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The 7 Catholic Sacraments: Definition & History

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  • 0:01 What Are Sacraments?
  • 2:02 The Seven Sacraments
  • 4:53 History of the Sacraments
  • 7:44 In the 20th Century
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the seven Catholic sacraments. First, we will define 'sacrament' in general. Then, we will take a brief look at each of the seven sacraments. Finally, we will explore the history of the sacraments.

What Are Sacraments?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 'The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us' (#1131).

This is a complex definition, so let's break it down.

  • The word efficacious means 'effective.' This means that according to Catholic teachings, sacraments do what they say they do. Because of God's power, they simply work, Catholics believe.
  • A sign is an object, word, or gesture that points to something beyond itself. According to Catholic teaching, sacraments use all kinds of human objects, words, and gestures, but all of these point beyond themselves to something greater, to God and His grace.
  • Catholics define grace as God's free gift of His presence, His help, and His salvation.

Catholics believe, then, that sacraments point to and are channels of God's grace. They work as an effective means of communication between God and His people.

Let's continue. According to Catholic doctrine:

  • The sacraments are instituted by Christ. Christ instituted all seven sacraments as ways in which He could be present to His people even after His Ascension into Heaven.
  • The sacraments are also entrusted to the Church. Christ gave the sacraments to the Church so that the Church could dispense them to the faithful.
  • The sacraments dispense divine life. People who receive the sacraments actually share in the divine life of God. His presence enters into their souls, He helps them to live the Christian life, and He saves them so that they may reach eternal life.

According to the Catholic faith, the sacraments are a gift from God, given through the Church as an outpouring of His love. Through the sacraments, God justifies and sanctifies His people (i.e., He saves them and makes them holy), He meets His people where they are in order to draw them up to Him, He pours out His grace, He builds up the Church and He receives worship.

The Seven Sacraments

The Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments:

  • Baptism
  • Eucharist
  • Confirmation
  • Reconciliation
  • Anointing of the sick
  • Marriage
  • Holy orders

We will take a brief look at each of these. Please note that each definition expresses orthodox Catholic doctrine.

In baptism, God's saving grace, His very presence, enters into the human soul. The essential rite of baptism is very simple. The person celebrating the sacrament (usually a priest) says 'I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' while pouring water over the head of the person receiving the sacrament or dipping the person in water. For Catholics, baptism is the sacrament of salvation and the door to all other sacraments.

A Catholic Baptism
A Catholic Baptism

Those who partake in the Eucharist receive the real Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ in what appears to be bread and wine. During Mass, regular bread and wine are consecrated by the priest, through God's power, when he repeats Jesus's words, 'This is My Body' and 'This is the chalice of My Blood.'

Confirmation provides a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which helps the confirmed Catholic witness to Christ and lead a mature Christian life. The rite of confirmation, usually performed by a bishop, involves the anointing with chrism (holy oil), the laying on of hands, and the words 'Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.'

In reconciliation, which is also called 'confession' or 'penance,' a Catholic confesses his or her sins to a priest in the spirit of true repentance and receives forgiveness. The priest acts as a visible representative of Christ, who forgives sins through Him, when he says the words of absolution: 'I absolve you of your sins in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.'

Anointing of the sick offers the comfort of God's grace to those who are ill. The sacrament provides spiritual and sometimes physical healing, according to God's will, but also allows the sick person to join his or her sufferings to Christ and prepare for death. The essential rite of this sacrament involves anointing with the oil of the sick and prayer.

Marriage, or matrimony, joins a man and a woman together in a life-long covenant of self-giving love. The two spouses give their consent to join together in marriage as the Church defines it. God gives special grace to the couple that they may live out their vow.

In holy orders, men are ordained as bishops, priests, and deacons through a bishop's laying on of hands and prayer. These men are given the grace to live out their lives in service to the Church and to God's people.

History of the Sacraments

Catholics believe that the seven sacraments were directly instituted by Christ. He told His apostles to 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...' (Matthew 27:19).

He also gave them the gift of the Eucharist on the night before He died when He said, 'This is My Body' and 'This is the chalice of My Blood' (see Matthew 26:27-29, Mark 14:22-25, and Luke 22:14-23).

The First Eucharist
The First Eucharist

By telling His apostles, 'Do this in remembrance of Me,' He made them priests capable of consecrating the Eucharist in the future; this was the first instance of the Sacrament of the Holy Orders. Jesus gave His apostles the ability to forgive sins in John 20:23 (prefiguring reconciliation), Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit and then did so at the Pentecost (prefiguring confirmation), Jesus healed many people through prayer and gave power to His disciples to do the same (foreshadowing the anointing of the sick), and Jesus taught firmly on the holiness of permanence of marriage (see Matthew 19:3-9).

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