What sacrament means the most to you?
All seven of the Church’s sacraments are extraordinarily powerful occasions of grace for those who receive them, but I suspect we all have our favorites. For example, an adult convert might single out baptism as having a powerful impact on his life, whereas a cradle Catholic might appreciate baptism only somewhat more “theoretically”, since he or she cannot remember receiving the sacrament and may not associate graces received with that blessed foundation.
It is useless to argue about the question of which sacrament has had the most powerful impact on our lives, because we do not necessarily experience the operations of grace in the same way as God knows them to be working within us. But it is still both interesting and salutary to reflect on our personal awareness of the benefits of each sacrament in our lives. So let us review, consider and wonder at these stupendous gifts of grace.
Matter and form
For its validity, each sacrament requires, in addition to the authorized minister, the presence of its matter and its form, briefly summarized as follows. Skip over this section on “Matter and form” if you’re conversant with the seven sacraments, their nature, and their requirements. But if you’re a little fuzzy, it will be a handy refresher:
- Baptism: Baptism removes the impediment of Original Sin, or our nature’s estrangement from God, as well as forgiving any sins we have committed; it infuses the supernatural gifts of faith, hope and love; it joins us to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; and it initiates us into the Church. The matter of baptism is water poured on the head (or in which a person is immersed) and the form is “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (If you know that you were baptized in the name of anything else, even in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier—a modern formula devised by Catholic dissidents to bypass Divine Revelation by removing all gender references from the Trinity—you should be baptized again, although unless you were complicit in this bowdlerization, God certainly will not hold it against you.) Catholic lay persons can administer the sacrament of baptism, and should certainly do so in emergencies, but this is ordinarily the work of priests or deacons.
- Penance (or) Reconciliation: This sacrament forgives the sins we confess, restoring sanctifying grace to us when we have lost it through mortal sin, and strengthening us in the effort to live in accordance with the will of God. The remote matter is sins committed after baptism which have not previously been confessed, while the proximate matter consists of the penitent’s contrition, confession, and penance. The form is “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and poured out the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father [priest making the sign of the cross over the penitent], and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Only priests can administer this sacrament.
- Eucharist: This central sacrament unites us ever more completely to Christ and His Body the Church. The matter is wheat bread and natural grape wine. The form is the “Institution Narrative” spoken by the priest based on the words and actions of Jesus at the Last Supper. Though it is clear that not every word is essential for validity, the most important are those words which directly proclaim the transformations of the bread (“This is my body”) and of the wine (“This is the chalice of my blood”) into the Body and Blood of Christ. Only priests can confect this sacrament.
- Confirmation: Confirmation strengthens us for the full rigors of the Christian life, so that we can withstand trials and grow spiritually in an ever more adult way. The matter is the imposition of hands and anointing with chrism, and the form is “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit”. Only bishops and those priests to whom it has been delegated personally or by law can administer this sacrament.
- Matrimony: In strictest parlance the Sacrament of “Matrimony” creates a true “marriage” between one man and one woman. While the Church must witness this sacrament, the man and the woman actually confer the sacrament on each other. The matter is the free exchange of consent between an eligible bride and an eligible groom, and the form is the exchange of vows, such as “I (name) take you (name) to be my wife/husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
- Holy Orders: This sacrament confers the powers and graces proper to ordained ministry, especially sacramental ministry, in the stages of deacon, priest, and bishop. The matter of this sacrament is the imposition of hands by the ordaining minister, who must be a successor of the apostles (that is, a bishop), and the form is the prayer of consecration for each order (bishop, priest, or deacon). For the consecration of a bishop not effected by the Pope, Church law ordinarily requires co-witnesses along with a bishop to raise a priest to the episcopate, such as multiple bishops or, where this is very difficult to arrange, multiple priestly witnesses to the consecration by a single bishop.
- Anointing of the Sick: This sacrament of spiritual and often physical healing, administered by a priest to someone who is ill or in danger of death, has as its matter the anointing with Oil of the Sick, and as its form, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin, save you, and raise you up.” In the absence of a priest or a bishop to confer this sacrament, a deacon or a lay person can give a dying person Holy Communion (called Viaticum, the last Communion which takes the person home to God).
Choosing a favorite?
In one sense, of course, we should not play favorites among the sacraments. Each is truly infinite in value, so when we compare their impact on our own lives, we are really thinking about which one, in its personally lived form, seems to have given us the greatest spiritual benefits or seems to have triggered and enabled the greatest growth in closeness to God—or seems to make us most aware of God’s goodness and presence. Baptism is in a certain sense the most important sacrament. After all, if we could have only one, it would have to be that one, and that one would be enough. It is so critical that it has an equivalency in “baptism of desire” for those who die desiring closeness to God but without having had the chance to be baptized. Then again, we might cheat just a little bit by arguing that the Church herself is, in effect, the “sacrament of sacraments”—the preeminent outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace—and so simply insist on the Church as the final answer to the question of which sacrament is “best”, for she encompasses them all.
Moreover, there are many “kinds” or “categories” of grace, in the sense that each kind provides a share of God’s life to the recipient in accordance with its purpose, and the sacraments obviously have very specific purposes. As I indicated briefly in the listing of the sacraments: We are baptized priests, prophets and kings in order to take on a spiritual likeness to Christ by being joined to His body the Church; the graces of baptism are an initiation into Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Penance forgives sins, restores us to this baptismal state of grace, and assists us in avoiding sin going forward. Eucharist strengthens us in our likeness to Christ unto eternal life while also molding us more fully into the one body of the Church as her members and building blocks. Confirmation provides the graces appropriate to a more mature commitment and conformity to Christ throughout our lives. It is a strengthening and a finalizing of the sacramental graces all Catholics are intended to receive in their normal growth as children of God.
Obviously, Matrimony and Holy Orders are specifically vocational. Matrimony is designed to join a man, a woman and Christ himself in that intimate bond of marriage which is ordered to spousal love, the procreation and formation of children, the establishment and strengthening of families, and mutual love and support until death. Just as obviously, Holy Orders creates ordained ministers who are capable of serving and strengthening the members of Christ’s Church in many ways, but chiefly through the sacramental graces they confer and perpetuate down through history, and the guidance, pastoral support and sheer spiritual and material generosity they share with all in building up the Body of Christ. Finally, Anointing of the Sick provides specific help in times of danger, illness or impending death. Above all it is food for the final stages of our own special journey toward ultimate union with God.
But I will admit to a personal favorite, and perhaps others may do the same, in accordance with how the graces received have enabled them to see more clearly the particular forms taken by Our Lord’s love and care. Thus, without in any way denying the essential foundation of the sacraments of initiation, I can say unhesitatingly that the sacrament that seems to mean most to me on a regular basis is Matrimony. It is in my married life, through my spouse of now over fifty years and through my children and grandchildren, that I most clearly and consistently experience the presence of an unmerited grace which now both shapes and enriches my entire life.
How odd it is, then, to reflect that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:30)!
It is certainly possible (and perfectly legitimate), for those whose marriages have been a continuing trial, to see in these words of Our Lord both a welcome promise and a welcome relief. But I suspect this is also a warning for those who have found unparalleled blessings in the Sacrament of Matrimony. To prize above all the only sacrament which we must somehow renounce at death is a very strange prizing indeed, and it reminds those of us who have experienced the deeply human consolations of this sacrament not to prize them above union with God Himself. If, like the other sacraments, Matrimony has done its Christic work in me here on earth, then I am confident that it will bind me even more closely to Christ hereafter: And my wife, and my children, and any who have benefited from me—as a better man than I would otherwise have been.
Moreover, we have not been called in vain. Our vocations here on earth will certainly transform themselves into ongoing spiritual activity in heaven, in perfect union with God. Even in purgatory, we can pray for family members who are still struggling. All vocations, and certainly the vocation to marriage, will be spiritually altered in heaven. But we can be certain that they will also be spiritually enriched. Like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, we will desire to spend our heaven doing good on earth—partly, perhaps, in accordance with the sacrament we liked best.
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