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The practice of the Roman Catholic Church includes seven sacraments. As defined by Catholics, a sacrament is a material and spoken action which confers divine grace upon a person, especially what is called sanctifying grace.
List of sacraments
There are seven sacraments:
- Reconciliation (also called Confession)
- Eucharist (informally called Communion)
- Confirmation (similar to Chrismation)
- Holy Matrimony
- Holy Orders
- Anointing of the Sick (also called Extreme Unction)
Sacraments versus sacramentals
Sacraments are fundamentally different from what are called sacramentals (things such as normal blessings, crosses, medals, holy water). Sacramentals merely symbolize things and their usefulness depends on the subjective understanding of the people involved. Sacraments on the other hand work under the system called ex opere operato. That is, "by the work performed". What this means is for example, that a person intending to perform a baptism on someone by sprinkling water on him and saying the right words, causes the grace of God to actually work, even though he might personally not fully understand the theology behind the sacrament or feel emotionally good in doing what he is doing. Indeed, even a non-Christian can validly baptize. To put it another way, Catholics don't believe holy water (a sacramental) has any power in and of itself, but being baptized however does).
The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches likewise have sacraments (also called mysteries) but neither formally restricts the number of sacraments to seven. Likewise, doctrines regarding the details of sacraments may differ between Roman Catholicism and the two Orthodox communions. Like Catholicism, Orthodoxy holds that sacraments mediate divine grace. Protestant churches may or may not be sacramental, but most of those that consider themselves sacramental would recognise fewer sacraments, usually only Communion and Baptism.
Three of the seven sacraments may be received only once in a lifetime because they make an indelible sacramental character on the recipient's soul: baptism, confirmation, and ordination to a particular order (for example, a man who has been ordained a deacon can be ordained a priest, but cannot again receive the diaconal ordination).
In case of uncertainty about whether a person has received one of those three sacraments at an earlier time, he or she may receive the sacrament conditionally. In a conditional baptism, the minister of the sacrament, usually a deacon or a priest, rather than saying "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," says "If you are not baptized, I baptize you" etc. The reason for this prohibition is that these three sacraments are held to imprint a sacramental character on the recipient's soul.
While these are the seven acknowledged sacraments of the Roman Catholic church, it is also recognized that a sacrament is received at any time a person is made to know that he/she is in the presence of God or the Holy Spirit. The seven sacraments are acknowledged as such because it is believed that at these specific times the Holy Spirit is present during these rites.
The administration of sacraments also plays the more mundane role of providing a sense of how active a parish church is. Bishops sometimes use a sacramental index to measure parish activity, as they allocate priests and resources to serve the needs of their parishoners.
Sacraments have a "form" and "matter." A "form" is the script, both verbal and physical which is followed. The "matter" is the term for any material objects used. Both of those things need to be present and followed for the sacrament to have any effect. Many sacraments are also only supposed to be done by a specific type of person, but there are exceptions allowed for emergancies. One final criteria for the Sacrament to actually work is that the minister has to have the right intention, the intention of actually doing the sacrament and actually doing what the church does (meaning someone teaching how to do a baptism for example, by not intending to actually do one, doesn't actually do one). There might customarily be a large amount of ritual besides the form and matter, but nothing is stricly necessary besides the form and matter.
Baptism is the sacrament by which one enters the Catholic church. Once baptized, a person is washed away of all the guilt for their past sins, especially original sin. It confers sanctifying grace, and creates the responsibility to the baptized to live a holy life (see the Universal call to holiness. The "form" of baptism is washing some or all of the body with water while saying the words "I Baptize thee in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost". It is normally administered to infants in the Church, but may be administered to any person who is not yet validly baptized. Baptism is considered to be valid even if carried out in another Christian religion (indeed it is valid if done by anyone who has the intention (even vaugely) of doing what the church does), as long as pouring of or immersion in natural water was accompanied by the Trinitarian formula. Adults who convert are thus only baptized if their previous baptism was not valid. In case of doubt, a convert may be baptized sub conditione ("If you are not baptized already, I baptize you..."). The sacrament can be validly (but often illicitly) administered by a lay person — even a non-Christian. The usual minister of baptism is a deacon, a priest, or a bishop.
The Eucharist (Communion), is the unbloody sacrifice of Christ, marked by partaking in the Body and Blood of Christ, which replace bread and wine. The changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, held by Roman Catholic dogma to occur, is called transubstantiation. Viaticum is the Eucharist administered to a dying person. The minister of this sacrament is the priest (or bishop) who consecrates the eucharistic elements of bread and wine.
Reconciliation, also called Confession, involves admitting sins to a priest and receiving penance (a task to complete in order to achieve absolution or forgiveness from God).
Early 21st century decisions by the church prohibit the sacrament from being ministered through any electronic communications medium such as email.
Confirmation is a sacrament received by the baptized to impart sanctifying grace and strength to be perfect Christians. The form is the Bishop putting his hands upon the person to be confirmed.
The age for the reception of confirmation varies by country or even diocese; in Latin-rite Catholic churches it ranges from seven to fifteen; recipients must have attained the age of reason. In Eastern-rite Catholic churches, as in other Eastern churches, neonates are confirmed immediately after baptism (as was done historically in the Catholic church), via the rite of chrismation.
Adult converts from Protestantism who were previously baptized with a trinitarian formula are received into communion in the Catholic Church by confirmation. Converts from Eastern Orthodoxy or Oriental Orthodoxy who were chrismated in those Eastern churches are not confirmed, because their chrismation in an Eastern church, unlike confirmation in Protestant churches, is held to be a valid confirmation, and confirming someone who has already been confirmed is forbidden by one of the doctrines of the Council of Trent.
In Latin-Rite Catholic churches, usually the bishop is the ordinary minister of this sacrament. In certain circumstances a parish priest may administer it after having received permission from the bishop. In the case of adult converts, this permission is automatic. In Eastern-Rite Catholic churches, the usual minister of this sacrament is the parish priest. When the bishop does not administer the sacrament personally, his presence is represented by the sacred chrism or myron, which the bishop blesses on Holy Thursday each year.
Matrimony is one of two sacraments that Catholics hold to be validly administered by one who is not a priest (the other is baptism), because the ministers of the sacrament are the two parties to the marriage. Catholics, however, are required by Church discipline to celebrate the sacrament in the presence of a priest or deacon as a witness.
Holy Orders is the entering into the priesthood and involves a vow of celibacy in the Latin Rite, though in Eastern Rites men who married before they were ordained to the diaconate may be ordained; the sacrament of Holy Orders is given in three degrees: that of the deacon (even in the Latin Rite a permanent deacon may be married before becoming a deacon), that of the priest, and that of the bishop. Only a bishop can be the minister of this sacrament.
Anointing of the Sick
The Anointing of the Sick is also known as extreme unction or the last rites and involves the anointing with oil of the sick and dying. Only a priest or bishop can administer this sacrament. It is held that in some cases this sacrament effects a miraculous cure, but only if there are things God wishes the recipient of the sacrament to do before dying.
Validity versus licitness
A rite that has the intended sacramental effect is a valid sacrament. Catholics hold that only a priest properly ordained by a bishop who is in a succession of bishops dating back to the Apostles can perform the miraculous transubstantiation necessary for the validity of the Eucharist, and only such a priest can absolve sins of penitents. Such a priest need not be a Catholic in order that those sacraments be valid; priests of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communions also have the requisite mystical powers according to Catholics, but Protestant ministers do not. (It is a debated point among Catholic theologians whether Anglican priests have maintained apostolic succession. In fact some Anglican bishop ordinations in the 19th century were carried out by Old Catholic bishops, in order to re-establish apostolic succession, which some Anglican theologians feared had been lost.)
However, validity differs from licitness. Although an unordained person -- even a non-Christian -- can validly baptize, that is illegal except in emergencies. After an illicit but valid baptism, the baptized person may not be baptized again; that is determined by validity, not by licitness, though if the baptized person survives, he or she can have a ceremony containing the additional rites that were left out in the emergency baptism. Similarly, a priest who is not a bishop can validly perform the sacrament of confirmation, but in Latin-rite Catholic churches, that is forbidden without an explicit permission from a bishop. Five of the seven sacraments can be validly performed only by a priest -- the two exceptions being baptism and matrimony -- and one only by a bishop: holy orders.
Who administers sacraments: a tabulated summary
|Sacrament||Ordinary ministers||Extraordinary ministers|
|Baptism||clergy1||laity (illegal except in emergencies, but still valid)|
|Confirmation||bishop||priest (illegal except in emergencies or with permission of the bishop, but still valid)|
|Eucharist (consecration)2||bishop or priest||none; always invalid|
|Eucharist (communion)3||clergy|| acolyte (legal when not enough clergy are available)|
other laity (legal when not enough clergy or acolytes)
|Reconciliation||bishop or priest||none; always invalid|
|Anointing of the Sick||bishop or priest||none; always invalid|
|Holy Matrimony||husband and wife||none|
|Holy Orders (bishop)4||three or more bishops||fewer than three bishops; legal with permission of the Pope|
|Holy Orders (priest and deacon)||bishop||none; always invalid|
- Clergy, in this context, means a bishop, priest, or deacon.
- The Eucharist has two parts. The first part of the Eucharistic sacrament is the consecration, or the prayer over the gifts that the priest or bishop says. This is when transubstantiation occurs, according to Catholics.
- The second part of the Eucharist is communion, or the distribution of the consecrated elements (bread and/or wine). More people may participate as ministers in this part, so it is treated separately.
- Since Holy Orders has special rules when ordaining a bishop, the bishop ordination is treated separately.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Seven Sacraments (see also entry)
- Seven Catholic Sacraments - Signs and Instruments of God's Grace
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