The closing article of the Apostles Creed, I believe in
life everlasting, is also the opening door to the seven sacraments instituted
by Jesus Christ.
As we have seen, the eternal life that awaits those who
believe in Christ is the supernatural life which He came into the world to
restore to a fallen human race. That is why the Savior was so blunt in His
explanation to Nicodemus about the need for being born again.
I tell you most solemnly, unless a
man is born through water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
What is born of the flesh is flesh. What is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do
not be surprised when I say: You must be born from above (John 3:5-7).
There are, therefore, two forms of birth because there are
two levels of life. We acquire the natural life because we are born out of
human stock, and the urge of the flesh, and the will of man. But there is a
higher life whereby a person is born of God Himself (John 1:12-13).
The sacraments of the Catholic Church have all their meaning
contained in this mystery of faith. The same Christ who said, I have come that
they may have life and have it to the full
(John 10:10), is the one who provided the principal means for obtaining,
regaining and growing in this life by instituting the sacraments of the New
Channels of Divine Grace
Before we look into each of the sacraments, we should see
more deeply what the Church understands by the supernatural life. In a word, by
the supernatural life the Catholic Church understands the life of grace. And
grace is the supernatural gift that God, of His free benevolence, bestows on
human beings for their eternal
salvation. The gifts of grace are essentially supernatural. They surpass
the being, powers, and claims of created nature.
The variety of these gifts is beyond number, but they are
ordinarily classified as sanctifying grace, the infused virtues, the gifts of
the Holy Spirit, permanent character, and actual graces. All of these gifts are
somehow received, restored, or increased by the sacraments of Jesus Christ.
Sanctifying Grace. The most
fruitful term in revelation for sanctifying grace is simply life. In the
original Greek of the New Testament, it is regularly called zoe, in preference to two other words for life
in Greek, namely, bios and psyche. The New Testament understands zoe to mean the supernatural life that God
communicates to us through Christ.
Most often, the combination zoe
aionios, eternal life, is found in the gospels and St. Paul. Yet the
same zoe that we possess on earth as
divine grace will continue in eternity as heavenly glory. This is the divine
life that was in the Word from the beginning and from His fullness we have,
all of us, received yes, grace in return for grace (John 1:16).
In technical language, we may say that the divine indwelling
in the souls of the just is the Uncreated Grace of the Holy Trinity. The
created effect of this indwelling is sanctifying grace.
St. Augustine speaks of sanctifying grace as the soul of
the soul. he means that our body has the soul as its source (or principle) of
natural life. So our soul has it source of supernatural life, which is
Thus sanctifying grace is a divine quality inhering in the
soul. From this follows a number of wonderful effects.
- Sanctifying grace makes the soul holy and pleasing to God. St.
Paul wrote to the early Christians: You are washed; you are sanctified; you
are justified, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God
(I Corinthians 6:11). Sanctity means freedom from mortal sin, and positively it
is the enduring supernatural union with God.
- Sanctifying grace makes the soul supernaturally beautiful. As a
sharing in the very nature of God, it produces in the soul an image of the
Uncreated Beauty of the Holy Trinity. It remolds the soul to the likeness of
Christ, who is the radiant light of Gods glory (Hebrews 1:3).
- Sanctifying grace makes us friends of God. On entering the soul,
it changes one from an unjust person into a just person, and from an enemy into
a friend of God. As Jesus told the apostles: You are my friends if you do
what I command you. I shall not call you servants any more because a servant
does not know his masters business. I call you friends because I have made
known to you everything I have learned from my Father (John 15:14-15).
- Sanctifying grace makes us children
of God and heirs of heaven. The two
privileges go together. Everyone, says St. Paul, moved by the Spirit is a
son of God. The spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear
into your lives. It is the spirit of sons and it makes us cry out, Abba,
Father! The Spirit Himself and our spirit united witness that we are children
of God. And if we are children, we are heirs as well: heirs of God and co-heirs
with Christ, sharing His sufferings so as to share His glory (Romans 8:14-17).
That is why a person who dies in sanctifying grace may be said to have a right
to heaven. It is the right of inheritance given to us through the merits of
- Sanctifying grace makes a person a temple of the Holy Spirit.
How so? The reason is that the Holy Spirit dwells in the souls of the just not
only by means of His created gifts of grace that He confers. Rather, He abides
in the soul by His uncreated Divine Nature. Do you not know, St. Paul asks,
that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you . . .
Holy is the temple of God, and this temple you are (I Corinthians 3:16-17).
Infused Virtue. It is the
infallible teaching of the Church that the virtues of faith, hope, and charity
are conferred along with sanctifying grace.
These virtues are received in the soul as permanent habits
or dispositions. The Church says they are infused. This is to make clear that
they are not acquired, as are other habits, by repetition of an act. They must
be, as it were, directly poured in (infundere)
The virtue of faith enables us to assent with our minds to
everything which God has revealed. Our motive for accepting Gods revelation is
His own divine authority. We believe because He is all-knowing and therefore
cannot be deceived, and all good, and therefore would not deceive us. When He
tells us something we accept His word as infallibly true.
The virtue of hope belongs to the will. It makes a person
desire eternal life, which is the heavenly vision of God, and gives one the
confidence of receiving the grace necessary to reach heaven. The grounds of
hope are Gods almighty power, His infinite goodness, and His fidelity to what
The virtue of charity enables us to love God for His own
sake and to love others out of love for God. Like hope, charity resides in the
human will. But unlike hope, charity is selfless love. When we hope, we also
love God, but we love Him because of the reward we justly expect of Him grace
in this life and eternal glory in the life to come.
But charity is different than hope. The English word love
does not fully express what we mean by charity. Love may be natural or
supernatural. Charity is uniquely supernatural. Love is often equated with
like, which implies a natural attraction. Charity may be practiced even in
the absence of such spontaneous appeal. Love commonly involves our internal
emotions and usually implies a depth of feeling. Charity does not exclude
emotions or feelings, but, in essence charity, is a virtue of the free will. It
goes out to the object which we love, either God or our neighbor, in order to
please the one who is loved.
The virtues of faith, hope, and charity are called
theological because their immediate object is God (Theos
in Greek). They are directed to Him. We believe in Him who is the
Truth, we hope in Him who is the Way, and we love Him who is the Life.
But there are four other virtues that are called moral
because their immediate object is human behavior (from the Latin mores, meaning fixed, morally binding customs).
They are also called cardinal virtues (from the Latin cardo, hinge) because they are like hinges on
which all the moral virtues depend.
There are four basic moral virtues, namely prudence in the
intellect, and justice, fortitude, and temperance in the will. It is the
Churchs common teaching that, along with the theological virtues the moral virtues
are also infused into the soul with sanctifying grace.
Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Along
with the infused virtues, a person who receives sanctifying grace also receives
the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are seven forms of supernatural
instincts or initiatives which prompt a person to respond to the divine
movements of grace.
The gifts are like reflexes that enable a person to
spontaneously answer to the impulses of Gods grace. Their scriptural basis is
the prophetic endowment of the Messiah.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest
upon Him, the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel and
of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and of godliness. And He shall be filled
with the spirit of the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:2-3).
Although directly attributed to the Messiah these gifts are
implicitly the common possession of all Christians, whose very name signifies
Messianists (Mashiah, Hebrew for
Anointed, which in Greek is Christos).
Four of the gifts of the Holy Spirit belong to the intellect
wisdom understanding, knowledge, and counsel; and three to the will
fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord. They are different from the virtues in
that they prompt the virtues into action and, when faithfully responded to,
enable a person to perform extraordinary, even heroic, deeds after the example
of Jesus Christ.
Permanent Character. Three of the
sacraments confer an indelible character on the soul. Thus Baptism,
Confirmation and Holy Orders imprint a permanent, supernatural quality on the
person, which differs for each of these sacraments. But they have one effect in
common: They assimilate a person to the priesthood of Christ in a special way.
The sacramental character is indelible. This means that it
remains in a person who may have lost sanctifying grace or even the virtue of faith.
The sacramental character is called a character because it
permanently seals the person with a supernatural quality, similar (though on a
higher level) to the character that identifies each individual as a distinct
personality. Moreover, it is called a character because it permanently gives
the one who receives it certain powers that no one else possesses.
In philosophical terms, the sacramental character changes
the one who receives it in his very being. Persons baptized, confirmed, or
ordained are forever new beings. They have a unique relationship to Christ that
no one else has, and they are empowered to do things that no one else can
Logically, too, the sacramental character is conferred only
once. Consequently the sacraments which bestow the character can never be
repeated. A person remains baptized, confirmed, and ordained into eternity.
Actual Graces. The best way to
understand the meaning of actual graces is to compare them with Gods constant
influence on our created nature. Just as we could not use our natural powers
without continued divine support, so we need the help of His grace to retain or
grow in the supernatural life of God.
Actual graces therefore are temporary influences from God
that enlighten our minds and inspire our wills to perform supernatural actions
that lead to heaven.
One of the great blessings of the sacraments is that they
are the richest source of actual graces available to mankind. It is mainly
though the sacraments that God provides His people with the holy thoughts and
holy desires they need to enable them to reach heaven.
Each sacrament has its own treasury of actual graces
available to those who receive the sacraments. Moreover, as we shall see, the Holy
Eucharist as a Sacrifice and a Presence sacrament mysteriously supplies graces
even to those who are not Christian believers or may be sinners totally
estranged from God.
What are the Sacraments?
We may define a sacrament as a visible sign instituted by
Christ which effectively communicates the grace it signifies.
Each of the seven sacraments is something visible or
sensibly perceptible. The water poured in Baptism, the oil used in
Confirmation, the bread and wine for the Eucharist, along with the words
pronounced and the ritual seen, are all perceptible to the senses.
The sacraments are not only perceived by the senses: They
are also signs which signify. They manifest something beyond the visible ritual
performed. Thus water signifies washing, oil signifies strengthening or
healing, eating and drinking signify being nourished. In each case the external
sign signifies some internal change taking place in the human spirit. And
always this change is in the supernatural order, including some area or aspect
of divine grace.
But the sacraments are not merely signs that grace is
received. No, the heart of the sacraments is that they actually produce the
grace which they signify. They are like instruments in the hands of Christ who,
through them, confers the graces proper to each sacrament.
Over the centuries the Catholic Church has had to defend the
fact that Christ Himself instituted all seven sacraments. He did so personally
and immediately. He determined the substance of each sacrament; its essential ritual
and content; who is empowered to confer the sacraments, and on whom they may be
conferred; what material is to be used; and essentially how each sacrament is
to be an effective sign of grace.
As Catholics, we recognize two sources of divine revelation,
Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Consequently we do not expect to find
explicit evidence in the Bible for Christs institution of all the sacraments.
No matter. The Church teaches infallibly that the sacraments of the New Law
were all instituted by Christ, that these same sacraments of the New Law
differ from the sacraments of the Old Law and that there are neither more
than seven nor fewer than seven sacraments (Council of Trent, March 3, 1547).
How necessary are the sacraments? They are necessary for
salvation, even if not all are necessary for each individual. The actual
reception of a sacrament can, in case of necessity, be replaced by at least the
implicit desire for the sacrament.
The Second Vatican Council declared that Christ established
the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation (Constitution on the Church, VII). Among other
things, this means that the sacraments of the Church are somehow necessary for
the salvation of the world.
Absolutely speaking, God, who is almighty and perfectly
free, could have chosen to confer grace without the sacraments. Why then, did
He choose to dispense His grace through the sacraments? He did so in order that
the mysterious effects of His infinite power should be made intelligible by
means of certain signs that are evident to or senses. If we were disembodied
spirits, God might have dispensed His graces directly, without the use of
material things. But since we are creatures of body and soul, God chose to use
bodily means to confer His spiritual blessings on our souls. Christ instituted
the sacraments because He knew how much we depend on external, visible signs to
sustain our faith in His promises.
Moreover, the sacraments are a continuation of Christs work
of redemption. They are the link, as it were, between His Passion on Calvary
and our present needs on earth. They are the channels by which His saving
merits are now conveyed to a sinful world.
The sacraments provide a marvelous bond of visible unity
among the members of Christs Church. They distinguish the followers of Christ
from all others, while those who belong to the Mystical Body are thus joined
together by a sacred bond.
By means of the sacraments we make a public profession of
our faith, and others witness to what we profess to believe. In this way our
faith is strengthened by its external profession and our charity is deepened by
sharing with others, and they with us, the sacred mysteries of Christianity.
Finally the sacraments afford us a constant check on our
pride. They encourage us to the practice of humility by making us submit to
material things as a condition for obtaining the graces that we need for the
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism