How many sacraments are there and what are they?

We have been taught that there are seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Marriage and Holy Orders. When people today hear that Jesus is a sacrament and the Church is a sacrament they sometimes wonder, Does that makes nine sacraments? The question "How many sacraments are there?" has received different answers at various periods of our history depending on what the question meant and how the questioner understood the word sacrament.

In our industrial America assigning qualities to numbers as symbols (for instance, thinking "13" is unlucky) usually sounds strange or superstitious. But this use is quite common in other societies and other historical periods. Numbers as qualities have often been used in religion. Seven, for example, symbolizes totality. This is an important factor in the Church's speaking of seven sacraments.

Four is the number for earth and three is the number for heaven. (There are four elements: earth, air, fire and water. There are three Persons in God.) When we join earth and heaven, the material and the spiritual, the created and the divine, four and three, we have "all that is." And so, seven means universal, completeness, totality. When we say that there are seven sacraments we are suggesting in this religious sense that the material universe is a sacrament; all created things are windows to the divine; we have all the sacraments we will ever need! (Seven is frequently used in this sense of "completeness": There are "seven gifts" of the Holy Spirit and there are "seven Churches" in the Book of Revelation, symbolizing the universal Church.)

For the first 11 centuries of Christian history the word sacrament was frequently used to refer to the mysterious plan of God. Little by little specific aspects of this mysterious plan-for example, eucharist, baptism, anointing of the sick-began to be singled out and called sacraments. In the 12th century, we began to see the list of the seven actions which we now call sacraments. In 1547, responding to specific questions being asked at the time, the Council of Trent stated: "The sacraments of the new law are seven, no more and no less" (Session VII, Canon 1).

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