The sacraments contribute to man's sanctification, help build up the Body of Christ, and help us worship God. As signs, they presuppose faith, but at the same time they also nourish, strengthen, and express it through words and things.
The meaning and power of the sacraments goes beyond what appears to the perception of the senses: these signs give grace so that men can receive the very life and holiness of God.
The sacraments are gestures, symbols, actions—such as washing and anointing, breaking bread, and sharing the cup—which can be received through the senses, but whose meaning and power go far beyond them. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, Christ himself instituted these outward and sensible signs to give the person his help and grace, to communicate his divine life through the Church.
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the sacraments include three dimensions related to that eternal life: they are signs that recall the Passion of Christ (the victory over the power of death), show grace (the true life already in this world), and give a foretaste of future glory (the definitive fullness of life). In the sacraments, the Church already shares in eternal life, although she yet awaits the blessed hope of heaven.
The sacraments presuppose faith, but "at the same time, nourish, strengthen, and express it through words and things," says the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II.
They do not simply signify the grace of God, but actually cause it. Through them, the Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him, vitally uniting them to the Son of God, deifying them.
The Council of Trent defines a sacrament as "a sacred symbol, a visible form of invisible grace, with the power to sanctify." In this vein, the Second Vatican Council would emphasize later that celebrating the sacraments "perfectly prepares the faithful to fruitfully receive grace, render worship to God, and practice charity."
The current digital culture makes it difficult to understand the symbols and the transcendent dimension of things. People often trivialize the sacraments, but it is very important to understand them well so that they can produce all their fruit in us.
God expresses himself in human categories, through sensible things perceptible to the person who is made of body and soul. And he willed to use them to give grace to those who have none, or to increase it in those who already have it.
The sacraments effectively sanctify those who receive them worthily. They work by the fact that the action is performed, by virtue of the saving work of Christ. As St. Thomas Aquinas points out, "the sacrament does not act by virtue of the justice of the man who gives or receives it, but by the power of God." So long as a sacrament is celebrated according to the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through him, regardless of the personal holiness of the minister.
But although the visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the dispositions of the recipient, notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Symbolic actions are already a language, but it is necessary for the Word of God and the response of faith to accompany and vivify these actions. The person must open the doors to God, who always respects his freedom.
But the sacraments are often received without the necessary dispositions to make the most of all their fruits, and many people find it difficult to understand their meaning. In his book Nausea, for example, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre offers a poor view on the Eucharist when he writes that "in churches, in the light of candles, a man drinks wine in front of kneeling women."
Today's digital culture, which overestimates the instrumental value and sees nature almost solely as an object of exploitation and manipulation, makes it difficult to understand gestures and symbols such as the sacraments. Our civilization has lost, to a great extent, the ability to perceive the religious dimension of beings, things and people.
Moreover, the sacraments, in their symbolism, in a thousand details of their celebration, are linked to the experience of the Church and are incomprehensible when separated from that experience. It is like the language of a family, of a people: only those who are inside understand it well. Only those who adhere from the heart to the Church, only those who allow themselves to be taught by her and who grow in her will be able to take full ownership of the wealth of the Sacraments.
In keeping with the important stages of natural life, there are seven sacraments instituted by Jesus: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders and matrimony.
The Council of Trent counted seven sacraments of the New Law instituted by Christ, each corresponding to stages and important moments of Christian life, with the idea that there is a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life.
The three sacraments of Christian initiation (baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist), the sacraments of healing (penance and anointing of the sick), and those in the service of communion and the mission of the faithful (holy orders and marriage) give birth and growth, healing and mission to the life of faith.
The sacraments form an organism in which each one has a vital place, but the Eucharist occupies a unique place because all the others are ordered to it as their end, says St. Thomas.
Christ acts in believers in different ways through the sacraments: by baptism, he assumes believers into his own Body, communicating divine filiation to them in the Spirit. By confirmation, he strengthens them in the same Spirit to enable them to give witness to him before men. By penance, he forgives their sins and heals them of their spiritual diseases. By the anointing of the sick, he comforts the sick and dying. By holy orders, he consecrates some to preach, guide, and sanctify his people in his name. By matrimony, he purifies, elevates, and strengthens the conjugal love of man and woman. This whole system flows from the Eucharist, which contains Christ himself.
Abandoning the sacraments means closing oneself to the most efficacious visible signs that God chose to nourish us with his own life.