Most Catholics can rattle off the names of the seven sacraments, but people tend to be less certain about where these seven rites came from, said Father John Colacino, CPPS.
“People think Jesus sat down one day and said, ‘Here are the seven things you do,'” said Father Colacino, who teaches a course on sacraments at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
There is clear scriptural evidence that the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist were mandated by the Lord and thus are known as the dominical sacraments, since dominicus means “the Lord” in Latin. However, the other five sacraments developed over the course of several centuries, although they all have some basis in the New Testament, Father Colacino said.
“For example, Christ healed the sick, so there is a connection between that and the anointing of the sick,” Father Colacino said. “But in terms of the actual rituals, those developed in the life of the church as it went on.”
The current set of seven sacraments wasn’t finalized until around the 11th or 12th centuries, noted Father Robert Kennedy, pastor of Rochester’s Blessed Sacrament Parish and adjunct assistant professor of liturgical studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford.
On a basic level, the sacraments are the rituals that identify us as Catholics, since most Protestants accept the two dominical sacraments as such but not the other five, Father Kennedy said. Other Christian churches have similar rituals, but don’t consider them sacraments, he said.
“It’s certainly a place where God is experienced, but it’s not considered a sacrament in the same way,” he said.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a sacrament as “an efficacious sign of grace … by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.” Through sacraments, God offers his people a share in the divine life and enables them to become the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, said David Stosur, associate professor at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford.
“God’s people are made stronger, are brought into deeper fellowship or communion with God,” he said.
God is always present in the sacraments, but he is not bound to operate only through the sacraments, said Father Joseph Hart, diocesan vicar general and moderator of the diocesan Pastoral Center. Yet for centuries the faithful have known the sacraments to be privileged moments when they can experience God’s grace, he said.
“We believe that the seven sacraments really convey to us the grace of God in Christ more intensely than some of the other rituals.” Father Kennedy said.
Most sacraments also involve community members as witnesses or participants, noted Mary Dundas, diocesan director of sacramental catechesis.
“As believers we are always part of community. We say we are the body of Christ. This is another way of showing that,” she said.
Coming together as a community of believers to celebrate the sacraments helps Catholics remember God’s offer of salvation is given always and everywhere in Christ, Stosur said.
“We become susceptible to thinking that I can keep my relationship to God separate from my relationship to my neighbor,” Stosur said. For that reason, Catholics need the sacraments to make them better Christians, “able to carry on the mission of being disciples of Christ and proclaiming the good news of his salvation,” Stosur said.
The sacraments also are necessary because they serve as outward signs and symbols of God’s grace and presence, Father Colacino said.
“We’re human beings. We have to see, we have to hear, we have to feel,” he said.
The Latin word sacramentum means pledge, and God pledges always to be present in the sacraments, said Father Hart, who has previously served as an associate professor of systematic theology at St. Bernard’s Institute. However, sacraments may be valid but not fruitful if the recipients do not open themselves to God’s grace.
“If I’ve received confirmation and I’m not really open to (the Holy Spirit), the Spirit comes, but the door is closed. How is this supposed to change me? It does me no good whatsoever,” Father Hart remarked.