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  • Fr. Daniel Okafor

Fr. Daniel's Corner / September 24, 2021

Sacrament and Sacramentum

Have you noticed that the word sacrament appears frequently in the Mass and in most Catholic books, gatherings, and prayers? Have you bothered to find out the meaning? I have intentionally asked some (if not most) of the confirmation candidates what the word sacrament means, and I can conclusively state that, on average, the term is vague to us. The following undertakes the task of informing us of a conceptual explanation.

The word sacrament is derived from the Latin ‘Sacramentum.’ For this reason, it would be advantageous to investigate this fundamental word. ‘Sacramentum’ has a lot to do with ‘sacrum’ and ‘sacrare.’ While ‘sacrum’ refers to a thing or a person which/who belongs to the gods and thus defended by the gods as their own; ‘sacrare’ indicates the act of making such a thing/person holy. When something acquires the qualification of belonging to the holy (sacrum), it has so much to do with the gods and temple. For this reason, also, such a thing/person stands in an opposition to the profane (mundane) which is outside the temple. ‘Mentum’ on the other hand refers to the means through which something is accomplished. Therefore, we can say that ‘sacramentum’ designates the means through which something is made holy or the means through the act of making holy ‘sacrare’ is accomplished. It may be expanded to include the thing made holy.

St. Augustine introduces a further understanding by incorporating the concept of ‘sacramentum’ into and within the sphere of signs. Here, sign means the visible sign that points to an invisible reality. However, it is not just merely a sign but a sacred sign. “The visible sacrifice is the sacrament, the sign of the invisible sacrifice” (St. Augustine, City of God, Bk X, cap.5). That is, something that is visible to the eyes and felt by the senses (for instance bread and wine, water, oil) and at the same time has a relationship of likeness to the spiritual grace and reality is what such a sign signifies. It is a holy thing which renders the human being holy, says Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, S. Th. III.q.60, a.2).

For sure, sacraments are instruments in the hands of God, the true and proper person who dispenses the sacramental graces. They are instruments at the disposition of God for the sanctification of man, and through these instruments the salvific efficacy of Christ’s passion is continued to be made available in history. It must be stated always that sacraments are not instruments of sanctification by their own power, but through the power of God.

Left alone, they are mere human actions: for instance: ablution with water, anointing with oil, imposition of hand, spoken words etc. Though they have the capacity of inciting unto religious feelings, they are naturally not salvific. But with the power of God, they acquire a power not possible to a created being. You also notice that the elements used in the celebration of sacraments correspond to human knowledge— things known to us. We see that God did not choose these instruments by chance, rather, he chose them to adequately respond to the human mode of knowing. It is by seeing these sensible realities and acts, we are then drawn to the knowledge of the spiritual and the interior grace and sanctification that we receive. Again, these sensible acts and signs (sacraments) bring man to the other knowledge of the fact that God alone saves. Grace/salvation is a gratuitous (free) gift of God out of love. Man does not render himself worthy of God’s love, but God renders man worthy of divine love and he who responds worthily will be loved and sanctified.

With this understanding, we know and believe that sacraments are signs and causes of grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church succinctly defines the sacraments as ‘efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us’ (CCC #1131). All the Sacraments have outward signs, including words, gestures, and objects like water and oil. This is very important for sacraments because it allows us to know when they are taking place.

Fast forward from this explanatory attempt, for a worthy and fruitful reception of the sacraments, moral worthiness of the recipient is necessary. It should be noted that a sacrament can have no impact if one has no faith in it or in the reality it symbolizes, or if he or she is morally unprepared for it. To be morally prepared for the reception of the sacrament is to remove every obstacle to its worthy and fruitful reception.

As you already know, there are seven sacraments categorized into the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation), the Sacraments of Healing (Anointing of the Sick and Reconciliation/Penance/Confession), and the Sacraments of Vocation (Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony).

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