The Catechism of Trent
By some it has been used to express the obligation which arises from an oath, pledging to the performance of some service; and hence the oath by which soldiers promise military service to the State has been called a military sacrament. Among profane writers this seems to have been the most ordinary meaning of the word.
But by the Latin Fathers who have written on theological subjects, the word sacrament is used to signify a sacred thing which lies concealed. The Greeks, to express the same idea, made use of the word mystery. This we understand to be the meaning of the word, when, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, it is said: That he might make known to us the mystery (sacramentum) of his will; and to Timothy: great is the mystery (sacramentum) of godliness; and in the Book of Wisdom: They knew not the secrets (sacramenta) of God. In these and many other passages the word sacrament,� it will be perceived, signifies nothing more than a holy thing that lies concealed and hidden.
The Latin Doctors, therefore, deemed the word a very appropriate term to express certain sensible signs which at once communicate grace, declare it, and, as it were, place it before the eyes. St. Gregory, however, is of the opinion that such a sign is called a Sacrament, because the divine power secretly operates our salvation under the veil of sensible things.
Let it not, however, be supposed that the word sacrament is of recent ecclesiastical usage. Whoever peruses the works of Saints Jerome and Augustine will at once perceive that ancient ecclesiastical writers made use of the word sacrament, and some times also of the word symbol, or mystical sign or sacred sign, to designate that of which we here speak.
So much will suffice in explanation of the word sacrament. What we have said applies equally to the Sacraments of the Old Law; but since they have been superseded by the Gospel Law and grace, it is not necessary that pastors give instruction concerning them.
Nor is it unimportant that the faithful should know that the Sacraments are signs. This knowledge will lead them more readily to believe that what the Sacraments signify, contain and effect is holy and august; and recognising their sanctity they will be more disposed to venerate and adore the beneficence of God displayed towards us.
Among these are manifestly to be numbered the Sacraments of the New Law. They are signs instituted not by man but by God, which we firmly believe have in themselves the power of producing the sacred effects of which they are the signs.
In order, therefore, to explain more fully the nature of a Sacrament, it should be taught that it is a sensible object which possesses, by divine institution, the power not only of signifying, but also of accomplishing holiness and righteousness. Hence it follows, as everyone can easily see, that the images of the Saints, crosses and the like, although signs of sacred things, cannot be called Sacraments. That such is the nature of a Sacrament is easily proved by the example of all the Sacraments, if we apply to the others what has been already said of Baptism; namely, that the solemn ablution of the body not only signifies, but has power to effect a sacred thing which is wrought interiorly by the operation of the Holy Ghost.
Nor should it be supposed that this teaching of the Doctors is unsupported by the testimony of Holy Scripture. When the Apostle says: All we who are baptised in Christ Jesus, are baptised in his death, he gives us clearly to understand that Baptism is called a sign, because it reminds us of the death and Passion of our Lord. When he says, We are buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so, we also may walk in newness of life, he also clearly shows that Baptism is a sign which indicates the infusion of divine grace into our souls, which enables us to lead a new life and to perform all the duties of true piety with ease and cheerfulness. Finally, when he adds: If we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection, he teaches that Baptism clearly foreshadows eternal life also, which we are to reach through its efficacy.
What has been said, therefore, cannot fail to supply the pastor with arguments to prove how much the power of God is displayed, how many hidden miracles are contained in the Sacraments of the New Law; that thus all may understand that they are to be venerated and received with utmost devotion.’
The first of these reasons is the feebleness of the human mind. We are so constituted by nature that no one can aspire to mental and intellectual knowledge unless through the medium of sensible objects. In order, therefore, that we might more easily understand what is accomplished by the hidden power of God, the same sovereign Creator of the universe has most wisely, and out of His tender kindness towards us, ordained that His power should be manifested to us through the intervention of certain sensible signs. As St. Chrysostom happily expresses it: If man were not clothed with a material body, these good things would have been presented to him naked and without any covering; but as the soul is joined to the body, it was absolutely necessary to employ sensible things in order to assist in making them understood.
Another reason is because the mind yields a reluctant assent to promises. Hence, from the beginning of the world, God was accustomed to indicate, and usually in words, that which He had resolved to do; but sometimes, when designing to execute something, the magnitude of which might weaken a belief in its accomplishment, He added to words other signs, which sometimes appeared miraculous. When, for instance, God sent Moses to deliver the people of Israel, and Moses, distrusting the help even of God who had commissioned him, feared that the burden imposed was heavier than he could bear, or that the people would not heed his message, the Lord confirmed His promise by a great variety of signs. As, then, in the Old Law, God ordained that every important promise should be confirmed by certain signs, so in the New Law, Christ our Saviour, when He promised pardon of sin, divine grace, the communication of the Holy Spirit, instituted certain visible and sensible signs by which He might oblige Himself, as it were, by pledges, and make it impossible to doubt that He would be true to His promises.
A third reason is that the Sacraments, to use the words of St. Ambrose, may be at hand, as the remedies and medicines of the Samaritan in the Gospel, to preserve or recover the health of the soul. For, through the Sacraments, as through a channel, must flow into the soul the efficacy of the Passion of Christ, that is, the grace which He merited for us on the altar of the cross, and without which we cannot hope for salvation. Hence, our most merciful Lord has bequeathed to His Church, Sacraments stamped with the sanction of His word and promise, through which, provided we make pious and devout use of these remedies, we firmly believe that the fruit of His Passion is really communicated to us.
A fourth reason why the institution of the Sacraments seems necessary is that there may be certain marks and symbols to distinguish the faithful; particularly since, as St. Augustine observes, no society of men, professing a true or a false religion, can be, so to speak, consolidated into one body, unless united and held together by some bond of sensible signs. Both these objects the Sacraments of the New Law accomplish, distinguishing the Christian from the infidel, and uniting the faithful by a sort of sacred bond.
Another very just cause for the institution of the Sacraments may be shown from the words of the Apostle: With the heart we believe unto justice; but with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. By approaching them we make a public profession of our faith in the sight of men. Thus, when we approach Baptism, we openly profess our belief that, by virtue of its salutary waters in which we are washed, the soul is spiritually cleansed.
The Sacraments have also great influence, not only in exciting and exercising our faith, but also in inflaming that charity with which we should love one another, when we recollect that, by partaking of these mysteries in common, we are knit together in the closest bonds and are made members of one body.
A final consideration, which is of greatest importance for the life of a Christian, is that the Sacraments repress and subdue the pride of the human heart, and exercise us in the practice of humility; for they oblige us to subject ourselves to sensible elements in obedience to God, from whom we had before impiously revolted in order to serve the elements of the world.
These are the chief points that appeared to us necessary for the instruction of the faithful on the name, nature, and institution of a Sacrament. When they shall have been accurately expounded by the pastor, his next duty will be to explain the constituents of each Sacrament, its parts, and the rites and ceremonies which have been added to its administration.
This is the doctrine of the Fathers of the Church; and the testimony of St. Augustine on the subject is familiar to all. The word, he says, is joined to the element and it becomes a Sacrament. By the words sensible thing, therefore, the Fathers understand not only the matter or element, such as water in Baptism, chrism in confirmation, and oil in Extreme Unction, all of which fall under the eye; but also the words which constitute the form, and which are addressed to the ear.
Both are clearly pointed out by the Apostle, when he says: Christ loved the Church, and delivered himself up for it, that he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life. Here both the matter and form of the Sacrament are expressly mentioned.
In order to make the meaning of the rite that is being performed easier and clearer, words had to be added to the matter. For of all signs words are evidently the most significant, and without them, what the matter for the Sacraments designates and declares would be utterly obscure. Water, for instance, has the quality of cooling as well as cleansing, and may be symbolic of either. In Baptism, therefore, unless the words were added, it would not be certain, but only conjectural, which signification was intended; but when the words are added, we immediately understand that the Sacrament possesses and signifies the power of cleansing.
In this the Sacraments of the New Law excel those of the Old that, as far as we know, there was no definite form of administering the latter, and hence they were very uncertain and obscure. In our Sacraments, on the contrary, the form is so definite that any, even a casual deviation from it renders the Sacrament null. Hence the form is expressed in the clearest terms, such as exclude the possibility of doubt.
These, then, are the parts which belong to the nature and substance of the Sacraments, and of which every Sacrament is necessarily composed.
There is, in the first place, the greatest propriety in manifesting such a religious reverence to the sacred mysteries as to make it appear that holy things are handled by holy men.
Secondly, these ceremonies serve to display more fully the effects of the Sacraments, placing them, as it were, before our eyes, and to impress more deeply on the minds of the faithful the sanctity of these sacred institutions.
Thirdly, they elevate to sublime contemplation the minds of those who behold and observe them with attention, and excite within them faith and charity.
To enable the faithful, therefore, to know and understand clearly the meaning of the ceremonies made use of in the administration of each Sacrament should be an object of special care and attention.
The Sacraments of the Catholic Church are seven in number, as is proved from Scripture, from the tradition handed down to us from the Fathers, and from the authority of Councils. Why they are neither more nor less in number may be shown, at least
with some probability, from the analogy that exists between the natural and the spiritual life. In order to exist, to preserve existence, and to contribute to his own and to the public good, seven things seem necessary to man: to be born, to grow, to be nurtured, to be cured when sick, when weak to be strengthened; as far as regards the public welfare, to have magistrates invested with authority to govern, and to perpetuate himself and his species by legitimate offspring. Now, since it is quite clear that all these things are sufficiently analogous to that life by which the soul lives to God, we discover in them a reason to account for the number of the Sacraments.
First comes Baptism, which is the gate, as it were, to all the other Sacraments, and by which we are born again unto Christ. The next is Confirmation, by which we grow up and are strengthened in the grace of God; for, as St. Augustine observes, to the Apostles who had already received Baptism, the Redeemer said: “Stay you in the city till you be endued with power from on high.,, The third is the Eucharist, that true bread from heaven which nourishes and sustains our souls to eternal life, according to these words of the Saviour: My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. The fourth is Penance, through which lost health is recovered after we have been wounded by sin. Next is Extreme Unction, which obliterates the remains of sin and invigorates the powers of the soul; for speaking of this Sacrament St. James says: If he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him. Then follows Holy Orders, by which power is given to exercise perpetually in the Church the public administration of the Sacraments and to perform all the sacred functions. The last is Matrimony, instituted to the end that, by means of the legitimate and holy union of man and woman, children may be procreated and religiously educated for the service of God, and for the preservation of the human race.
Among them three are said to be necessary beyond the rest, although in all three this necessity is not of the same kind. The universal and absolute necessity of Baptism our Saviour has declared in these words: Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. Penance, on the other hand, is necessary for those only who have stained themselves after Baptism by any mortal guilt. Without sincere repentance, their eternal ruin is inevitable. Orders, too, although not necessary to each of the faithful, are of absolute necessity to the Church as a whole.
But if we consider the dignity of the Sacraments, the Eucharist, for holiness and for the number and greatness of its mysteries, is far superior to all the rest. These, however, are matters which will be more easily understood, when we come to explain, in its proper place, what regards each of the Sacraments.
The present question, however, is not hard to answer. For since human justification comes from God, and since the Sacraments are the wonderful instruments of justification, it is evident that one and the same God in Christ, must be acknowledged to be the author of justification and of the Sacraments.
Furthermore, the Sacraments contain a power and efficacy which reach the inmost soul; and as God alone has power to enter into the hearts and minds of men, He alone, through Christ, is manifestly the author of the Sacraments.
That they are also interiorly dispensed by Him we must hold with a firm and certain faith, according to these words of St. John, in which he declares that he learned this truth concerning Christ: He who sent me to baptise with water, said to me: He, upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining upon him, he it is that baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.
That this was, at all times, a fixed and well ascertained doctrine of the Church, is established beyond all doubt by St. Augustine, in his disputations against the Donatists. And should we desire Scriptural proof also, let us listen to these words of the Apostle: I have planted; Apollo watered; but God gave the increase Therefore neither he that planteth nor he that watereth is any
thing, but God who giveth the increase. From these words it is clear that as trees are not injured by the wickedness of those who planted them, so those who were planted in Christ by the ministry of bad men sustain no injury from the guilt of those others.
Judas Iscariot, as the holy Fathers infer from the Gospel of St. John, conferred Baptism on many; and yet none of those whom he baptised are recorded to have been baptised again. To use the memorable words of St. Augustine: Judas baptised, and yet after him none were rebaptised; John baptised, and after John they were rebaptised . For the Baptism administered by Judas was the Baptism of Christ, but that administered by John was the baptism of John. Not that we prefer Judas to John, but that we justly prefer the Baptism of Christ, although administered by Judas, to that of John although administered by the hands of John.
Holy things, it cannot be too often repeated, should be treated holily and with due reverence. To the sinner, says the Prophet, God has said: Why dost thou declare my justices, and take my covenant in thy mouth, seeing that thou hast hated discipline? If then, for him who is defiled by sin it is unlawful to speak on divine things, how enormous the guilt of that man, who, conscious of many crimes, dreads not to accomplish with polluted lips the holy mysteries, to take them into his befouled hands, to touch
them, and to present and administer them to others? All the more since St. Denis says that the wicked may not even touch the symbols, as he calls the Sacraments.
It therefore becomes the first duty of the minister of holy things to follow holiness of life, to approach with purity the administration of the Sacraments, and so to exercise himself in piety, that, from their frequent administration and use, he may every day receive, with the divine assistance, more abundant grace.
Lest on this subject any doubt should exist in the minds of the faithful, God, in the abundance of His mercy, was pleased,
from the moment when the Sacraments began to be administered, to manifest by the evidence of miracles the effects which they operate interiorly in the soul. (This He did) in order that we may most firmly believe that the same effects, although far removed from the senses, are always inwardly produced. To say nothing of the fact that at the Baptism of the Redeemer in the Jordan the heavens were opened and the Holy Ghost appeared in the form of a dove, to teach us that when we are washed in the sacred font His grace is infused into our souls �� to omit this, which has reference rather to the signification of Baptism than to the administration of the Sacrament �� do we not read that on the day of Pentecost, when the Apostles received the Holy Ghost, by whom they were thenceforward inspired with greater alacrity and resolution to preach the faith and brave dangers for the glory of Christ, there came suddenly a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting, and there appeared to them parted tongues, as it were, of fire? By this it was understood that in the Sacrament of Confirmation the same Spirit is given us, and such strength is imparted as enables us resolutely to encounter and resist our incessant enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil. For some time in the beginning of the Church, whenever these Sacraments were administered by the Apostles, the same miraculous effects were witnessed, and they ceased only when the faith had acquired maturity and strength.
From what has been said of sanctifying grace, the first effect of the Sacraments, it clearly follows that there resides in the Sacraments of the New Law, a virtue more exalted and efficacious than that of the sacraments of the Old Law. Those ancient sacraments, being weak and needy elements, sanctified such as were defiled to the cleansing of the flesh, but not of the spirit. They were, therefore, instituted only as signs of those things, which were to be accomplished by our mysteries. The Sacraments of the New Law, on the contrary, flowing from the side of Christ, who, by the Holy Ghost, offered himself unspotted unto God, cleanse our consciences from dead works, to
serve the living God, and thus work in us, through the blood of Christ, the grace which they signify. Comparing our Sacraments, therefore, with those of the Old Law we find that they are not only more efficacious, but also more fruitful in spiritual advantages, and more august in holiness.
This character is, as it were, a distinctive impression stamped on the soul which perpetually inheres and cannot be blotted out. Of this St. Augustine says: Shall the Christian Sacraments accomplish less than the bodily mark impressed on the soldier? That mark is not stamped on his person anew as often as he resumes the military service which he had relinquished, but the old is recognised and approved.
This character has a twofold effect: it qualifies us to receive or perform something sacred, and distinguishes us by some mark one from another. In the character impressed by Baptism, both effects are exemplified. By it we are qualified to receive the other Sacraments, and the Christian is distinguished from those who do not profess the faith. The same illustration is afforded by the characters impressed by Confirmation and Holy Orders. By Confirmation we are armed and arrayed as soldiers of Christ, publicly to profess and defend His name, to fight against our internal enemy and against the spiritual powers of wickedness in the high places; and at the same time we are distinguished from those who, being recently baptised, are, as it were, new�born infants. Holy Orders confers the power of consecrating and administering the Sacraments, and also distinguishes those who are invested
with this power from the rest of the faithful. The rule of the Catholic Church is, therefore, to be observed, which teaches that these three Sacraments impress a character and are never to be repeated.
These objects pastors will find little difficulty in accomplishing, if they call frequently to the attention of the faithful what we have already said on the divine character and fruit of the Sacraments: first, that they were instituted by our Lord and Saviour from whom can proceed nothing but what is most perfect; further that when administered, the most powerful influence of the Holy Ghost is present, pervading the inmost sanctuary of the soul; next that they possess an admirable and unfailing virtue to cure our spiritual maladies, and communicate to us the inexhaustible riches of the Passion of our Lord.
Finally, let them point out, that although the whole edifice of Christian piety rests on the most firm foundation of the cornerstone; yet, unless it be supported on every side by the preaching of the divine Word and by the use of the Sacraments, it is greatly to be feared that it may to a great extent totter and fall to the ground. For as we are ushered into spiritual life by means of the Sacraments, so by the same means are we nourished and preserved, and grow to spiritual increase.