We have a rough idea that the Sacraments are sorts of rituals of the Catholic Church, and that they include Baptism, Communion and Confirmation. But, that’s about as far as it goes … So, what are the Sacraments?
The Sacraments are outward signs of inward Grace. Sound complicated? Well, with a bit of explanation, it should become easier to understand.
The Sacraments are signs. A sign is something that points to some other reality. A road sign tells us the direction and distance to our destination, for example. So, what does a Sacrament point to? A Sacrament points to a hidden reality – the Sanctifying Grace of God being poured to our soul. That’s why we call it an outward sign of inward Grace. So, in the Sacrament of Baptism, the sign is the pouring of the water by the priest while he says the correct words; in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, the sign is the bishop laying his hands on the head of the future priest while saying the correct words.
But, Sacraments are different from other signs in that they are efficacious signs. Efficacious means that they produce what they point to. A road sign points to our destination, but it doesn’t produce that destination! A Sacrament points to the hidden reality of Grace, but it also produces that Grace. Both the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Orders produce Sanctifying Grace in the soul of the person who receives them. The Sacraments can produce Grace only because God has given them the power to do so.
Why are there seven Sacraments, then, if they all do the same thing? It’s true that all the Sacraments produce Grace, but each Sacrament gives us Grace for a different purpose. In Baptism, Grace is given to wash our souls from Original Sin and to make us children of God. In Holy Orders, Grace is given to give a man the powers of the priesthood.
Really, the Sacraments exist to give us the Grace of God to suit the various stages of our spiritual life. By Baptism we are born into the life of Grace, by Confirmation we are made adults in this same life, by Confession we can recover that life if we have lost it by mortal sin, by the Eucharist we are given Christ who is the source and goal of this life, and by Extreme Unction we are given the strength to hold on to this life at the point of death, so that we get safely to heaven where this Grace will finally blossom into Glory. Marriage is there to help a couple successfully bring up their children in this life of Grace; Holy Orders exists to make sure that the Sacramental life continues to be given to the whole Church.