The seven sacraments—that phrase
sounds so complete. That’s partly
because seven is one of those perfect
numbers like three (the Trinity) or 12
(the apostles). Something ingrained in
us likes perfect numbers—remember
the rush to fill Judas’s position after
his perfidy? Eleven apostles just
doesn’t cut it, anymore than two persons
in one God does.
We have sacraments of initiation
(Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist),
vocation (Matrimony and Holy Orders)
and healing (Reconciliation and
Anointing of the Sick). Not every person
receives every sacrament, but if all
goes well, we begin (Baptism/Confirmation)
and end (Anointing) in the
Church, have the critical choices of
our life affirmed there (Marriage and
Orders), and partake in ongoing healing
and nourishment (Eucharist, Reconciliation
“A sacrament is an outward sign,
instituted by Christ, to give grace,” as
the old Baltimore Catechism put it so
The current Catechism of the Catholic
Church refers to sacraments as "'powers
that come forth’ from the Body of
Christ, which is ever-living and lifegiving”
(#1116). They are “of the
Church” in two senses: They are “by
her” and “for her” (#1118). In other
words, all sacraments are done in the
name of the Church to build up the
Church. They benefit us as individuals
The Catechism goes on to explain
their relationship to faith: Sacraments
presuppose faith, they express it, they
nourish and strengthen it. They are
intimately connected to our salvation
and eternal life.
The Catechism allows the great St.
Thomas Aquinas to sum things up:
“Therefore a sacrament is a sign that
commemorates what precedes it—
Christ’s Passion; demonstrates what is
accomplished in us through Christ’s
Passion—grace; and prefigures what
that Passion pledges to us—future
glory” (#1130). Amen!
What Could Make Another Sacrament?
Is the number of sacraments limited
to seven by the Church? What’s lacking
in the seven sacraments that we have?
Do we need eight or 12 or more sacraments
to meet all of our needs today?
The number of sacraments was first
officially recognized by the Council of
Florence in 1439 and reaffirmed by the
Council of Trent in 1547.
Because women are excluded from
ordination to the diaconate or priesthood,
their souls can never have the
mark of that sacrament.
Sisters and brothers and all consecrated
religious seem to have made a
life choice of much less importance
because their commitment is recognized
only at a Mass of religious profession.
That seems inherently unfair,
especially when a religious like Sister
Dorothy Stang, S.N.D. deN., is called to
sacrifice her life for the people she
served in Brazil. Would a sacrament
affirming her life choice have made
that sacrifice easier?
There are also temporary commitments
of people that need to be
acknowledged, like parish missions to
Jamaica or Haiti or to rebuild after Hurricane
Katrina. Usually, the parish sends
these generous volunteers out with a
Mass, but is that really enough? Simple
rituals, which are being developed for
such occasions, may not be sufficient to
recognize the commitment involved.
Other critical times in people’s lives,
like going off to college or taking on a
new job, are change points for the
whole direction of those lives. Can the
Church acknowledge that?
We have funeral Masses to try to
console grieving spouses, parents or
children, but is that enough to remind
them—and us—of Christ’s presence,
love and grace?
The Eucharist is intended to sustain us
throughout our lives. And it’s available
every Sunday and most weekdays in
the United States. Perhaps that’s why
priesthood is so highly regarded in the
sacramental list—only a priest can say
the words and perform the ritual by
which God’s Spirit changes bread and
wine into the Body and Blood of Christ,
which nourishes us all.
But the ministerial priesthood is at
the disposal of the baptismal priesthood
(Catechism #1120, citing Lumen
Gentium #10). In Baptism we all “put on
Christ” (Galatians 3:27); we entered into
his passion and death, resurrection
and glory. We entered the Church, the
Body of Christ on earth.
Christ is the foundation of all the
sacraments—in this sense, the primary
sacrament. Thus the Church, as Christ’s
representative, functions as a sacrament
as well (see Vatican II’s Dogmatic
Constitution on the Church, #1), as “a
sign and instrument...of communion
with God and of the unity of the entire
It is the Church itself, the People of
God, that is the eighth sacrament, or
perhaps the first sacrament of eight. It
is the Church which dispenses Christ’s
grace. It is the Church which tries especially
in the Easter liturgies to remind
us all of our vocation to follow Jesus
Christ. Through the Church, Jesus continues
to spread the Good News
throughout the world—despite the sins
of its members.
Individual faith needs the whole
community of believers to grow. We
need the presence and witness of others.
We need the helping hands of other
Catholics to “be Church” to one another.
Whether we have seven sacraments,
8 or 12 is not the point. Sacraments
bring God closer to us—and us closer to
God. They are Jesus’ gift to us until his
return in glory.—B.B.