The Great Gift of the Sacraments

By: Cynthia Trainque


Seven sacraments–seven great gifts of love from God to his Holy Church.   Anyone aged 50 and over can easily recall from their Baltimore Catechism: “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace”.

Within the Christian family of believers only Roman Catholics and the various Eastern Orthodox churches have seven sacraments. Most Protestant communities have two – baptism and communion; a few observe only baptism or only communion. While the Latin word for sacrament (Sacramentum) is not in Scripture, its Greek translation is: “Mysterion” (mysteries). They have been entrusted by God to the Church by way of the holy apostles and their successors, the bishops as Paul states in 2 Cor. 4:1 – “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God”.   From there, bishops can appoint presbyters (priests) to administer most but not all of the sacraments.

The church   groups the seven sacraments into three groups: the Sacraments of Initiation, the Sacraments of Healing and the Sacraments for Ministry.   But first, let’s look at the definition of sacraments.

An “outward sign”– physical rites within the Church.   Most are imparted by way of the sacred Liturgy. The Sign of the Cross, anointings, blessings and other actions performed by a priest with particular words/prayers.

“Instituted by Christ” – we make the invisible visible by the power of the Holy Spirit.

“To impart grace” – because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in each of the sacraments they do give life-giving grace to those who partake of them.

Here we should carefully note that all sacraments are considered as “Ex Opere Operato” which means that they are efficacious (effective) simply by manner of their being performed and not because of any level of holiness/righteousness by either the priest or by the recipient.   A priest who may be only luke-warm hearted in his ministry still administers the sacraments validly because it is God himself who effects the sacraments by means of the priest and does not originate from the priest himself.

The Sacraments of Initiation

Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation. In Baptism water is poured three times over the head of the candidate. He/she is then anointed with sacred oil and is rendered a member of the “priesthood of all believers” and is thus able to assist in offering the sacred Liturgy with the episcopos/bishop and/or presbyter/priest. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and many Protestant denominations baptize according to Jesus’ mandate: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). Some baptize in Jesus’ name only, even while using this same citation of Matthew as well as Acts 19:5.

Baptism leaves an indelible mark upon a person’s soul and can never be undone or repeated. It also forgives sins, according to Acts 2:38, but many Protestant communities reject this even though it is clearly biblical. It also “now saves you” according to the chief apostle himself in 1 Pet. 3:21. In the Catholic Church, in all Eastern Orthodox churches and in most mainline Protestant communities (Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, some Presbyterians and Congregationalists) infant baptism is insisted upon unless an adult elects to become a member of that community. Even at that, the various churches accept each other’s baptism if it was according to the Trinitarian formula.

The idea of being baptized as adults (Believers’ Baptism) only came about in the 16th century with the Anabaptists – a term meaning to re-baptize. Amish, Mennonites, the Assembly of God and many others reject infant baptism and thus require adult baptism for all of its members. For their children they use a ceremony called “baby dedication” in imitation of Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to the temple to dedicate him. Yet, that act was only for first-born sons who opened the womb…not for females or even second, third, fourth-born, etc. sons because the father had to declare “This is my first-born son of this wife” (see Ex. 13:13-16 and Num 3:45-47).

In the Old Testament it was God himself who decreed that all male children be circumcised at the age of eight days old even though clearly they are incapable of choosing it for themselves; it was important, though, for circumcision made one a member of the sacred covenant with God (Note:   circumcision does not make a person Jewish…they are born Jewish or convert into the faith).   It was unheard of in the days of Jesus and the early Church (and for 1500+ years) for a person to choose his/her own faith because women and children were seen as mere possessions and incapable of deciding when they wanted to be baptized.   It is the primary reason entire households were baptized together.   Even though Jesus himself was baptized as an adult, he was not baptized into anything.   Nor did he  need  baptism – his holy presence in the water blessed the action of baptism and fulfilled the baptism of John by bringing it to a new level.


This sacrament completes baptism and it is the occasion when the baptized are able to definitively choose the Church for themselves. Like Baptism it also leaves an indelible mark on one’s soul that cannot be undone. The seven-fold gifts of the Holy Spirit are given at Confirmation: fear of the Lord, piety, knowledge, understanding, counsel, wisdom and fortitude.   The Bishop confirms each candidate individually with the same nine words “Be sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit”. Why is a Bishop the one who confirms?   In the early Church the Bishop administered all the sacraments as well as offered the weekly Mass.   However, the Church grew very quickly both in size and geographically making it impossible for him to cover everything.

The saying of Mass and administering baptism was given over to the priests who served within the priesthood of each individual Bishop but because Confirmation is the sacrament that completes the initiation of a candidate into the Church it is still reserved to the Bishop.   Local pastors may Confirm at the Easter Vigil (again, for sheer numbers) but pastors who receive people into the church outside of the vigil must have the Bishop’s expressed permission. For more on Confirmation go here:

The Holy Eucharist    

Food of all foods, Bread of all breads.   I have covered this Holy Sacrament in my  second essay of this series  here.

The Sacraments of Healing

The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) and the Anointing of the Sick.   About Confession the question is often asked, “Why confess your sins to a priest…why not just go to God?” One reason is for humility and not an act of presumption that God has forgiven the sin(s). Many Protestants who go direct to God oftentimes admit to being unsure as to whether God has truly forgiven their sins…or even heard their request for forgiveness.   While Jesus did say to the apostles that “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them” (Jn 20:23) many Protestants seem to be unaware that Jesus also said “whose sins you retain are retained”.

In order for them to be forgiven or retained they must be heard. Thus three things are necessary before the priest can give absolution:   true repentance of sin(s), a firm intention to “avoid the near occasion of sin” (Act of Contrition) and a form of penance.     The other thing about confessing through a priest is that St. Paul makes clear in 1 Cor. 12:25-26 that “if one part of the body hurts, every other part hurts and is involved in the healing”.   This is also true spiritually. Therefore sin not only affects our relationship with God but with others as well.

When Jesus appeared to his apostles and spoke to them about forgiving and retaining sin he first breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”. Outside of placing the breath of life into mankind (Gen. 2:7), it is the only time that Jesus breathed on the apostles.

And isn’t there really only one kind of sin rather than the idea of mortal sin?   Why differentiate?   We do so because the apostle John said so: “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray.All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly” (1 Jn 5:16-17). Stealing twenty dollars from someone’s purse cannot be elevated to the level of murder…nor can murder be equated to the level of stealing twenty dollars.

The Sacrament of the Sick

“Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord,and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:13-15). How good it is that this great sacrament exists.   Formerly called Extreme Unction because it was the last of four sacraments that use the oil of anointing (Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders are the other three), it is now administered to those who are seriously ill or facing surgery and no longer reserved for a person who is very close to death. Therefore it is possible for a person to receive this anointing more than once in life. Incorporated in this sacrament is the sacrament of reconciliation – therefore it is one of sacraments reserved to the priest. The others are Confirmation (unless it is the Easter Vigil or the priest has special permission from the Bishop), the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and Holy Orders.


Holy Orders  are the second level of the three ordained functions within the ministry of Jesus Christ. The first level is ordination to the Diaconate (from Diakonos/Diakonoz), meaning one who serves.   Deacons may not hear Confessions nor confect the Holy Eucharist. During the sacred Liturgy his function is as minister of the cup (chalice). Permanent deacons may be married–but the marriage must come first. If his wife dies, he may ask to enter into the priesthood but he must begin anew his seminary training.

The third level of sacred ministry is that of Bishop (from Episkopos/Episkopoz), which loosely means overseer.   I say “loosely” because his role is so much more.   His is the fullness of the priesthood…he is truly Vicar of Christ according to  Lumen Gentium  #27.   All priests must be ordained by a bishop; all bishops must be ordained by three bishops. For an eye-opening experience on the continuity of the Church in terms of Episcopal lineage/apostolic succession,  go to this site,  and find your bishop’s name.   Read who consecrated him and then follow the line backwards…all the way to the 1500′s–likely when formal records were first kept. Even today 95% of priests and bishops (even Pope Francis) trace their apostolic heritage through Cardinal Rebiba.   His was a time of great battles amongst the various Italian states so it is no surprise that records prior to him are scant, if any.

The second level of sacred ministry is the priesthood (from Presbyteros/Presbutepoz), meaning elder or priest. Priests are “ordained for sacrifice”–a term all Protestants took out of their ordination rites many years ago because they do not believe that the Eucharist is a sacrifice…they believe it to be symbolic only.

Sacred ordination is one of the three sacraments that leaves an indelible mark on the priest’s soul (the other two are Baptism and Confirmation).   He is, according to the rite of ordination a “priest forever”.

When priests are ordained, they marry their cherished spouse the Church in imitation of Jesus Christ who laid down his life for her.   Through that marriage they infuse life into the Church which the faithful lovingly receive, nurture within and bring forth to new life among God’s holy people and for the salvation of all the world. It is the reason he remains celibate–his bride is the Holy Catholic Church.   In union with Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit he makes Jesus truly present–Body, Blood, soul and divinity–at each and every Mass that he says. Jesus himself affirmed celibacy after Peter complained about giving up everything to follow Jesus.   Jesus’ reply to Peter was that there was “no man who has left house or  wife  or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God” (Lk 18:29) who would go unrewarded.   Although Peter clearly was married at the time Jesus called him to follow him, (Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law)…Peter’s mother-in-law would not cease to be his mother-in-law because he did not divorce her–but only set his sights and heart on the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus further affirms celibacy when he tells his apostles that “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12) while also stating that “not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given”. Therefore celibacy is a gift.

Not so long ago my family’s Assembly of God community had five pastors which meant salaries to take care of five wives, many children, five mortgages, cars, college tuitions, etc.   When the time came for them to search for a new head pastor it was determined that his family would always come first, so in times of family crisis the pastor would need to break church engagements to take care of a spouse, child, or in-law. His “interests are divided” (1 Cor. 7:32). On the other hand, when a priest in any diocese dies, the bishop is free to quickly send another priest to take his place without it being a cause of concern or hardship for any wife, child(ren) or mortgage.

Some Protestants make the claim that priesthood is no longer necessary but it was never done away with. Paul speaks of his “priestly service of the gospel” in his Letter to the Romans in 15:16.   All priests serve in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ and not something outside of it. Valid words as said by Jesus and valid matter–”wheat alone” (Canon Law #924, ¶2) for the hosts and “natural wine”–must be used. Most Protestants use grape juice and one or two faith communities use water. For a priest to use hosts made of rice or other grain/seed is to make communion invalid; indeed nothing at all happens…no transubstantiation.   It simply remains as rice and does not become the Precious Body of Jesus.

Holy Matrimony  is the sacred act by which one man and one woman enter into a sacred covenant in order to become co-creators with God. They, too, bring forth new life for that is what the relationship is all about.   In imitation of God who infuses life into all things and a priest who mystically infuses life into the Church, so it is the male–the father–who implants life into the body of the woman who receives that life, nurtures it within and brings it forth.   This is why we address God as “Father” for from him all things have their origin.   In human reproduction, too, it is through the male that all of life has its origin.   He then is also called “Father”.

The roles of male and female, of course, are different…but complimentary.   Two males cannot give life one to another and two women cannot receive life one from another.   For there to be new life which springs forth from that deep and intimate union there must be one of each.   Jesus himself stated that the two–male and female–become “one flesh”.

Marriage is meant to be for “the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children” (Canon Law #1055).   Marriage is so important that “It is strongly recommended that those to be married approach the sacraments of penance and the Most Holy Eucharist so that they may fruitfully receive the sacrament of marriage” (Canon Law 1065, ¶2).   It is only the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches that see marriage as a sacrament.   No Protestant community does.

All dioceses have forms they use as part of the interview process/journey with the couple.   Two of the most important questions that it asks are these:

“The Catholic church teaches that marriage is a permanent union to be entered without reservation or intention of divorce. Do you intend the marriage to be such a marriage?”

“The Catholic Church teaches that persons entering marriage  must mutually exchange the right to have children of this union  (italics mine). Do you intend to give your spouse this right?”

Indeed, that second question comes straight from Sacred Scripture:   “The husband should fulfill his conjugal duty toward his wife, and likewise the wife toward her husband. A wife does not have authority over her own body, but rather her husband, and similarly a husband does not have authority over his own body, but rather his wife. Do not deprive each other…” (1 Cor. 7:3-4).

All men and women are made in the “image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26) of God; therefore all people are holy.   This is why the Church in her great wisdom insists that the sacred covenant of marriage takes place before the procreation of children.   It is the same with a priest.   He must be validly ordained by a bishop before he is able to say Mass and to make Jesus present in the Eucharist.     A couple must be validly married with a solemn blessing by the priest before a sacred act–the pro-creation of children.

Because all sacraments are for the people of God and not just for the ones receiving them (the marriage will be lived out in the community and in the Church and not just in the home) then the wedding must take place in a church and not in Aunt Martha’s rose garden or onboard ship.

In the original Greek, the term for “gift” that Paul uses in speaking of marriage is Charisma/Carisma–making it a spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit, just as priesthood is (see 1 Cor. 7:7) . Therefore both Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony give powerful testimony to our loving God who gives such gifts.

Credit to Cynthia Trainque of CatholicExchange.


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