On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit manifested His coming by a visible and audible sign; the tongues of fire indicated the enlightenment of the apostles and the gifts of tongues; the mighty wind the power imparted to them. In like manner, it is the good pleasure of Our Lord to convey graces to us by means of sensible signs. He ordained for the communication of graces the use of such words and objects as clearly signify the grace bestowed; for the washing away of original sin He ordained that water should be poured on the head (because water cleanses) and at the same time a form of words used which indicates that it is done by the power of the Holy Trinity. In order to impart to us the gifts of the Holy Spirit, light and fortitude, He instituted the laying on of hands, with prayer and anointing with oil (oil being used to give light and warmth).
1. The sacraments are sensible signs instituted by Christ, by means of which the graces of the Holy Spirit are communicated to us.
In every sacrament there is: An appropriate ceremony, called the matter, and a form of words, which accompanies the sign or ceremony; and besides, there is the grace conveyed. The sign, or visible part of the sacrament, not only signifies what is effected in the Sacrament, but effects what is signified. They are, therefore, practical signs; they may also be termed instruments, and the graces conveyed through them the effect of those instruments. The signs of the sacraments are like Our Lord’s humanity, and the graces conveyed like the Godhead concealed beneath this humanity. The word sacrament (sacramentum) means something holy and also mysterious, because in early times holy things were hidden from the knowledge of the heathen.
Sensible signs were instituted by Our Lord for this purpose: that the graces conferred by their means might be made duly apparent, and thus recognized by man. As water cleanses from impurity and extinguishes fire, the use of water signifies that our souls are cleansed and the fire of hell is quenched for us. As oil gives light and strengthens the body, its use in Confirmation indicates plainly that our souls are enlightened and fortified by the Holy Spirit. Thus the practical effect of the Sacrament may be known by the sensible sign. Our Lord made use of distinct signs in conferring graces and benefits, although a thought, a word on His part, would have sufficed; He touched the eyes of the blind man (Matt. ix. 29); He touched the leper (Matt. viii. 3); He breathed on the apostles and said to them: “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John xx. 22). Under the Old Dispensation likewise, God bestowed His favors through signs; witness Moses rod, the brazen serpent, the gall of the fish wherewith Tobias sight was restored, the cure of Naaman by washing in the Jordan. Sensible signs were instituted by Our Lord for the purpose of humbling the pride of man. Man, who aspired to be as God, is now dependent for the recovery of the grace he lost upon what is lowest in creation, lifeless matter. As for the sake of what is sensible man renounced heaven, it is meet that by use of what is sensible he should rise again to that which is suprasensible. Sensible signs are, in fact, required by the nature of man. If we were pure spirits we could dispense with corporal signs for the communication of spiritual gifts, but as we are composed of body and soul, we have need of them.
In addition to the signs instituted by Christ, certain ceremonies have been appointed by the Church, in order to indicate still more perceptibly the graces conferred, and to increase the devotion of those who dispense and those who receive the sacraments.
The various significant ceremonies are like a mirror, wherein a man sees the reflection of what goes on within his soul. The benefits God bestows on us are more deeply impressed upon our minds by the accompanying ceremonial; it also deepens the devotion of both the dispenser and the recipient of the sacrament. If an earthly monarch is seen by his subjects in all the grandeur of his regal dignity, attended by the grandees of his court, they think more of him than when he is in ordinary attire. The sacraments are not dispensed in a bare and informal manner, but are accompanied by the accessories of a rich and solemn ceremonial; this is not only to make a greater impression upon mortals, but to give greater glory to God. The ceremonies also constitute a certain preparation for the reception of the sacraments; they prepare the soil of the heart, that the good seed may bear more abundant fruit. The ritual is not precisely the same in all dioceses, local custom having added some rites which cannot well be abolished, but the Roman ritus is the one universally followed. The ceremonies of the Church may be omitted in case of necessity, as in Baptism when there is danger of death.
2. Christ instituted seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.
The doctrine of the seven sacraments is as old as the Church herself. All the sects that fell away from the Church in the early centuries retained the seven sacraments, as did the Greeks and Romans at a later period. The institution of seven sacraments is, it is true, not mentioned in Holy Scripture, but it is not said that there were more or less. On this point Tradition is sufficient authority. The seven sacraments answer exactly to the needs of the soul, which resemble to a certain extent the exigencies of the body. The life of the soul begins at Baptism, it is fortified by Confirmation, brought to perfection by the Holy Eucharist; if the life of the soul be lost, it is restored by Penance and Extreme Unction; it is kept up by Holy Orders and Matrimony from generation to generation.
Through the seven sacraments we receive divine grace at the very time of our life when we are most in need of it.
These times occur at birth, at our entrance into youth, when we have lost the friendship of God, when we embrace a new state of life, and at the hour of death. As at sea there are islands and harbors, where the mariner can cast anchor and take in supplies; as there are roadside inns where the traveller can pause to rest and recruit his strength, so on the weary journey of life the sacraments are provided to afford support and refreshment now and again to the pilgrim.
3. By the three sacraments, Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, there is imprinted upon the soul a certain spiritual and indelible mark or character, on account of which they cannot be repeated (Council of Trent, 7, 9).
The indelible mark or character consists in a special consecration and dedication to Christ. By this mark the angels know whether a man is one of God’s family, and if so, they give himparticular protection. This mark is not effaced by mortal sin, it never can be removed from the soul. Consequently these three sacraments can never be received a second time, not even by one who has apostatized from the faith and has been received back into the Church. These three sacraments will be like a seal upon the soul in a future life; they will be a cause of eternal glory and rejoicing to the blessed; to the reprobate they will be a source of shame and confusion.
4. Two of the sacraments, Baptism and Penance, are instituted principally with the object of conferring sanctifying grace where it was not already given; the five others with the object of in creasing that gift.
The holy sacraments are the wine and oil of the Samaritan in the Gospel, for the maintenance and restoration of the health of the soul. Baptism and Penance are called sacraments of the dead, of those who are spiritually dead, because they were instituted for those whose spiritual life is destroyed by mortal sin. The five others are sacraments of the living, because they were instituted for those who are in a state of grace. It is, however, possible for sanctifying grace to be increased by Baptism and Penance, if through earnest amendment of life and heartfelt Contrition a man has merited to receive the Holy Ghost previous to Baptism or confession, like the centurion Cornelius, on whom, and on whose household, the Holy Ghost was poured out while St. Peter was preaching (Acts x. 44). So also one may go to confession without being guilty of mortal sin and thereby acquire more grace.
Each sacrament has besides its own individual object, and confers a grace peculiar to itself.
Thus Baptism confers the grace to live according to the precepts of the Gospel; Confirmation, to confess the faith fearlessly; the Holy Eucharist, to make progress in the supernatural life; Penance preserves us from relapse into sin; Extreme Unction is a remedy; Holy Orders and Matrimony confer the graces appropriate to those states in life. Such is the great practical efficacy of the sacraments, and yet how little we appreciate their value! What efforts, what sacrifices, people make to keep or to regain their bodily health! And yet they will not employ the simple, easy means within their reach for preserving the health of their soul, which is far more important.
5. Due preparation must be made before receiving the sacraments, in order to obtain the graces they convey.
Any one who approaches the Sacrament of Baptism or Penance without a thorough change of heart, or who receives the other sacraments in a state of mortal sin, commits the terrible sin of sacrilege, and will not obtain the graces of the Holy Spirit until the hindrance to grace has been removed.
On this account in the early ages of Christianity a two years probation was required before admission to Baptism, the object of this being to give the heathens time to reform their life. St. Peter in his preaching insisted on the necessity of penance and sincere con version (Acts ii. 38; iii. 19). To this day the Church requires those who approach holy communion to go to confession first. How reprehensible is the conduct of those who, from force of habit, or because of some special indulgence, go to confession without purposing a serious amendment of life! “The sacraments,” St. Augustine says, “are the salvation of those who use them aright, the damnation of those who misuse them.” That which is meat to the healthy is poison to the sick. Infant baptism is the only case in which no previous preparation is necessary. And if any one is so unhappy as to receive one of the sacraments sacrilegiously he may yet participate in the grace of the sacrament, if the obstacle to it be removed. The sacraments are like the sunshine; it cannot penetrate into a room of which the shutters are closed, but as soon as they are opened, it streams in, warming it and illumining it. In like manner a Sacrament, if received unworthily, need-not be received again; on amendment of life, its gracious influences are freely exercised. This rule does not hold good in regard to the Holy Eucharist; if it be received by one who is in mortal sin, the grace of it is lost, even if the sinner returns to a. state of grace. The more worthy the recipient, the greater the graces conferred by the sacrament. The drier the wood, the more freely it burns. If the vessel taken to the spring be clean, the water contained in it will be pure.
There are two indispensable conditions which the Church imposes on those who approach the sacraments: They must be qualified to receive them, and desirous to receive them.
The power of assimilating food is dependent upon certain organs of the human body; even so certain qualifications are necessary for the reception of the sacraments. An unbaptized person is incapable of receiving any of the other sacraments; a child who has not reached the age of reason cannot receive the Sacrament of Penance; Extreme Unction cannot be given to one who is in robust health; no one under the age of twenty-three can receive Holy Orders. If a sacrament is administered to any one against his will, it is invalid. The Church has never sanctioned the action of secular rulers who have compelled their subjects to be baptized, as was done in early times. Thus now at Baptism the question is asked: “Wilt thou be baptized?” The last rites of the Church are, it is true, administered to persons who are unconscious, before death; but only if it be supposed that they would have wished for the sacraments had they been conscious. The baptism of infants is justified on these grounds.
6. Supposing the priest who administers the sacrament to be unworthy, the graces of the Holy Spirit will still be communicated by means of the sacrament.
The entire efficacy of the sacraments is derived from the merits of Christ, not those of the priest who dispenses them. It is out of the power of man to confer what is divine. The sacraments are essentially holy in themselves, not because they are administered by one who is holy. Nor is the grace of the sacraments lessened by the evil life of the priest. God is wont to make use of unworthy instruments. The minister is but the dispenser of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. iv. 1). A leper can act as porter as well as a healthy man, provided he has the key of the door. A judge may be, as a man, worse than the criminal before him, yet he can pass sentence on him. The coin of the realm has the same value in the hand of a bad as of a good man. The wine is the same, whether it be drunk out of an ordinary glass or a gold goblet. So it is with the sacraments; the Donatists, who asserted the contrary, were heretics. If the sacraments could only be administered aright by good priests, one would never have any certainty in regard to them.
The Church imposes two indispensable conditions on those who administer the sacraments: they must make use of the prescribed sensible sign without any essential alteration at the same time as the form of words, and they must have the intention to do what the Church does.
If wine, for instance, were employed instead of water for baptizing, the visible sign would be essentially changed, and it would be no baptism at all. Or if one were to say: “I baptize thee in the name of Christ,” the audible sign would be essentially changed, and it would be no baptism. But the wrong pronunciation of some word by a foreigner perhaps would not interfere with the efficacy of the sacrament. Ii the prescribed form of words is pronounced some time before or after the water is poured upon the head of the person to be baptized, the baptism is not valid; the two actions must be simultaneously performed. When Protestants baptize, their baptism is valid, if they have the intention to do what the (true) Church does, and are careful to adhere to what is prescribed.
This article, II. THE SACRAMENTS is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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