SACRAMENTS are central for
Catholics. They help us meet
the incarnate Jesus, who
comes to us through cleansing
water and invigorating oil to
welcome us, life-giving bread and wine
that become Christ’s Body and Blood,
a hand outstretched in forgiveness,
vows lovingly exchanged in marriage,
a hand designating someone for
ordained service and oil to strengthen
the sick and comfort the dying.
If God the Son had not become
incarnate, we would not be celebrating
sacraments, through which we share
in the graced life of God the Father,
Son and Holy Spirit. Sacraments tell us
that all of life is important to God, that
no part of life is foreign to our Creator.
Involving both our imaginations and
our senses, the sacraments shape how
we see ourselves, others and our world.
According to the Catechism of the
Catholic Church, “Celebrated worthily in
faith, the sacraments confer the grace
that they signify. They are efficacious
because in them Christ himself is at
work; it is he who baptizes, he who
acts in his sacraments in order to communicate
the grace that each sacrament
All Christians had the same sacraments until the 16th century when some people began to accept only Baptism and Eucharist as sacraments and to assign different titles to the other five. In 1439 the Council of Florence had officially set the number of sacraments at seven. Previously, some theologians regarded the anointing of kings and other events as sacraments.
Four of the articles in this special issue are by our editorial staff; we invited two experts to write about Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders. I have written short sidebars about Vatican II’s directions for revising each sacramental celebration. Some aspects of the sacraments received a new emphasis as we were encouraged to become, in the Council’s words, “full, conscious and active participants” in these celebrations.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the Decree on Social Communications were the first documents approved by the bishops at Vatican II (December 4, 1963). Within 12 years, the rites for each sacrament had been revised. This was the most comprehensive revision of sacramental rituals in 400 years.
The Council first became real for many Catholics after they participated in their first Mass celebrated in English (1965). People speaking other languages had similar experiences. Other liturgical changes followed rapidly.
In addition to the seven sacraments, Catholics have sacramentals (ashes, holy water, rosaries, medals, scapulars, statues and relics, for example). These, too, remind us of Jesus’ Incarnation and its ongoing effect in our lives. This special issue, however, will not address sacramentals, which make sense only in relation to the Eucharist and the other sacraments.
According to William Harrison, a theologian, “A sacrament is a visible sign, something that we can see, which shows us something that God is doing” (Frequently-Asked Questions in Christian Theology, Mowbray). Through the sacraments, we recognize other Christians as brothers and sisters, called to live the Good News of Jesus Christ and to share it with others.