Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Seven Sacraments and Their Liturgies, Part 1: Introduction to the Sacraments

Today, August 2, the faithful can receive a plenary indulgence by visiting a cathedral or parish church and devoutly reciting one Our Father and the Apostles' Creed, in addition to the usual requirements of confession, Communion, prayers for the pope, and being free of attachment to venial sin. This is known as the Portiuncula Indulgence. You can read more about it here.

God is infinite, all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, and beyond our comprehension. More than anything else, he has perfect and infinite love for us. In the words of St. John, our Lord's beloved apostle, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He created us in his own image and gave us dominion over creation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published by St. John Paul II in 1992, begins, “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.”

Even when mankind rebelled against God and brought sin, suffering, and death into the world, God continued to love us. He made the Old Covenant with Moses and the people of Israel and gave them his law. He allowed them to follow him and offer sacrifices in atonement for their sins. Most importantly, he allowed them to prepare for the New Covenant, as described in Daniel 9:24: “Seventy weeks are shortened upon thy people, and upon thy holy city, that transgression may be finished, and sin may have an end, and iniquity may be abolished; and everlasting justice may be brought; and vision and prophecy may be fulfilled; and the saint of saints may be anointed.”

Under the New Covenant, which began with Jesus's Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, God gives us his infinite life and grace, finally allowing us to come back into his good favor. He became incarnate as Jesus Christ, true God and true man, and made the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross for our redemption. We have the privilege of partaking of the infinite grace purchased for us by the Precious Blood of Jesus on the Cross, so that we can have eternal life. In the words of perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting.”

God is an all-powerful spiritual being, so he is fully capable of giving his grace spiritually without any external signs. However, humans are weak and have imperfect faith in God. If we had perfect faith, sin would never have existed in the first place. Because of this imperfect faith, we need external signs and ceremonies in order to worship and unite ourselves with God. God, knowing our human needs and weakness, has even commanded such ceremonies, so that we can show our faith in him. This is why the sacred liturgy is so important. It is the necessary external expression of our relationship with God. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we directly participate in our Lord's sacrifice on the Cross, just like the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John did. In the Divine Office, we sanctify the various hours of the day with our sacrifice of praise, faithfulness, and obedience.

In addition to the Mass and the Divine Office, God has instituted seven external signs by which we receive his grace. These are called the sacraments. A sacrament, by definition, has three traits. First, it is an external and material act. Second, it confers God's grace. Third, it was instituted by God himself.

Several ceremonies of the Old Covenant may be considered sacraments, such as the circumcision of all males on the eighth day of their birth or the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. However, these sacraments of the Old Covenant did not confer grace, because God's sanctifying grace was purchased by our Lord's Precious Blood on the Cross. They merely prefigured the grace that the Precious Blood of Jesus would bring.

There are exactly seven sacraments of the New Covenant. All of them were instituted by God for our salvation, and all of them can be found in the Bible.
  1. The sacrament of Baptism is the first sacrament that every Christian receives. In Baptism, water is poured over our heads, we are absolved from all stain of sin, and we receive God's grace for the first time. Infants should be baptized as soon as possible after birth.
  2. The sacrament of Confirmation is the sacrament of coming-of-age. It is received sometime during youth, never younger than age seven. In Confirmation, we are anointed by a bishop or priest, make a mature decision to follow Christ, and receive the grace to hold strongly to our faith in adulthood.
  3. The sacrament of the Eucharist or Holy Communion is the greatest of the sacraments, usually given in the context of the Mass. When we receive the Eucharist, we consume the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine and receive extraordinary grace.
  4. The sacrament of Penance is the sacrament of healing and forgiveness after we have sinned. We confess our sins to a priest and receive absolution, restoring God's grace to our souls.
  5. The sacrament of Extreme Unction or Anointing of the Sick is the sacrament of healing for those who are gravely ill. The priest anoints the sick person's body with holy oil and confers the grace of spiritual healing, so that, if it is God's will to call the person home, the person may die in God's good grace.
  6. The sacrament of Marriage is one of the two vocational sacraments. In this case, it is the vocation to which God originally called mankind: “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). A man and a woman give themselves completely to each other and receive the grace to lead a Christian family.
  7. Finally, the sacrament of Holy Orders is the other vocational sacrament. A man receives the laying on of hands by a bishop and is ordained to the sacred order of the priesthood. There are three degrees of the Holy Orders: deacon, priest, and bishop.

Each individual person does not need to receive all seven sacraments. In fact, it is very rare for a person to receive all seven. The sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, and Penance are essential for everyone. Baptism and Confirmation can only be received once in a lifetime. Similarly, each degree of the Holy Orders can only be received once. The sacrament of Marriage can be repeated if and only if one's spouse dies. Extreme Unction can be received as often as necessary. Penance and the Eucharist should be received as often as possible. Many great saints participated in these two sacraments every day.

There are two kinds of grace that God gives us. The first is sanctifying grace. This is the eternal grace that is necessary to be saved and go to heaven. Although God can always act in extraordinary ways, the sacraments are the only ordinary means of obtaining sanctifying grace. We receive sanctifying grace for the first time at Baptism. Henceforth, every time we receive any of the other sacraments, the sanctifying grace in our soul increases. Conversely, every time we commit a sin, the sanctifying grace in our soul decreases. There are also two types of sin. A venial sin offends God and reduces the sanctifying grace in our soul, but we still retain the state of grace. A mortal sin drives away all of the sanctifying grace from our soul and completely cuts ourselves off from God. For a sin to be mortal, it must be grave matter, committed with full knowledge and full consent of the will. Fortunately, all of the grace lost to sin can be restored through the sacrament of Penance!

The second type of grace is actual grace. Actual grace is God's assistance on earth through our thoughts, words, and actions. Unlike sanctifying grace, which is habitual and is a state that we would like to remain in, actual grace occurs at discreet times with certain actions. The name “actual grace” comes from the fact that it occurs with a discreet act. It serves in more practical ways to keep us away from sin and bring us closer to God. Examples of actual grace include a desire to come to confession after one has sinned, remembering that a certain action is sinful and therefore deciding not to do it, or one's computer crashing to prevent viewing inappropriate internet materials. There are many ways to receive actual grace. Any form of prayer will confer actual grace.

The sacraments confer a special type of grace called sacramental grace. Sacramental graces come in many different forms. In addition to the increase in sanctifying grace, we receive tremendous actual grace from the sacraments, more than from any other devotion. Each sacrament confers a special form of actual grace unique to that sacrament. For example, Confirmation gives the grace to be a strong adult Catholic, and Marriage gives the grace of a strong and happy family. These actual graces are much stronger and longer lasting than other actual graces. Finally, the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders each make an indelible mark on a person's soul and give that person a special state in life.

For a sacrament to be valid, four things are required. First, there must be valid matter. This is the physical action or object used in the administration of the sacrament. For example, the matter of the sacrament of Baptism is water. Second, there must be a valid formthe spoken words used in the administration of the sacrament. For some sacraments, there is a very strict form that must be said essentially verbatim. For example, the essential form of the sacrament of the Eucharist is the words, “This is my Body,” and “This is my Blood.” For other sacraments, any words that convey the proper meaning are valid. Third, there must be a valid minister—the person who administers the sacrament. A priest is the usual minister for most of the sacraments, but not all of them. Finally, the minister must have the intent to do what the Church does in administering the sacrament. If any one of these four things is missing, then no sacrament occurs.

In this series, I will be describing the liturgies and ceremonies for each of the seven sacraments. I will also describe two special cases of the sacramentsthe ceremony of reception of converts to the Catholic faith, and the Last Rites given to a dying person. As always, I will be describing the traditional forms of the liturgies, as they were before the reforms of the 1960s and as they are now used in traditional Catholic parishes. The liturgies for most of the sacraments are found in the Roman Ritual, a book containing various ceremonies and blessings for priests. The sacrament of the Eucharist is normally administered as part of the Mass, which is found in the Roman Missal, but the Ritual has a rite for administering the Eucharist outside of Mass. The liturgies for Confirmation and Holy Orders are found in the Roman Pontifical, a book containing the various ceremonies and blessings that bishops perform. Through these various liturgies, the Church edifies her members, helps them grow in faith, and gives them God's incomprehensible grace.

New terms
  • sacrament – An outward sign instituted by God that confers his grace.
  • Baptism – The first sacrament that we receive, in which we receive sanctifying grace for the first time.
  • Confirmation – The sacrament of coming-of-age, in which we receive the grace the be a strong adult Catholic.
  • Eucharist or Holy Communion – The greatest of the sacraments, in which we receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
  • Penance – The sacrament in which we confess our sins and receive God's forgiveness.
  • Extreme Unction or Anointing of the Sick – The sacrament of anointing a gravely ill person so that they may die in God's grace.
  • Marriage – The vocational sacrament in which a man and a woman give themselves to each other and start a Christian family.
  • Holy Orders – The vocational sacrament in which a man is ordained to the sacred priesthood, given in three degrees: deacon, priest, and bishop.
  • sanctifying grace – The eternal grace that makes us able to one day be with God in heaven.
  • venial sin – Sin that weakens our relationship with God, but does not sever it.
  • mortal sin – Sin that completely cuts us off from God, consisting of grave matter comitted with full knowledge and full consent of the will.
  • actual grace – Grace given at various moments and through various actions in our day-to-day lives.
  • sacramental grace – The special actual graces given through the seven sacraments, exceeding any other source of actual grace.
  • matter – The physical action or object used in administering a sacrament.
  • form – The spoken words used in administering a sacrament.
  • minister – The person who administers a sacrament.
  • intent – The necessary intention to do what the Church does in administering a sacrament.
  • Roman Ritual – A book containing various ceremonies and blessings performed by priests, including the ceremonies for many of the sacraments.
  • Roman Pontifical – A book containing various ceremonies and blessings performed by bishops, including the ceremonies for Confirmation and Holy Orders.

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