Catholic Sacraments and Sacramentals?

For Evangelicals, things like baptism, communion, ministry, marriage, etc. are simply signs and symbols of faith. They consider them an outward expression of Faith. They would call them a sign and a witness. Sort of a reminder to stay committed to Jesus in your heart.

Catholics agree that they are a sign and a witness, but more importantly, we believe that they truly are vehicles of the power of Christ in and of themselves. They are a Grace. We have a Sacramental theology and this is perhaps the greatest difference between Catholics and Evangelicals. We think the Sacraments are necessary and powerful.

We believe that Sacraments accomplish what they sign.

In other words if I am baptised, I truly am washed of all sin at that moment. If I am taking the Eucharist in communion, I truly am partaking in the body of Christ. If a couple is getting married there is a huge Grace that pours out on them just by the action of getting married. If a priest is getting ordained, a power flows upon him at the moment of his ordination that gives him the ability to forgive sins and create the Eucharist. Catholics believe, for a Sacrament to occur, the person ministering it must have the intention to perform the sacrament. In other words, the sacrament can't just happen by mistake. It must be intended. Catholics believe God wants our cooperation.

The power switch analogy

To better understand how Catholics believe the sacraments work, let us take the analogy of a light switch. If I walk into a room and flick on a switch that is on the wall, it is not my human will that creates light in the room. This is obvious if I flick the switch and the bulb is burnt out. In that case, I have the will to create light in the room but no light comes on. When I flick a light switch there is an incredible amount of complex activity that happens on the other side of the wall, and also at a central power plant. It is not my human will that turns on the light, it is my willingness to tap into the complex series of events that creates the miracle of light in my room. On the other hand, if I do not hit the light switch nothing will happen and I will sit in the dark.

We hope this helps explain how Catholics believe sacraments work. It is not the physical action that creates the miracle. But the physical action is necessary. It is not the human will that creates the miracle. It is the human willingness to cooperate with the Holy Spirit by doing a specific action. Let's look at the miracle of a sacrament in four stages.

  1. The person has the willingness for the miracle to occur (in the example above it was the willingness to have light in the room).
  2. A physical action is taken in the material world (in the example above, the person hits the light switch).
  3. A complex series of spiritual stuff happens behind the scenes that we will never understand (kind of like I will never understand the complexities of what happens at a power plant to create light in my room).
  4. The miracle occurs and Grace of the Holy Spirit is poured out through the Sacrament (in the example above, the light comes on).

This is a simple explanation, but hopefully it will help. There are many places in scripture where God made a physical action instigate and coincide with spiritual miracle. In Catholic theology, the sacraments accomplish what the sign. In other words, by being baptised, we are baptised into the body of Christ, through reconciliation (confession) we are reconciled with God, when we receive the Eucharist we are receiving the body and blood of Jesus, by receiving the sacrament of marriage, we are married and so on. The Sacraments are a visible sign of the unseen God.

The 7 Sacraments:

Baptism: The Priest/Pastor or other Christian, puts water on a person, and says the words "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit," as per the Bible, the grace is poured out.   More here
P.S. I was baptised as a baby, my parents were Presbyterians, but God never forgot the indelible seal He placed on me and he protected me until I found him.

Confirmation: The Bishop or Priest says a prayer over the person who has expressed a desire to surrender to Jesus and to be in union with the Catholic Church, and the person receives the Grace of being united to the body of Christ. More here. P.S. I had an amazing experience with this. I was recovering from an eating disorder and had terrible cravings. The day I was confirmed in 1995 the cravings stopped, never to return.

Eucharist: The Priest puts his hands over the bread and prays the Words given in Scripture to consecrate the bread, it is transubstantiated into the Body of Christ.    More about that here.
P.S. I've had some awesome experiences after communion, where I could just feel the Lord pulsing through my veins.

Penance consists of three interrelated things:

  1. Confession, (a sincere manifestation of my conscience where I have failed God and my neighbour)
  2. Contrition (genuine sorrow for sorrow because I have offended the all good God)
  3. Satisfaction (An attempt to repair the effects of sin)

The Priest prays over the person who has confessed to God, and says "In the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost, I absolve you of your sins." When we practice Charity, there is a blessing in that. More about Confession here. More about Penance here.

P.S. I have some amazing experiences leaving the confessional where I feel so much lighter. And when I approach service of others, with a spirit of humility, and self-sacrifice, God bestows a great blessing.

Anointing the Sick: The priest administers holy oil and says some specific prayers, over the person on their death bed or those who are gravely ill.
P.S. I had an amazing experience with this. My friend was in a coma. The Doctor said she would die any moment. I called our priest. He did the anointing and the next day the coma broke, and she is still alive and happy .

Matrimony: The Priest prays over them. They receive an indelible seal for a life-long union that is not broken. I talk more about the Sacrament of Marriage in my article against gay marriage.

Holy Orders: The Bishop lays his hands on the candidate for the Priesthood, an indelible spiritual seal is placed upon the candidate. More here 

What are Sacramentals

The Catechism says:

"every baptized person is called to be a blessing and to bless...Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the same way the Sacraments do but by the Church's prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it...They include blessings of persons, meals, objects and places." (paragraphs 1669-71).

Holy Water:

The best known sacramental is holy water. An Evangelical friend says that the best way to make holy water is to boil the hell out of it. But actually holy water is a very great thing. We see the significance of water all through the Bible (Ex 14:15-22, Ex 17:6-7, Josh 3:14-17, Ezek 47: 1-12, Mt 3:13-17, Jn 5:1-9, Jn 19:34, Jn 3:5) (Karl Keating's "The Usual Suspects")

Scripture gives us precedents to support this Catholic belief that a material item can conduct spiritual energy:  See below.

Whenever I have trouble sleeping I pull out the holy water and sprinkle it around. I say, "anything in this room or my consciousness that is not of the Lord, please Lord make it be gone now in the name of Jesus Christ!"  It seems to work great. I almost always sleep like a baby after that. (Mk 37-40) I highly recommend it. It beats Nyquil!

Many Evangelicals have a problem with the Catholic idea that a material item can conduct spiritual power. Despite this criticism, many Evangelicals freely use the idea of Sacraments and Sacramentals in their ministry (though they don't call it such). For example: 

  • blessing people (especially the laying on of hands)
  • praying over a house that it might be free of any negative spiritual powers
  • anointing people with holy oil during a healing service
  • saying Grace before a meal

There is a great Kirk Franklin (Evangelical) song off the Revolution album that says:

"There's healing in the water, down by the riverside"

The Evangelist Billy Graham in his last trip to Ottawa, said "after we leave this hockey arena, even the steel beams will have absorbed our prayers and will affect everyone who comes into this building for secular events."  These are all exampleys of Evangelicals practicing what a Catholic would call a Sacramental.

What Bible passages support sacraments and sacramentals?

  • Naaman, who had leprosy, went to Elisha for a cure. Elisha told him "Go wash in the Jordan 7 times, and your flesh shall be clean." (2 Ki 5:10) Naaman was furious and said ..."I thought he on the name of the Lord, his God, and wave his hand over the spot, and cure the Leprosy." Sometimes God calls us to heal people by the laying of hands, and sometimes God uses material things.
  • People were healed by Peter's shadow (Acts15:5 );
  • The lady with hemorrhages was healed by touching Jesus' garment (Mk 9:20, 6:56, Lk 8:44, Mat 14:36);
  • Jesus cured the blind man using mud. (Jn 9:6);
  • Holy oil is found in the Bible "...anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord." (James 5:14, 15; Mat 6:13); 
  • In the Old Testament, "..when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet" (2 Kings 13:20-21 Note: this is also a model for the Catholic concept of relics); 
  • In the book of Acts we find "So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hand of Paul that when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them." (Act 19:11-12);

One might even say that almost all of God's miracles in the Bible were brought about in this fashion. He did sometimes make something happen purely in the spiritual realm, but not usually. It was usually accompanied by a physical presence. Catholics think God allows us, as physical humans, to experience him, and to approach him through physical things. Bishop Fulton Sheen explained it this way:

...A spoken word is a kind of sacrament, because there is something material or audible about it; there is also something spiritual about it, namely, its meaning. A horse can hear a funny story just as well as a man. It is conceivable that the horse may hear the words better than the man and at the end of the story the man may laugh, but the horse will never give a horse laugh. The reason is that the horse gets only the material side of the "sacrament," namely, the sound; but the man gets the invisible or the spiritual side, namely, the meaning.