement of Jesus Christ and thou art absolved of all past error and freed to take your place in the world he has prepared for us." Christ performed this himself, and he also urged his apostles to do likewise in Matthew 10:8; Mark 6:13. 
  3. Marriage, a considerably longer rite, includes the phrase "What God has joined, let no one put asunder." Marriage is mentioned in the New Testament several times, but never as a sacrament.
  4. Holy Orders, the sacrament by which a man is ordained into the Catholic church as an elder. "The grace of the Holy Spirit proper to this sacrament is configuration to Christ as Priest, Teacher, and Pastor, of whom the ordained is made a minister." In 1Timothy 4:12–16, Paul suggests that Timothy has been "ordained" as a presbyter.

    How Are the Sacraments "Instituted by Christ"?

    Each of the seven sacraments corresponds to an action taken by Jesus Christ during his life on earth. Jesus received baptism at the hands of John the Baptist; he blessed the marriage at Cana through the miracle of the water-made-wine; he consecrated bread and wine at the Last Supper, declared that they were his body and blood, and ordered his disciples to do the same; he breathed on those same disciples and gave them the gift of his holy spirit; etc.

    Each of the sacraments administered to the faithful recalls the events in Christ's life that correspond to each sacrament. Through the various sacraments, parishioners are not only granted the graces that they signify; they are drawn into the mysteries of Christ's own life.

    How Does a Sacrament Give Grace?

    While the outward signs—the words and actions, the physical items—of a sacrament are necessary to help explain the spiritual reality of the sacrament, they can also lead to confusion. The sacraments are not magic; the words and actions aren't the equivalents of "spells." When a priest or bishop performs a sacrament, he isn't the one providing grace to the person receiving the sacrament.

    As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes (para. 1127), in the sacraments "Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies." The graces that are given in each sacrament do depend on the receiver being spiritually ready to receive them, but the sacraments themselves do not depend on the personal righteousness of either the priest or the person receiving the sacraments. Instead, they work "by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all" (para. 1128).

    Mystery Religions 

    During the first three centuries CE, there were several small Greco-Roman religious schools called "mystery religions," secret cults which offered individuals personal religious experiences. The most famous of the schools was the Eleusinian Mysteries, which held initiation ceremonies for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis. A few scholars have looked at the some of the rites celebrated in the mystery religions—puberty, marriage, death, atonement, redemption, sacrifices—and drawn some comparisons, suggesting that the Christian sacraments were an outgrowth of, or related to, the sacraments as they were practiced by these other religions.  

    The clearest connection is that between the taurobolium rite, which involved the sacrifice of a bull and the bathing of the parishioners in blood. These were purification rites which symbolized spiritual healing. The mystery cults weren't in conflict with mainstream religions or with the early Christian church, they allowed devotees to have a special connection with the deities. Many scholars largely dismiss the connection, because Christ's teaching explicitly rejected idolatry. 

    Who Instituted the Sacraments?

    The form and content of some of the sacraments changed as the church changed. For example, in the early church, Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist were conducted together by a Bishop at Easter Vigil, when new initiates to the church in the previous year were brought in and celebrated their first Eucharist. When Constantine made Christianity the state religion, the numbers of people needing baptism grew exponentially, and the Western bishops delegated their roles to priests (presbyters). Confirmation wasn't seen as a sign of maturity at the end of adolescence until the middle ages.

    The specific Latin phrasing used—the New Testament was written in Greek—and the type of material used in the blessing rituals (i.e., wine and bread for blood and body; water for baptisms; oil for holy unction, etc.) was established in the 12th century by a set of men known as the Early Scholastics. Building on the theological doctrine of Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), Peter Lombard (1100–1160); William of Auxerre (1145–1231), and Duns Scotus (1266–1308) around the year 1300, formulated the precise principles according to which each of the seven sacraments were to be performed.