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Sacraments of the Catholic Church
Sacraments of Initiation
Sacraments of Healing
Sacraments of Commitment
7. Holy Orders
Baptism is prefigured in the Old Covenant through the many references to water and its role in God’s plan of salvation. We have the water that covered the earth at the dawn of creation and again during the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea that allowed the Israelites to escape Egyptian slavery, and the crossing of the Jordan River that brought the Israelites to the Promised Land. (1219-1222)
Fast forward a bit and we have Jesus—the fulfillment of the Old Covenant—beginning his public ministry with baptism in the Jordan River and ending his earthly life with a pierced heart, out of which flowed water (a sign of baptism) and blood (a sign of Eucharist). After the Resurrection, Jesus told his apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 28:19) From the first Pentecost on, the Church has baptized those who believe in Jesus as a way to forgive sins and impart the Holy Spirit.
When Catholics are baptized, they are asked what they seek of the Church, and they (or their godparents) answer, “faith.” Baptism does not perfect faith but offers the newly baptized a starting point. Baptism leads the baptized to the “threshold of new life.” There is much more to be done after baptism, especially for infants who must rely on their parents and godparents to be examples of faith and to encourage them on their faith journey as they grow. (1235)
Through confirmation, a Catholic becomes fully engaged in the life of the faith and the Church. The Catechism explains that the anointing of confirmation is a “sign of consecration” that allows the anointed person to “share more completely in the mission of Jesus Christ and the fullness of the Holy Spirit.” (1294)
The person being confirmed receives the mark or “seal” of the Spirit, just as Jesus was marked with the seal of his Father. The seal of the Spirit in confirmation signifies a “total belonging” to Christ. (1295-1296) Confirmation is the modern-day equivalent of what the apostles experienced on the first Pentecost, a pouring out of the Holy Spirit.
The Catechism explains that through confirmation, Catholics receive an increase of baptismal grace, become more deeply rooted as children of God, are more firmly united to Jesus Christ, receive an increase of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, make their bond with the Church more perfect, and receive special strength to defend and spread the faith. (1303)
The Catechism explains that in order to be confirmed, Catholics must prepare through instruction designed to “awaken a sense of belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ, the universal Church as well as the parish community.” Confirmands typically receive their instruction within their parish communities, either through lessons provided as part of their Catholic school curriculum or, if they attend public school, through classes provided after school or in the evenings (typically on a weekly basis.) Most children attend regular religious education classes throughout their school years, culminating in confirmation some time in high school.
The Eucharist is the central sacrament of the entire Catholic faith. Everything in the life of the Church flows from the Eucharist and is directed toward it: “The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.” (1324)
At the Last Supper, when Jesus celebrated Passover with his apostles, he gave them the Eucharist (bread and wine transformed into his body and blood) as a memorial of his death and resurrection. The Catechism calls the Eucharist a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, and a paschal banquet, at which believers who consume Christ are filled with grace and receive a pledge of future glory. (1323)
So to be sure you are clear on the depth of the Eucharist, Catholics believe the bread and wine offered at Mass truly become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist, the Catechism explains, is the “culmination” both of God’s sanctification of the world through his Son and of humanity’s worship offered back to Jesus Christ and, through him, to the Father in the Holy Spirit. (1325)
The sacrament of Eucharist is known by many different names in the Church. The word “Eucharist” refers to an act of thanksgiving to God. Other names for the Eucharist include Lord’s Supper, Breaking of Bread, Memorial of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection, Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Most Blessed Sacrament, and Holy Communion, among others. (1328-133)
In the Old Covenant, gifts of bread and wine were offered as a sign of thanksgiving to the creator. The unleavened bread of Passover, the bread that commemorates the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, is made new by Jesus, who takes the unleavened bread of Passover and transforms it into his body. The wine, offered as a “cup of blessing” at the end of the Jewish Passover, is given new meaning when Jesus transforms it into his blood, leaving a never-ending memorial of his suffering for his Church. (1334-1335)
The sacrament of reconciliation often raises a lot of questions for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Why do Catholics have to confess to a priest? How can another human forgive someone's sins? What's with all the secrecy? Does anybody even go to confession anymore?
This sacrament is about pardon, mercy, and second chances. This is the place where Catholics go when they want to wipe the slate clean and start over again with sinless souls, as they did the day they were baptized.
The Church teaches that Jesus' "call to conversion," which begins at baptism, is an ongoing part of the life of individual believers and the Church as a whole. Through confession and penance and renewal, a Catholic with a "contrite heart" can be purified and drawn closer to God and to the Church. (1428) So it's not enough to go to confession; you have to be truly sorry for what you've done, and you have to be truly sorry for what you've done, and you have to have every intention of avoiding the sin down the road.
So the sacrament of reconciliation is not just about spilling your sins to a stranger behind a screen or sitting across from you, but is instead about reforming your life, turning away from sin, expressing sorrow, and vowing to try to live a life with God at its center.
This conversion, the Catechism explains, can be further carried out in a Catholic's daily activities, such as caring for the poor, receiving the Eucharist, going to confession, reading Scripture, giving things up as a means of self-denial, and providing for others through charitable works. (1434-1439)
So what is the point of confession? Couldn't you just whisper a quiet, "I'm sorry," to God and get the same effect? Not exactly. Confession brings about reconciliation with the People of God, the Church, restoring a communion with fellow Christians that had been broken by sin. (1469)
Now we come to marriage, which you probably never thought of as a vocation the way a calling to the priesthood is a vocation. Most of us grow up and get married; it’s just what we do. But the Church looks at marriage in a different light. It’s not just a general stage of life, but is a specific vocation. Husbands and wives are called to married life the way other men and women are called to the priesthood, religious life, or single life.
The Church sees marriage as a “covenant” between a man and a woman that establishes a lifelong partnership designed to benefit the partners as well as their offspring. This covenant, then, is not just some sort of civil agreement. When it is between baptized people, marriage is a sacrament. (1601)
Here’s how it works: God created man and woman out of love and calls them to love others. The mutual love of a husband and wife becomes a mirror of God, who is love, and of God’s love for humanity. In husband and wife, we see the love of God reflected. The Catechism explains that this belief in the specifically religious nature of marriage goes back to both the Old and New Testaments. (1604)
The Church teaches that conjugal love is about the total commitment of one spouse to the other. It leads to a “deeply personal unity,” the Catechism explains, one that goes beyond the union of flesh to the union of heart and soul. In that sense, it “demands an indissolubility and faithfulness” and must be open to “fertility.” (1643)
Marriage requires complete fidelity between spouses. Adultery, polygamy, and a host of other sins are contrary to the sacrament of marriage because they divide the conjugal love that is inherent there. (1645)
Of course, not every marriage is the fairytale variety, and the Church recognizes there may be some circumstances that would require spouses to live separately, such as adultery or the threat of danger (abuse) to a spouse or children. This doesn’t mean the Church allows such a couple to be ethically divorced, but only physically separated. (1649)
Every Catholic family is known as its own little self-contained “domestic church.” The Catechism explains that from the beginning of the Christian faith, the “core of the Church” often consisted of people coming together in their households. When they became Christian, entire households or families often converted at the same time. “These families who became believers were islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world,” the Catechism says. (1655)
The Church today sees a parallel in Catholic families who keep faith at the center of their lives despite living in a world that is “often alien and even hostile” to the Catholic faith. The Second Vatican Council declared the family Ecclesia domestica, domestic church, because that is where the faith is encouraged and fostered through word and example. This is where children and parents learn about generosity, forgiveness, prayer, endurance, and more. This is where “priesthood” of the baptized is exercised by family members in a privileged way. (1656-1657)
You may be asking what the sacrament of holy orders is. Is it the Catholic version of getting drafted to serve the Church? Nope. The sacrament of holy orders is about answering a call from God, and about continuing the uninterrupted succession the ministry of the original Twelve Apostles until the end of all time.
The term “holy orders” has its roots in ancient Rome, where an “order” referred to an “established civil body, especially a governing body.” (1537) In the Catholic Church, holy orders “confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a ‘sacred power,’ which can come only from Christ himself through his Church.” So the gift of the Spirit received during ordination doesn’t come from the community or even the Church but from Christ through the Church. (1538)
Before we get into the specifics of holy orders, let’s check the history of this sacrament. Like so many aspects of the Catholic faith, the Catholic priesthood is foreshadowed in the priesthood of the Old Covenant. Among God’s chosen people, the Levites were selected by God to be priests. The Catechism explains how the Church recognizes the priesthood of Aaron, the service of the Levites, and the “institution of the 70 elders” (Numbers 11:24) as prefiguring the ordained ministry of the New Covenant. (1541)
Jesus, then, is seen as fulfilling the Old Covenant. He is the high priest, the “one mediator between God and the human race” (1 Tim 2:5). In the New Covenant, there is only one priesthood, that of Jesu Christ. There is only one Priest, namely Jesus Christ. So what about all those who are ordained as priests? The Catechism says these priests make present the one Priest. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catechism tells us, says that “only Christ is the true priest; the others (are) only his ministers.” Because of this, ordained priests today are said to be members of this “ministerial priesthood.” (1545)
Few of us escape serious illness over the course of our lifetimes. Whether we suffer from physical or mental sickness or the debilitating effects of old age, we all eventually have to deal with things that slow us down, crush our spirits, or make us wonder why suffering is a normal part of life.
The Church offers the second sacrament of healing, anointing of the sick, as a way to bring spiritual comfort and strength to those who have attained the “use of reason” and are in danger due to sickness or old age. This is not a sacrament restricted only to the dying, and it is not a sacrament that can be received only once. Anointing of the sick is designed to shore up those who are losing spiritual and physical strength.
The Church looks to Jesus Christ in his role as “physician” and healer of bodies and souls when discussing this sacrament. Jesus had a special closeness with the sick and suffering, offering them hope and a healing touch. When he says, “I was ill and you cared for me” (Matthew 25:36), he identifies himself with the sick and reminds Christians of their call to reach out to those who are suffering from illness. (1503)
This deep connection between Jesus Christ the healer and those in need of healing serves as the foundation for the sacrament of anointing of the sick. Although sometimes this sacrament may result in physical healing, that’s not what it is all about. Jesus did not cure all illness or remove all suffering. Rather, he taught his disciples that, because of his bringing God’s kingdom, sickness does not own us. “By his Passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion.” (1505)
Information on this page courtesy of The Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism by Mary DeTurris Poust with Theological Advisor David I. Fulton, STD, JCD (Penguin Books: New York, New York, 2008).