The Sacraments: Signs and Channels of Grace

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2012 by Douglas P. McManaman
All Rights Reserved
Reproduced with Permission

Everyone seems to know from a kind of self-knowledge that it is easier to be cowardly, self-indulgent, impatient and unjust, etc., than it is to be brave, temperate, patient and just, etc. In short, vice is easier than virtue. Human persons have a propensity to sin and self-seeking. And yet man is a social animal; he has a radical need for community. Selfishness is thus utterly contrary to our nature. It is not "natural" that we have a proclivity to that which is unnatural or contrary to our nature. Human nature is thus flawed or wounded, and this is a wound that we have inherited - it would make no sense to suggest that we were created that way.

Our nature is so wounded, in fact, that it is simply not possible on our own strength to rise above its inclination to sin. We stand in need of a supernatural quality that will enable us to rise above that propensity to sin and self-seeking. Divine grace is that quality. Grace is a sharing in the divine life. Our natural life is "human" life, but grace is the divine life infused, by God, into the soul of the human person and is thus supernatural. No one is born in a state of grace, but everyone is born in need of it. There is nothing we can do to earn it, and thus it is gratuitously given.

God is within everything "naturally" as first and preservative cause of a thing's existence, but he is not present in everything supernaturally. Grace is God's supernatural self-communication, a self-communication that is over and above His natural presence. If this were not the case, it would be impossible to speak of the sacred; for the word "sacred" means "set apart". As an example, consider that if God is no more present in the tabernacle than He is in a garbage can, then a chapel is not a sacred place.

The human person is made holy through this supernatural presence, and it is this divine favor (grace) that Christ came to restore. This favor is ours in Him, to the degree that we share in his perfect act of religion (the sacrifice of the cross): "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me" (Mk 8, 34). The world now belongs to Christ; it has been reconciled to the Father through him.

It is in the Person of Christ that we have the forgiveness of sins. We will taste death, but if we die in Him, we will also live with Him: "If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him" (Rm 6, 8). We still suffer from a dulling of the intellect, which is one of the effects of Original Sin, but as divine grace increases in us, the more we share in the personal gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially wisdom, knowledge and understanding. And although we still suffer from an inclination to sin, through grace we have all that we need to rise above this tendency and live in holiness: "God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your strength; but with the temptation he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it" (1 Cor 10, 13).

But man is a unity of spirit and matter. In other words, he is a psychosomatic unity. Matter plays a very important role in every aspect of our lives, and this includes the spiritual life. There is so much in us that is invisible, but we naturally make that visible and tangible for others. For example, the love we have for another is in itself not visible, but we are moved to make visible this love in some way through matter, for example, in a rose, or a poem, or a gift of some kind. Our ideas are in themselves invisible and immaterial, but we express those ideas in words that are audible, or visible when written. Our own moral character is invisible, but that character is shaped and expressed through the concrete choices we make, and eventually that character is stamped in the lines and contours of our own faces.

That is why the spiritual life, if it is a human spirituality congruent with man's bodily nature, is intimately bound up with matter. Supernatural grace, which is invisible in itself, is communicated to us through material signs, or sacramental signs. For the Catholic, grace is ordinarily (not exclusively) communicated sacramentally, through the instrumentality of matter, that is, through matter that is both visible and tangible, such as water, oil, or bread and wine.

Baptism and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

The sacraments are the actions of Christ's Mystical Body, the Church. More specifically, they are channels of divine grace, as a wire is a channel of electricity, or pipes a channel of water. Each sacrament is a unity of a natural sign that is material, and a word, which is the form that makes it to be a real sacrament. For example, the matter of the sacrament of baptism is water. Moreover, water is a natural sign; it signifies purity, cleansing, life and death. And what makes baptism to be "what it is" is the form or words: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

The sacrament effects what the matter signifies. For example, water is the most fitting sign for baptism precisely because water is a natural sign of purity and cleansing, for we purify vessels with water, and animals clean themselves with water. It is a natural sign of life, because living things depends upon water. It is also an apt sign of death insofar as water is the most powerful force in nature, and too much water destroys. The water of baptism signifies a dying as well as supernatural life, and it brings about precisely what it signifies; for in baptism, a person actually enters the tomb of Christ, that is, dies to the old Adam and becomes a new creation: "Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life" (Rm 6, 3-4).

This does not mean that God cannot impart grace outside of baptism - that's another issue altogether. But the graces of baptism effect a radical regeneration in the human person. One receives a spirit of adoption, and one thereby becomes a new creation: "So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old thing have passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Cor 5, 17). The baptized is cleansed from the stain and guilt of Original Sin.

Baptism also infuses the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These are not natural virtues that one can cultivate on one's own efforts. Faith is pure gift, and there is nothing we can do to earn or acquire it. And a living faith is the greatest gift that a human person can receive; for there is nothing else by which a person may enter the fullness of heaven. And although a person cannot not give faith to himself, he alone is the cause of his own loss of faith. There is no tragedy greater than that of a person who was given the gift of faith as a sheer gift, but who lost it through his own neglect. That is why faith must be nourished through prayer, the sacramental life, and study.

Baptism also confers the seven personal gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, piety, fortitude and fear of God. These too are not natural gifts--although they do have their natural counterparts. For example, Aristotle was profoundly wise, but he did not have the wisdom that is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is profound insight into the things of God. Moreover, one need not have a university education to receive a sharing in this gift. St. Therese of Lisieux, who entered the convent of Lisieux at 15 and died when she was only 24 years of age, had a very profound sharing in the gift of wisdom. To read her letters that she wrote in her early 20s, one gets the impression that she'd spent a good sixty years on the road of the spiritual life.

The gift of knowledge enables a person to see the hand of God in every day occurrences. Whereas before, a person would regard an occurrence as a mere coincidence, faith opens up a whole new perspective on life. One readily sees that God is intimately involved in our every day lives, providentially ordering things for the best: "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rm 8, 28).

Understanding is the gift by which we are given an understanding of the mysteries of our faith. This does not necessarily imply that the person will be able to explain the mysteries, but there exists a certain grasp and recognition of the truth of these mysteries, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, etc. For example, sometimes a person who has never taken a theology course in his/her life will sense that there is something wrong with the homily that is being delivered (when the homily is theologically unsound). They may not know what exactly, but they know that something is amiss. This is the gift of understanding at work.

Counsel is the gift whereby a person is given the ability to discern that course of action most in accordance with God's will. Of course, no one has a perfect sharing in this gift, but as one grows spiritually, one grows in the gifts, especially counsel. St. Catherine of Siena was said to have had extraordinary counsel and was often consulted by Popes in the fourteenth century. She too had an astounding gift of wisdom, for she only lived for thirty three years, but to read The Dialogue, which she wrote when she was 31, one inevitably has the impression that the author was well advanced in years.

Piety is the gift by which we are inclined to render due honor to the Church, Christ's Mystical Body, and to Mary, the Blessed Mother who is, by virtue of our incorporation into Christ's Mystical Body, our mother. Piety also includes devotion to the communion of saints, who are our older siblings that have gone before us, but who are still in communion with us. They can intercede for us and will do so if we ask them. We can come to know these saints while we are here through devotion to them, and by studying their lives.

Fortitude also has its natural counterpart. It is the virtue that moderates the emotions of fear and daring so that we may achieve the ends required by justice, ends that are often difficult to achieve and give rise to fear. But supernatural ends proposed by faith are even more difficult to achieve. In fact, they are simply impossible to achieve without the theological virtues. The martyrs of the Church all had the gift of fortitude.

Finally, the fear of God, which Scripture says is the beginning of wisdom. The gift of fear is divided into servile and filial. It is through servile fear that one chooses to avoid sin merely out of fear of punishment, in particular eternal punishment. Filial fear avoids sin not primarily out of fear of punishment, but out of a fear of offending God. Such a person has so genuine a love for God that the thought of offending the divine love is more painful than the pain that might be involved in avoiding a sinful action. The more one grows in supernatural charity, the more one's fear becomes reverence.


In the sacrament of Confirmation, a person is sealed with the Holy Spirit. The matter of this sacrament is oil; for in the Old Testament oil was a sign of blessing (wealth), strength (Christ exhorted us to rub oil on our face when fasting in order to appear strong, rather than weak through fasting), and a sign of joy. Kings would be anointed with oil, and the very word "Christos" (Messiah) means "anointed one". The oil of Confirmation is chrism oil, and it contains some aromatic substance that is blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday. This aromatic substance quickly spreads its fragrance, symbolizing the way goodness and holiness "spreads" and influences others.

All the personal gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as the virtues of faith, hope, and charity are strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation. We are given a more profound sharing in the threefold identity of Christ, for we are anointed priest, prophet, and king.

Confirmation imparts the grace to fulfill certain obligations that stem from this new state of life established by this sacrament. A confirmed teenager has a tremendous responsibility. He or she is anointed priest (not to be confused with the ministerial priesthood), and a priest is one who offers sacrifice. The confirmed teenager is called to offer his life in sacrifice, to live no longer for himself, but for Christ and his kingdom. He or she is anointed prophet, and so he is called to proclaim the good news of eternal life first and foremost through the witness of his/her life. By living for truth, he/she is witnessing to the truth. And finally, he/she is anointed king. A king is one who governs and one who serves. The grace of Confirmation enables us to more easily bring order to the kingdom of our own soul with its various passions that they may submit to the demands of reason so as to more readily serve God.


Love desires to give itself. We see this especially in the love between husband and wife who give themselves to one another bodily. That is why Christ offers us his entire self (body, blood, soul and divinity) in the Eucharist, which is real food. But a person who will not eat will soon die. The same law applies in the spiritual realm. A person who cuts himself off from the Eucharist is one who will eventually die spiritually, and one who feeds on the Eucharist only periodically will suffer from a kind of spiritual malnutrition.

The matter of this sacrament is bread and wine, because these are universal signs of nourishment - virtually every nation makes its own kind of bread and wine. The form of this sacrament is the words of consecration: "This is my body…this is my blood." When the priest pronounces these words, Catholics believe that the substance of bread is changed into the substance of Christ's body and blood, and the substance of wine is changed into the substance of his blood. Although it still looks like bread, feels like bread, and tastes like bread, it is in fact the substance of Christ's body. This is traditionally known as transubstantiation.

To explain how this is logically possible, consider that there is a real distinction between a substance and the attributes that inhere in it, such as its quantity, its abilities, its color, texture, taste, sound, and its shape, disposition, place, time, posture, its action and relation to other substances, etc. These attributes can change while the substance itself remains the same. For example, an apple can grow from small to large, change color from green to red, and change texture from relatively hard to soft, etc., while remaining the same apple. This shows that substance is really distinct from its attributes and properties.

But what happens during the consecration is the complete reverse: the substance changes, while the attributes remain the same. We cannot prove that such a change takes place - it is a matter of faith - , but such a change is logically possible because substance is really distinct from its attributes. Whether or not transubstantiation actually occurs depends upon whether God chooses to work the miracle. Catholics believe that He does; for we believe that Jesus is the eternal Person of the Word (Son), and he said: "Take this all of you and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you ... this is the cup of my blood, [which] ... will be shed for you ..." In John we read:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world....Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. (Jn 6, 51-56)

The Church has always believed that what we receive in the Eucharist is the real body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. Very early on, around the year 150 AD (about 60 years after the gospel of John was written), Justin Martyr wrote in chapter 66 of his Apology I:

This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true,...For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus.

But not only do we receive the substance of Christ's body under the appearance of bread, and the substance of his blood under the appearance of wine. What we receive is his body "given up for you", his blood "shed for you." It is his body in the act of self-giving. The Eucharist is the sacrifice of Calvary, the perfect act of religion made on behalf of the entire human race that we receive literally into ourselves. In the Eucharist, we are joined to Christ's perfect act of religion. We become that act. The Mass is a sacrifice, the one sacrifice of the cross made present, that is, re-presented at each moment when and where it is celebrated validly. This is the miracle of the Mass, namely that the one, historical, unrepeatable sacrifice of Calvary can be made present on the altar throughout history, such that anyone present at an ordinary Mass is in reality just as present at the foot of the cross as Mary and John were two thousand years ago.


As was said earlier, the Church is Christ's Mystical Body. Now a body is a unity. In other words, the parts of the body are not isolated units unto themselves; rather, they are parts of the whole, and they exist to serve and maintain the integrity of the whole. When a part of the body is injured, such as a stubbed toe, it is the one whole organism that feels the pain; the one person has been injured. All injury is, strictly speaking, injury of a part or parts. But we do not say that the part has been injured, but that the person has been injured. If we speak of the part as injured, it is always in relation to the whole, i.e., "my toe", or "I hurt my toe". So too for Christ's Mystical Body, the Church. All members of the Church are members of a living body. Sin affects the entire body, just as an injured part affects the entire organism. That is why sin is a public affair, and never a private matter between God and the sinner. If sin only affected one's relationship with God, then perhaps a person could make a case against the need to confess to another person. But the bishop represents the Church, and absolution (release) is forgiveness in the name of Christ's Mystical Body: "And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (Jn 20, 22).

For if my sin affects every member of Christ's body, then I must seek forgiveness from every member of the Church. But this is not possible. That is why the sacrament was instituted; the bishop acts in the name of the Church in absolving a person from sin. In being reconciled to Christ's body, I am reconciled to Christ, and in being reconciled to Christ, I am reconciled to God. The graces received in the sacrament of reconciliation strengthen us to eventually overcome the sins that we currently struggle with.

Anointing of the Sick

Sickness and death are part of the fallen human condition. The kind of death that awaits all of us is the result of that mysterious wound called Original Sin. We experience death as a descent into something dark and unknown; it is the breakdown and disintegration of the human person and it manifests to us the deepest truth about ourselves, namely, that ultimately we have no power: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Gn 3, 19).

Death in itself is anything but a happy state, and yet St. Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death. But how can death be happy? There is a real difference between spiritual/psychological suffering and physical suffering. The worst suffering is, without a doubt, spiritual suffering. Depression, loneliness, or the pangs of guilt, paranoia, for example, are far more difficult to live with than a body racked by the pain of cancer or some other horrible physical illness. A person can undergo the worst physical pain and at the same time experience, deep within himself, a profound peace, a fullness, a radiating warmth. Certainly there is no separation between soul and body, but there is a distinction. That is why the very idea of a happy death is not unthinkable.

In joining Himself to a human nature, the Second Person of the Trinity joined Himself to every human person. In other words, he entered into the depths of human suffering. Jesus tasted darkness and human pain, that is to say, God the Son, who is eternal, entered our darkness. And so it is true that in the very depths of our own personal suffering, someone is there. We never suffer alone, even though it may seem like we do. In the midst of suffering, we can find, if we are open and looking, the eternal Person of the Son, who can illuminate our darkness.

The sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick strengthens us and enables us to discover Christ in the midst of sickness and dying. It allows us to more readily join our sufferings to the suffering of Christ. Oil is the matter of this sacrament, and oil, as we have seen, is a natural sign of joy, blessing and strength. It is through this rite of anointing that we are given the grace that will enable us to bear our sufferings bravely--even joyfully--, and we are given the grace that will strengthen and console us in the face of death, and finally, it grants us forgiveness of sins.

Holy Orders

Holy Orders is the sacrament through which men are given the power to carry out the sacred duties of deacons, priests, or bishops. It is the bishop who has the fullness of Orders (the fullness of the priesthood), and both priest and deacon have a sharing in the ordination of the bishop (the deacon has a lesser share). Both priest and deacon act in the bishop's name, whereas the bishop is an official teacher (the bishops are successors of the Apostles). A priest does not have the fullness of Orders; he cannot ordain anyone to the priesthood. So a priest and deacon are really servants of his bishop.

When a man is ordained to the priesthood, he is given the power to transubstantiate, that is, to change ordinary bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. A priest is one who offers the Sacrifice of the Mass. As we said earlier, the Mass is the sacrifice of the cross made present in the "now" whenever and wherever Mass is celebrated validly. On Calvary, the priest and the victim were identical. Christ was the priest who offered the sacrifice to the Father, and Christ was the victim (the Lamb of God) who was offered. If this is true, and if it is true that the Mass is the same sacrifice of Calvary, then it follows that the priest does not act in the place of Christ, but rather in persona Christi, that is, "in the person of Christ". In other words, when you and I attend an ordinary Mass, it is not the priest whose name you know who is offering the sacrifice, but Christ who offers the sacrifice. And the victim that he offers is Himself.


Matrimony is the sacrament through which a baptized man and a baptized woman join themselves in a one flesh union until death severs it. The matter of this sacrament is the bride and groom, and the form is the vows that are exchanged. As a sacrament, it is a source of divine grace that enables them to be loving and faithful spouses to one another and good parents to their children. Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is his Bride, and so matrimony is a sign of the love that Christ has for his Bride, the Church. One cannot naturally love one's spouse as Christ has loved the Church; we must be given the grace to do so. Matrimony channels the grace to enable the married to love one another with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom. He said that "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve..." (Mt 20, 28). And so if men have a duty to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (Eph 5, 25), then it is the role of the man not to be served by his wife, but to serve his wife throughout his married life.

Because marriage is a joining of male and female into one body, marriage is essentially a community of love and life--for life is generated as a result of the physical union of husband and wife. Love is essentially unitive (it unites). But genuine love is also effusive; it inevitably seeks to communicate goodness to another, to have another (the beloved) participate in the goodness that the lover enjoys. The love between husband and wife, if genuine and not selfish, will tend to love another human being into existence; for the couple will desire to communicate the goodness of their relationship to another human being, and this child will be the fruit of that love and a living witness and expression of their one flesh union.