What does ‘sacrament’ really mean?

The old Baltimore Catechism defined a sacrament as “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” But that only tells part of the story. Early Christians used the Greek word mysterion – “that to which signs referred; a reality laced with the unseen presence of God.” Translated into Latin, this word became sacramentum (Sacra – to set apart and mentum – the means or instrument). In the Roman era, a sacramentum was a pledge of money or property deposited by parties as a guarantee of a contract. Soldiers, too, swore a sacramentum or an oath of allegiance to their commander.

A ‘sign’ of something greater? In Catholic liturgy we use “signs perceptible to the senses”1 – oil, water, bread, wine, laying on of hands, words, etc. But these signs have an effect; they cause what they signify. In them Christ Himself is at work: it is He who baptizes, He who acts in His sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.

The sacraments act ex opere operato (literally “by the very fact of the action being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacraments are not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God” (CCC 1128).

The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions (CCC 1131).

Some sacraments can be received only once, since they impart a special ‘character’ – baptism, confirmation, and holy orders.

The Sacraments of Initiation

1.  Baptism
2.  Confirmation
3.  Eucharist

The Sacraments of Healing

4.  Reconciliation
5.  Anointing of the Sick

The Sacraments of Vocation

6.  Marriage
7. Ordination

Are you interested in learning more about the Catholic faith? People are drawn to explore the Catholic faith for many reasons. Some have become curious after experiencing the prayer and ritual of a Catholic Mass at a funeral or a wedding. Some have seen the hope and comfort a Catholic friend, relative or co-worker found in the Catholic faith when they were experiencing a difficulty or crisis. Others are either contemplating marriage to a Catholic or are already married to a Catholic and desire to know more about what their mate believes.


The Rite Of Christian Initiation For Adults.