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Introduction: A Sacramental People
By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

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. Sacraments matter!

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 signifies” (#1127).


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.


Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., is the editor of this publication. He was ordained a priest in 1975.

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