The Sacraments

One of the most notable features of Catholic belief is the sacramental system. Here we look at how each Sacrament works.

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cross What is a ‘Sacrament’ ?

The word ‘Sacrament’ derives from a Latin word meaning ‘Oath’ or ‘Pledge’. An example might be an oath a soldier might make to his leader.


The New Testament was originally written in Greek and the word ‘Mysterion’ (Mystery) came to be used to denote any sign of God’s power. Tertullian of Carthage (c.160-225) translated the word to Latin and regarded a Sacrament as being a visible sign. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who was one of the greatest of the early church fathers, defined a Sacrament as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”   This was a more precise definition, but the actual number of sacraments was still not fixed. It was not until the 12th century, when Peter Lombard (c.1100-1160) first listed what was by now the majority opinion; that there were seven Sacraments:

Baptism Confirmation Eucharist Extreme Unction Holy Orders Matrimony Penance

Catholic theology accepts this list as normative for faith and practice. Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders are said to leave an indelible mark upon the person and are non-repeatable Sacraments.

The Seven Sacraments may be into three groups:

1. Sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist)
2. Sacraments of healing (Extreme Unction, Penance)
3. Sacraments of vocation and commitment (Holy Orders, Matrimony)

The validity of a sacrament depends on three items: the right matter (e.g. the bread and wine in the Eucharist), the right form (e.g. the words of consecration) and the right intentions (e.g. the Priest must intend what the church intends).

The Sacraments work ex opere operato  (Latin: ‘From the work of the thing worked’), i.e. they do not signify grace already given, but confer that grace directly. They do so by the power of God alone and not through any righteousness on the part of either the recipient or those that administer them. However, to receive them validly, the recipient must place no barrier (obex ) such as contempt or total disbelief.

A distinction is made between ‘Sacraments’ and ‘Sacramentals’, in that the latter were not directly instituted by Christ. They also confer grace, not directly, but through the church which instituted them. Again, they depend on the correct disposition of the recipient. They work ex opere operantis  (Latin: ‘From the work of the worker’).

Examples of Sacramentals include:

  • Blessings of objects and/or persons
  • Making the sign of the cross
  • Saying the Rosary

cross The Seven Sacraments Explained


cross Baptism

“Whereunto baptism being of the like form, now saveth you also: not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the examination of a good conscience towards God by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

1 Peter 3:21 (DRB).

Alongside Confirmation and the Eucharist, Baptism is seen as one of the sacraments of initiation into the church. It is also considered necessary for Salvation. Baptism results in forgiveness of all sins (including ‘Original Sin’ – the predisposition to sinfulness, inherited as a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God). It also confers sanctifying grace and is known as a sacrament of regeneration. Sanctifying grace received at Baptism is lost when a person commits their first mortal sin. To restore the individual to a ‘state of grace’, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is used.

“Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit…and the door which gives access to the other Sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.”

Paragraph 1213, CCC.

Baptism also confers a special mark or seal upon the soul (known as a sacramental character).

The usual mode of Baptism is by pouring water on the head (affusion), though sometimes Baptism by immersion is also used.

Baptisms carried out by non-Catholic churches are considered valid, providing the correct Trinitarian formula is used (i.e in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

Apart from Baptism in water, the church also recognises two other forms of Baptism:

  1. Baptism of Desire:

    “…Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”

    Paragraph 1260, CCC.

  2. Baptism of Blood:

    “The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.”

    Paragraph 1258, CCC.


cross Confirmation

Confirmation results in the candidate becoming fully equiped with the Holy Spirit. The candidate must be in a state of grace to receive the sacrament, so to ensure this is so, Confirmation is often practiced alongside Baptism.

“Baptism, the Eucharist, and the sacrament of Confirmation together constitute the ‘sacraments of Christian initiation’, whose unity must be safeguarded. It must be explained to the faithful that the reception of the sacrament of Confirmation is necessary for the completion of baptismal grace. For by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.”

Paragraph 1285, CCC.


cross Eucharist

“Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen, I say unto you: except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me: and I in him.”

John 6:53-56 (DRB)


The Eucharist (Greek: ‘Thanksgiving’) is the centre of Catholic life and spirituality. Other names used for it include Holy Communion and Holy sacrifice of the Mass, often abbreviated to ‘Mass’. The word Mass derives from the Latin phrase Ite, missa est  (“Go, it is finished”) spoken at the end of the service.

The Eucharist is also the ‘Sacrament of Sacraments’ and the ‘Blessed Sacrament’. Frequency of attendance is encouraged and is obligatory on Sundays and certain other days in the liturgical calendar (known as Holy days of obligation). A typical parish church would have one Mass each weekday and several more at the weekend. The normal practice is to fast for at least one hour before attending.


Holy Days of Obligation
Mary, Mother of God 1st January
Epiphany 6th January
Saint Joseph 19th March
The Ascension 39 days after Easter
Corpus Christi 60 days after Easter
Saint Peter and Saint Paul 29th June
Assumption of Mary 15th August
All Saints day 1st November
Immaculate Conception 8th December
Christmas (Feast of the Nativity) 25th December

“…In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith…The inexhaustible richness of this sacrament is expressed in the different names we give it. Each name evokes certain aspects of it. It is called: Eucharist, because it is an action of thanksgiving to God. The Greek words ‘eucharistein’ and ‘eulogein’ recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim – especially during a meal – God’s works: creation, redemption, and sanctification…”

Paragraphs 1327-28, CCC.

Catholic belief states that Christ is truly (‘really’) present in the elements (the bread and the wine). In 1079, Hildebert of Tours described this ‘Real Presence’ using the Latin term Transubstantiation (Metousiosis in Greek), meaning the bread and wine, once consecrated by the Priest, change into the actual body and blood of Christ, who is said to be present ‘Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity’.

“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend. In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained. This presence is called ‘real’…because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.”

Paragraph 1374, CCC.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of the greatest of the medieval Catholic theologians, wrote an explanation of transubstantiation. Aquinas distinguished between the Accidents of an object, i.e. what the senses perceive (e.g. its size and shape etc.) and the Substance, i.e. what an object actually is, in and of itself. Thus in the Mass, the consecrated bread and wine change substantially, but not accidentally into Christ’s body and blood.

“The body of Christ is not in this sacrament according to the proper mode of spatial dimension, but rather according to the mode of substance…for the substance of Christ’s body takes the place of the substance of bread.”

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, iii, lxxvi

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) affirmed this doctrine in response to the Reformation:

“…By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”

Outside of the Mass, the Eucharistic bread (known as the Host, from the Latin Hostia – ‘Victim’) is consecrated by a Priest or Bishop and displayed in a Monstrance. As it is believed Christ is physically present in the Host, this can act as a focus of prayer and worship. The process is called Eucharistic Adoration or Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. Some churches perform the Exposition on a weekly basis, others do so for a full 24 hours a day (known as perpetual adoration).

Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Kentigern’s Church, Manchester, UK

The Mass is seen as being more than simply a remembrance of Christ’s death and suffering, it is a re-presentation (not a repetition) of Christ’s sacrifice, albeit in an unbloody manner. The Catholic church considers the mass as a sacrifice that avails for both the living and the dead, effective on account of Christ’s sacrifice which itself was effective for all mankind.

In the Mass, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross is perpetuated for all time.

“…The Holy Sacrifice, because it makes present the one sacrifice of Christ the Saviour and includes the Church’s offering…”

Paragraph 1330, CCC.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) explained this idea of the Mass as a sacrifice in terms of its application to the forgiveness of sins:

“[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper ‘on the night when he was betrayed,’ [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.”


In his encyclical Redemptor Hominis (“Redeemer of Man”), published in 1979, the then Pope John Paul II drew together the various aspects of the Eucharist as a Presence Sacrament, Communion (or food) Sacrament and Sacrifice Sacrament.

“It is the Presence sacrament through which Jesus comes into our souls as well as our Tabernacles. It is the food sacrament for he comes at the Bread which brings us eternal life. It is the Sacrifice sacrament because it is Jesus’s offering on the Cross continued through space and time and becomes the sacrifice which takes away the sins of the whole world.”

Father Tom Connolly (referencing Pope John Paul II)

Father Tom Connolly celebrates the Mass

squares Liturgy of the Mass

file_pdf The Order of the Mass (In English)

The liturgy of the Mass varies according to which rite is used. By far the most common is the Roman or ‘Western’ rite. A typical Mass would include the following:

  • The introductory rites – These may include an entrance hymn and a greeting such as:

    The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

  • The penitential rites – These are prayers for confession of sins (known as the Confiteor ):

    I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters,that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

  • The liturgy of the word – Here several readings from scripture are made, including one from the Gospels.
  • A Homily or Sermon – Usually given by the Priest, though provision is made for Deacons to also officiate.
  • A confession of faith – This is usually the Nicene creed *
  • A series of prayers over the elements (The Bread and wine).

    At the time he was betrayed and entered willingly into his Passion, he took bread and, giving thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
    “Take this, all of you and eat it: This is my body which will be given up for you.”

    In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took the chalice and, once more giving thanks, he gave it to his disciples, saying:
    “Take this, all of you and drink from it: This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”

  • The communion rite – Including the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster ), the exchange of the peace (‘Peace be with you’), the breaking of bread and communion prayer:

    Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

    Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

  • Distribution of the elements **
  • The concluding rite – Including any announcements and the blessing:

    May almighty God bless you, the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

* The full text of the Nicene creed can be found in the section ‘The Church’.

** Some Catholic churches administer ‘communion in one kind’, that is, the faithful are given the bread only – the cup being restricted to the Priest. The reason for this is that according to church teaching, the Body and Blood of Christ co-exist together in the bread and wine (a view known as Concomitance). The transubstantiated elements are never separated as Christ is truly present in each.

cross Intercommunion

Intercommunion refers to a common celebration of the Eucharist by Christians, irrespective of denomination. Because the Eucharist is seen as a sign of unity of faith and practice, issues arise as to reception of the Eucharist by other Christians not in communion with the Catholic church. The position may be set out thus:

  • Orthodox:Roman Catholics are permitted to both receive and give the Eucharistic elements to Christians of the Orthodox church. This is due to the similarity in eucharistic theology between the two churches (i.e. an affirmation of the ‘Real Presence’).
  • Protestants and Other Christians:Due to the significant variation in Protestant theologies of the Eucharist and the loss of apostolic succession, reception by a Roman Catholic in a Protestant church is not permitted. The reverse position is also not allowed, except in exceptional circumstances such as serious illness. The Anglican church was a special case worthy of consideration, but in 1896 Pope Leo XIII declared their orders invalid.
  • Non-Christians:May not receive under any circumstances.

“The Eastern churches that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church celebrate the Eucharist with great love. These Churches, although separated from us, yet possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy.” A certain communion in sacris, and so in the Eucharist, given suitable circumstances and the approval of Church authority, is not merely possible but is encouraged.”

“Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church. However these ecclesial communities, when they commemorate the Lord’s death and resurrection in the Holy Supper . . . profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and await his coming in glory.”

“When, in the Ordinary’s judgment, a grave necessity arises, Catholic ministers may give the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Anointing of the Sick to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who ask for them of their own will, provided they give evidence of holding the Catholic faith regarding these sacraments and possess the required dispositions.”

Paragraphs 1399-1401, CCC.

“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.”

Justin Martyr, First Apology


A Monstance

monstranceA Monstrance is used to display bread which has been consecrated for use in the Eucharist.

This is used in the ‘Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament’.

Extreme Unction

cross Extreme Unction (Anointing of the Sick)

“Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man. And the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.”

James 5:14-15 (DRB).

This Sacrament is usually performed when a person is seriously ill and forms one of the ‘last rites’ of the church (The others are Confession and the Eucharist). The anointing is usually carried out by a Priest, using oil that has been consecrated for this purpose.

“The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick has as its purpose the conferral of a special grace on the Christian experiencing the difficulties inherent in the condition of grave illness or old age. The proper time for receiving this holy anointing has certainly arrived when the believer begins to be in danger of death because of illness or old age. Each time a Christian falls seriously ill, he may receive the Anointing of the Sick, and also when, after he has received it, the illness worsens.”

Paragraphs 1527-29, CCC.

Holy Orders

cross Holy Orders

As we have seen, this is a non-repeatable sacrament. Three degrees of ordination are given: Bishops, Priests and Deacons. The first two are given Sacerdotal  authority, i.e. the power to act in the apostolic tradition. For example, only a validly ordained Priest or Bishop can undertake the sacrament of Reconciliation. Similarly, ordination confers the power to consecrate the elements at the Mass. All three orders are undertaken by men only.

“… It is the same priest, Christ Jesus, whose sacred person his minister truly represents. Now the minister, by reason of the sacerdotal consecration which he has received, is truly made like to the high priest and possesses the authority to act in the power and place of the person of Christ himself (virtute ac persona ipsius Christi).”

Paragraph 1548, CCC.

The ministry of Deacons is something that has seen a revival in recent times, particularly in light of the Vatican II council. Deacons may assist in distribution of the consecrated elements (including taking them to those who are housebound), and some of the Bible readings at the Mass. Ordination is open to married men who do not intend to later progress to the priesthood, but marriage after ordination is not permitted.

“Holy Orders is the sacrament through which the mission entrusted by Christ to his apostles continues to be exercised in the Church until the end of time: thus it is the sacrament of apostolic ministry. It includes three degrees: episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate.”

Paragraph 1536, CCC.


cross Marriage (Holy Matrimony)

“But to them that are married, not I, but the Lord, commandeth that the wife depart not from her husband.”

1 Corinthians 7:10 (DRB).

Marriage is a union between a man and a woman that signifies the union between Christ and the church. A validly consummated marriage can never be terminated, i.e. Divorce is not allowed, nor are divorces issued by other churches or instituations considered valid. For the marriage to be sacramental, both parties should be validly baptised. Marriages between Catholics and non-Christians are said to be “non-sacramental”, but are accepted.

Mixed marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics are permitted, but do require special dispensation, usually from a Bishop. Before marriage, the Catholic party is required is required to make a promise indicating that they will do all they can to preserve their Catholic faith and seek to have any children instructed and baptized likewise.

“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”

Paragraph 1601, CCC.


cross Penance

“But all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Christ and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.”

2 Corinthians 5:18 (DRB).

“When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”

John 20:22-23 (DRB).

Now more commonly known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Penance is used as a form of forgiveness from post-baptismal sin. All Catholics are required to use this Sacrament at least once a year, though many do so more regularly. Penance usually involves ‘Auricular confession’, that is confession of sins privately to a Priest. The penitent must express sorrow for their sins and exhibit a genuine desire to turn away from them by making an ‘Act of Contrition’. The Act of Contrition is followed by an absolution by the Priest and assignment of a penitential act such as prayers (including the Rosary), fasting or some other work of charity.

“The grace which is given in the sacraments, descends from the Head to the members. Wherefore he alone who exercises a ministry over Christ’s true body is a minister of the sacraments, wherein grace is given; and this belongs to a priest alone, who can consecrate the Eucharist. Therefore, since grace is given in the sacrament of Penance, none but a priest is the minister of the sacrament: and consequently sacramental confession which should be made to a minister of the Church, should be made to none but a priest.”

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae.

The church points out that it is not the Priest who forgives sin, but God himself. The Priest acts as a conduit using the Sacerdotal powers invested in him by the church.

“Many sins wrong our neighbour. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbour. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘Penance’. “

Paragraph 1459, CCC.

cross More information:

Here is a selected series of links that will give more information:

file_pdf The Seven Sacraments (PDF Download) | Wikipedia – Eucharistic theologies |

cross Wise words:

“What does the poor man do at the rich man’s door, the sick man in the presence of his physician, the thirsty man at a limpid stream? What they do, I do before the Eucharistic God. I pray. I adore. I love.”

St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

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