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Why We Have Sacraments

by Leonard Foley, O.F.M.

Look with me through a time-warp telescope. Whenever I read reports of archaeologists, I like to imagine how the so-called primitive cultures might have actually looked. For instance, some scientists report the finding of an ancient grave. Mingled with the now-powdery bones of a prehistoric person were the clear remnants of a flower.

To me, through my time-warp viewing, that means these long-ago mourners were not "savages"—they were human. While they may have worn nothing but skins and their speech may have been harsh grunts, they made a human sign that showed deep feeling. They made, we could say, a sacrament, small "s."

They did what you and I still do, a hundred times a day: make or do or say something that carries a deep, powerful feeling. You could call a symbol (sacrament) a visible sign with our heart in it: a hug, a present, a smile, a hand joined to hand. When a police officer is killed, other members of the police force may wear black armbands as a sign of their sorrow. You, more happily, wear a class ring with pride.

Notice that these symbols show what more than one person is feeling. When United States citizens were hoping and praying for the Iran hostages to be freed, you could see yellow ribbons tied around tree trunks all over America. Nobody had to say anything. When we saw those ribbons, we all felt joined to our fellow citizens.

Who put the big "S" on seven
of these symbols?

You're making symbols all day long. Some of them are religious: signs of deep feeling that we share. Making the sign of the cross with holy water, kneeling, folding hands in prayer, watching incense rise and enjoying its aroma, singing the Our Father together: these are all symbols like the yellow ribbons—signs of a feeling that we share.

Now, another name for symbol is sacrament: a sign of God's gracious love. Some of them are Sacraments—big-"S"-and some are sacraments—small "s." The Catholic Church has seven "big" symbols and a thousand small ones. The big ones are: Holy Eucharist, Baptism and Confirmation; Reconciliation (Confession) and Anointing of the Sick; Marriage and Priesthood.

Some of these are directly referred to by Jesus. "Do this as a remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19), he said at the Last Supper and we "do this" at Mass. "No one can enter into God's kingdom without being begotten of water and Spirit" (John 3:5), he said, and we "do this" in Baptism.

Without going into a lot of argument, Catholics believe that the other five are implied in Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and he left it to the Church as to what symbols it would use to express what he did when he was living on earth and which Jesus continues to do now.

Now these seven sacraments are not just private symbols—they're like the yellow ribbons that people publicly displayed for the hostages. The sacraments are actions of the whole Church community. For instance, Baptism is the welcoming of a new member into Christ's Body, the Church. The whole parish—or at least those at one Sunday Mass—should be present to welcome Steve and Lisa's newborn baby Christian.

A reason these seven are big-"S" symbols is that God gives us absolute assurance that when we do these things in faith, we absolutely receive what these symbols say. We are absolutely assured that we are forgiven in Confession. We are absolutely assured that we are given God's life and love in Baptism. So the big-"S" sacraments are not only yellow ribbons that we all tie around our trees: God backs up our actions!

Let's take them one at a time

Your heart has to be in these signs—the deep feeling I spoke of before. Just going through the motions is magic and God doesn't deal in magic. The sacraments are symbols of faith. We believe that God is really acting; we believe that these symbols really do what they say. They don't work "of themselves" like Coke machines that clunk out the can when you put your money in.

Faith and feeling, though, are not the same. For example, let's say you love your little sister. There will still be days when headaches, a spot on the shirt you were planning to wear or an "F" on your algebra test lead you to feel no love at all for anyone, much less your little sister. But just because you don't feel it doesn't mean there is no love. It's just temporarily deflated, like a balloon.

Headaches, spotted shirts and algebra plus lots of trials worse yet can be reasons why you "don't get anything out of" a sacrament. The thing that matters is: What are your deepest feelings and convictions and desires to please God? Why are you tying a yellow ribbon 'round the old oak tree?

1) Most amazing as a sacrament/sacrifice is the Mass. Jesus took our oldest natural sacrament, eating together. Notice: not eating, but eating together in a community where there is mutual love and forgiveness. It surely never happens that a bunch of kids say, "Let's go out for pizza," and then sit by themselves, each one at a separate table! It's eating together that's a celebration.

This is the great thing we the Christian community do every Sunday at Mass. How? Jesus used his divine power to change that little group of friends at the Last Supper into a living oneness, filled with God's own life—that's what we mean by grace. Through this grace, not only are the bread and wine changed into the living Jesus; not only are we made present to the Last Supper, the Cross and the Resurrection so that we can say "Yes!" to them—there's more! We come together, like spokes of a wheel to the Center—God loving us—and thereby come closer to each other. That's why the Mass is the biggest big-"S."

2) Next in the Big Seven is Baptism. Back in the days of Jesus, people were baptized in the river and they really went down under the water for a dunking. This kind of Baptism (by immersion) is a dramatic symbol of death and rising: The body of the one to be baptized is literally put under water. Whatever that person was, whatever he or she did, is gone, drowned, dead. He or she is lifted up (resurrected) out of the water to new life, God's life. God himself recreates us, puts a "second" life into our natural life: We can love as God loves, share God's wisdom.

Today the usual form of Baptism—pouring water over the person's forehead—doesn't look as much like drowning, death and rescue, but it's the same symbol. We seem to enjoy dramatic symbols the most, like the exchange of wedding rings. Still, an ordinary goodbye hug from your mom when you leave for school has worlds of meaning.

3) Confirmation is almost impossible to separate from Baptism. Each happens once, yet each one seems to unfold more and more in your life. While Baptism is a beginning, the sacrament of Confirmation is a further step, a new responsibility to be an "official" representative of the Church in the world. The bishop's anointing of you with oil and his words, "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit," is a sign that transforms the person confirmed into a "witness," someone who testifies publicly to the power of Jesus in his or her life.

We have a lot going

Catholics have four more great sacraments. Reviewing all seven, you could divide them into 1) sacraments of initiation into the Church: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist; 2) sacraments of healing: Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick; and 3) sacraments of life-commitment: Marriage and Priesthood. Protestants usually have only two, Baptism and Eucharist.

Why? I suppose the simplest answer is that they don't find them explicitly described in the Bible. Catholics hold that they are implicit (or understood) in what Jesus said and did: He continues to give us his Spirit (Confirmation); he continues to lay his healing hands on the sick (Anointing); he still says, assuring sinners: "Go in peace. Your sins are forgiven" (Reconciliation); he continues to choose leaders for his Church, as he chose the Twelve (Priesthood); and he comes to many wedding feasts of Cana to bless bride and groom and strengthen them in their lifelong commitment to be little "branch offices" of the Church (Marriage).

How does Jesus do this? Are these actions automatic? Well, obviously God can't give you his friendship-grace if you don't want it, much less believe in it. If you're really not sorry for your sins, the priest can give you a thousand absolutions and nothing will happen. You can have the whole ocean poured over you, but if you don't have faith, you've merely gotten wet.

So, sacraments are great symbol/actions of the Church community in which you take part with faith. God says, "If you do these things with faith, really mean them, then I enter into them and what they 'say' really happens." I see the Big Seven as sacraments for the great moments of our life of faith: its beginning, its high points and its lows.

4) Sin is a low point in our life of faith. Jesus not only gave us Baptism to begin that spiritual life, he made it possible for us to be brought back to life when we have died spiritually by mortal (or fatal) sin. That's the primary reason for "Confession"—reconciliation with the Church, becoming a living member again—if we have literally "killed" ourselves, or let ourselves die, by serious sin.

You don't have to "go to Confession" if your sins are not serious enough to break your friendship with God. But in your daily life, you don't save apologies for major catastrophes and murders. It's a good idea to be reconciled or ask forgiveness when you've hurt someone's good name, when you've lied to your parents or when you've run your bike into the side of someone's car. You can see that a "small" reconciliation is a good idea.

I remember a very pleasant way some teenagers celebrated this sacrament. One by one, as they came from confessing their sins in a room at the front of the church, they came to their group (representing the Christian community) in back of church and got a big hug from everyone. This was the first time in history that the boys, outnumbered, were eager to go to confession.

The symbol here is welcoming. Jesus welcomes you "back" from wherever sin has taken you (perhaps fatally mortal sinfulness, perhaps not). The priest declares, with the power Jesus gives him, that your sins are gone, and you are healthy members again.

5) When these members of the Church marry, having deep faith in Jesus, who would say that he does not become present to them just as he did to the couple at Cana (John 2:1-11)? They make a symbol—words of promise, the joining of hands and later of bodies—which expresses a lifelong union of love that is, for the Christian community and all others, a living out of Jesus' own love for his people and their love for him.

Marriage is a terribly important step, a commitment for life. Like all real human efforts, it is impossible without the grace of God. The sacrament means that God's power is directly joined to living this particular married life.

6) The Gospels show us a constantly healing Jesus. He came to make us whole, to take away all the things that strangle and warp our life—the life of our minds, our hearts and our bodies. Only at the resurrection will this be perfectly accomplished, but it begins now. Surely one of the "Great Seven" must be the symbolic act of Jesus still healing his people.

How? Not everyone who is sacramentally anointed is immediately freed from sickness. What happens is that Jesus reassures the sick person that he is just as concerned about this ill person as he was with all the people he cured on earth. It may sound like a lame explanation, but the sacrament says that God will heal everything that is "wrong" with our whole person.

The day will come when you will rise with a body totally free of all pain, weakness and limitations. Everything about you—your whole person, body, soul, spirit—will be healed of all disfigurements, wounds, sickness. God's power begins this healing in this life, most especially by healing from sin. But you will be healed. This particular yellow-ribbon sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick says that all the hostages in our persons will be freed.

7) During the ordination of a priest, the bishop, as successor of the apostles, presses both hands down on the head of the one to be ordained. Then a prayer of consecration follows. This is an action that means the passing on of the spiritual power to proclaim the Gospel, to celebrate the Eucharist and the other sacraments, to be a center of unity around which the Church can gather.

All these great actions make present what they say. More powerfully than wedding rings, flowers, embraces, smiles, they carry a meaning that only God can give—and which God does give. The wedding ring and the kiss reveal powerful human feelings. That's fine. The sacramental actions in faith are really, in the end, mainly signs that God enters into. They're not just signs of what we feel and want: They are absolute assurances of what God really does.

Amazing grace

We call this "grace." Grace is not a thing. You don't get more grace the way you get more money in the bank. The worst thing you can do is to think of grace as a thing. Grace is nothing else but God loving you. It's a relationship, like the love you have for a friend. Evidently this relationship can be deep or shallow: That's up to you. Much depends on how you see it.

Remember, nothing must ever be seen as just a symbol. Then it's dead. Living people make signs of life and love to each other. Only human beings, prehistoric and present, put flowers on their loved ones' graves. Only human beings tie yellow ribbons around trees.

The greatest gift God gives you is that you are his human children. In response, you and I make the human signs that Jesus gave us. They are signs like those our early ancestors made when they put flowers on a loved one's grave—human signs with our heart in them.

Leonard Foley is a Franciscan friar with many years of experience as a parish priest, teacher, retreat master, author and editor. His books include many about the sacraments and other aspects of Catholic faith, which he treats in a friendly and readable manner.

Members of Youth Update's Advisory Board who previewed this issue are Stephen Collins, 18; Ana Stolz, 15; and Amy Wahl, 15. Questions from readers are submitted through the board and answered by the author.


The sacrament of reconciliation is a tough one to understand. What really makes a sin fatal?


Every day you make hundreds of decisions. You hold back a mean word or let it go. You cheat a little or you don't. You're selfish or generous. Right now, you probably zigzag back and forth. Sooner or later, you develop a pattern, a way of life. Either you're basically for what is good—loving God and yourself and others—or you're basically self-centered, independent of God and our neighbor's need. You know the type: me first.

So when it comes to talking about individual mortal or fatal sins, like murder or adultery, these are the outward evidence of what has already happened inside. The big sinfulness of only caring about "what's in it for me" happens long before anyone commits an outward, fatal sin.

Now all this supposes that your choice of such a self-centered way of life is done with full awareness of the meaning of what you are doing, and with full freedom.


How often does a "normal" Catholic go to confession? My mom says one thing and you don't say much about it at all.


Catholics are in a time of confusion about this sacrament. There's been a tremendous dropoff in the number of people who "go." Evidently Catholics think that they're not guilty of mortal sin.

Church law says that a person must go to confession once a year if that person is guilty of mortal sin, even though they are already forgiven by being perfectly sorry. Jesus' words about the Church's power to forgive sins evidently means there should normally be a public reconciliation with the Church (the Body of Christ) and mortal sin separates people from that Body.

But you might well be asking about venial or less than fatal sin. If so, take a look at the next question!


But what about "little" or venial sins? How does the sacrament of reconciliation help us with those?


Both religiously and psychologically, it's a healthy practice to face up to even minor guilt, and to say out loud that we have been selfish, proud, lazy, impatient. Many people who are serious about their faith feel it's enough to go during Lent and maybe at Christmas and before taking a big step like marriage. Others are greatly helped by going every two weeks or once a month. It's your choice. But it shouldn't be mere routine. Confession should make you aware of sinfulness that you would otherwise slide over.


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