Sacraments, according to the Catechism, are 'outward signs instituted by Jesus Christ to give grace'. It is official Catholic teaching, defined by the whole Church at the Council of Trent (1562), that Jesus ordained the Apostles priests when he instituted the Eucharist at the last Supper on the night before his Passion and death. Jesus commanded them to 'Do this as a memorial of me.' He ordained by word alone; no other ceremony is recorded.
A Catholic priest, therefore, is a baptised man who, after long training and a selection process, has received the sacrament of Holy Orders from a bishop. As a result of this sacrament the priest receives a sacred power and his soul is marked in a new, permanent way. He becomes, forever, a representative of Jesus, the Head of the Church.
If the priest represents Christ, he is able to present to God the prayers of the Church when he celebrates the Eucharist. Some sacraments, for example, Penance (or Reconciliation), the Eucharist and Extreme Unction, presume a priest for their ministry. Here Jesus chooses to act through the priest.
However, in an absorbing and exciting, fast-moving and fast- changing world, it is so easy - even for the Christian - to forget the eternal realities and the purpose of life. The goal of human life, put in simple language, is to know, love and serve God in this world and to be happy with him for ever in Heaven.
In order that we have the possibility of salvation, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, truly human and truly divine, died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven. By his life, death and resurrection Jesus has made it possible for us to enter Heaven and achieve the purpose of our existence.
Of course, the priest is on the same life's journey as everyone else. However, he is called by God and ordained by the Church to assist other Christians to reach their eternal goal. Meanwhile, there are a number of levels of the priesthood:
*By the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation the whole community of the People of God shares in the priesthood of the faithful.
* Within the People of God, a few men are chosen as deacons - one of the three orders of the sacred ministry - to assist the ordained priests in their ministry
* There are those, bishops and priests, who are called to participate in the priesthood of Christ is a special way.
Bishops, priests and deacons are like Jesus Christ, the teacher, priest and king: they teach in his name; they offer sacrifice in his person and they care for his people.
Bishops, priests and deacons provide leadership in the Church, among the People of God. In the three years of his earthly ministry Jesus chose leaders, a small inner circle of twelve apostles, representing the twelve tribes of Israel and seventy- two 'disciples' who assisted them. The role of the apostles was to preside at worship, to teach and to provide discipline for the community.
There were twelve apostles chosen during Christ's life-time, but the role was extended later. St Paul, the most famous addition (Galatians 1:1) was called by Christ in the most striking way to be his ambassador.
There were further extensions to people whom one might describe as assistant apostles, such as Silas and Barnabas, who were in regular contact with the original Twelve. There were others such as Paul's assistant, Timothy, who might be described as apostolic delegates.
The years passed, the original apostles died. Christianity was illegal throughout the Roman Empire but the number of private house churches was growing and men such as Timothy were cluster leaders or regional representatives for a particular number of local churches.
Their tasks were to maintain the teaching of the Apostles (2 Tim 4:1-5) and to organise the local ministry of bishops, presbyters, elders, deacons and widows; they were to enrol and ordain these officers (1 Tim 3:1-13).
The terminology or names for these Church officers varied from place to place. Sometimes those commissioned by the apostles in positions of local leadership were called 'leaders' or 'presidents of the Lord'. More frequently they were called presbyters (priests), elders, bishops (overseers) and deacons.
The New Testament reveals the beginnings of the present Church order of bishops, priests and deacons. Moreover, the Church has the permanent authority to teach and decide on its governance.
In the vast majority of local house churches without an apostle, there were groups of elders, like similar bodies in the Jewish synagogue. The relationships between these 'presbyters' and the bishop who supervised is not always clear in the sources.
However, there is clear evidence in the New Testament that as the Christian communities spread and leadership passed to the first generation after the apostles, new leaders were commissioned into the order of bishops, priests or deacons by prayer, a liturgical ceremony and the laying on of hands (1 Tim.4:14).
At the end of all this development, the priest's vital duty is to give spiritual leadership to the Catholic people by providing the sacraments, most obviously in presiding at the Eucharist or Mass on a regular, even daily basis.
The sacraments are at the core of the Catholic faith. They are at the heart of Catholicism. They are what make Catholicism unique:
* There are seven sacraments and all seven were instituted by Jesus Christ.
* All the sacraments confer sanctifying Grace on those who receive them; the sacraments are channels of the Grace that Jesus won for everybody by his death and resurrection.
* The sacraments are necessary for mankind's salvation, where people have any awareness of their existence.
* Adults receiving some sacraments, such as the Eucharist, Ordination and Matrimony, must be in the state of Grace to receive each worthily.
The sacraments are built upon the concept that God created the world and he saw that what he had made was 'very good,' as recorded in Genesis. Both the physical and the spiritual sides of life are good.
But sin radically affected all of creation, both spiritually and materially. When Jesus accomplished our redemption he took upon himself human nature, not just spiritually, but also physically. He took on our flesh through the Incarnation and he resurrected that flesh as well.
In the sacraments, Jesus Christ, the Creator and Redeemer of the world, is using matter, physical reality, for our redemption via the sacraments. He uses bodily signs to give Grace because the words and actions suit our human nature. In other words, God does extraordinary things through ordinary means. He takes the natural to effect the supernatural.
The Catholic Church is the Body of Christ, the physical, the visible expression of Christ. The Church is the extension of Christ's Incarnation and that extension takes place through the sacraments.
There is another way of understanding the sacraments: the approach via signs and symbols. We use signs and symbols to organise and enrich social life. The handshake, the kiss and the shared meal are more than just actions. They are signs and symbols that convey something extra. These are parallels to the sacraments of the Church. The sacraments are, partly, signs and symbols.
A kiss, for example, does signify and magnify love. The signs in the sacraments, however, do more than signify, they actually bring about, for instance, the Body and the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, or the wiping away of original sin and welcoming the person into the Mystical Body of Christ in Baptism.
At Baptism, the priest or deacon pours water over the person's head saying, 'I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.' Baptism is the basic sacrament, indispensable for salvation, as Jesus said to His Apostles:
'Go, therefore, teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' (Matt: 28:19); and, 'Unless a man is born again of water and the Holy Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.'
Most people enter the Church as infants brought by their parents. However, Baptism forgives personal, as well as original sin in adults when they are baptised. Those who have not received the sacrament may have 'Baptism of desire' if they know, love and serve God sincerely.
The sacrament of Confirmation strengthens the baptised for their life-long task of building the People of God. A bishop normally confirms. At the ceremony, the bishop anoints the person's forehead with chrism - a mixture of olive oil and balsom - by 'laying on' his hand while saying, 'Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.'
Jesus Christ said to his Apostles, 'You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses.'
In the plan of God, we can receive the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation once only. In the case of the Holy Eucharist we are able to receive Communion many times. However, we need to be clear on some of the Church's basic teachings concerning the Mass and Holy Communion:
* The Eucharist is a sacrament instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper prior to his passion, death and resurrection.
* The validly ordained priest - who in God's plan of salvation will always be male - alone has the power of consecration.
* Jesus Christ is truly, really and substantially present in the Eucharist. Christ becomes present in the 'Sacrament of the Altar' by the transformation of the bread into his body and of the whole substance of the wine into his blood.
* Jesus is present under each of the two species.
* When either of the consecrated species is divided, Jesus is present in each part of the species.
* After the priest has consecrated the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ is permanently present in the Eucharist.
* At Mass, it is normal for each baptised Catholic in the congregation to receive Communion. However, there are three basic conditions: s/he must be in 'the state of Grace', have a good intention when approaching Communion, and be fasting for at least an hour prior to receiving the Eucharist.
At the Last Supper, the first Mass, Jesus changed bread and wine into his body and blood by saying the words of consecration. At the Mass, the priest - acting in the person of Christ - says the words of consecration over the bread and wine, after which the bread and wine no longer exist; their appearances and taste remain. This change is called transubstantiation. In view of this, Jesus must be adored in the Eucharist.
The fourth Sacrament is Penance or Reconciliation by which Jesus Christ forgives us our sins by restoring or increasing sanctifying grace. When the penitent meets the priest in Confession, s/he must state the serious sins committed, be sorry for them and be prepared to make some satisfaction by prayer or good works after receiving absolution.
The priest's words of forgiveness are: 'I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.' Jesus had been very clear in giving this power to His Apostles when He said, 'Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you retain, they are retained' (John 20:23). Hence, the sacrament of Penance continues in the Church Jesus Christ's ministry of forgiving sins (Luke 5:22).
The sacrament of 'Extreme Unction' or 'Anointing of the Sick' is administered by a priest to a Catholic who is in danger of death from illness, old age or injury. In the sacrament, the priest anoints the forehead and hands of the sick person with oil while saying special prayers.
When the Christian is close to death, the sacrament of Anointing is often called 'the Last Rites' and includes Confession (if possible), Extreme Unction and Communion.
There are two further sacraments: Matrimony by which Jesus Christ unites a Christian man and woman in a covenant as husband and wife until death and Holy Orders by which certain men are appointed priests for his service and that of his people.
Dr Barry Coldrey CFC taught in Christian Brothers colleges for many years and has written and lectured extensively on religious topics.