When parents hug their children, for example, the visible reality we see is the hug. The invisible reality the hug conveys is love. We cannot “see” the love the hug expresses, though sometimes we can see its nurturing effect in the child.
The visible reality we see in the Sacraments is their outward expression, the form they take, and the way in which they are administered and received. The invisible reality we cannot “see” is God’s grace, his gracious initiative in redeeming us through the death and Resurrection of his Son. His initiative is called grace because it is the free and loving gift by which he offers people a share in his life, and shows us his favor and will for our salvation. Our response to the grace of God’s initiative is itself a grace or gift from God by which we can imitate Christ in our daily lives.
The saving words and deeds of Jesus Christ are the foundation of what he would communicate in the Sacraments through the ministers of the Church. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church recognizes the existence of Seven Sacraments instituted by the Lord.
They are grouped together in the following way:
“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us” through the work of the Holy Spirit.
First of all, Sacraments are efficacious signs: that is, they are effective. In human life, signs and symbols are found everywhere. Because we are both body and spirit, we express our inner selves through visible signs and symbols. We use them to communicate with each other in speech, gestures, and deeds. Sacramental signs are different in the sense that Christ uses them to confer his life and grace. When these sacramental signs are celebrated, they reveal and make present the reality they signify. They are efficacious, that is, effective, because Jesus Christ is at work in them. “It is he who baptizes, he who acts in the sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies” (CCC, no. 1127). As we reflect on the individual Sacraments in later chapters of this Catechism, we will see that each Sacrament brings with it some particular grace.
Second, Christ instituted the Sacraments. “Adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus…of the Fathers,” we profess that “the sacraments of the new law were…all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord” (CCC, no. 1114, citing the Council of Trent: DS 1600-1601).
Third, Jesus entrusted the Sacraments to the Church. By Christ’s will, the Church oversees and celebrates the Sacraments. Throughout his earthly life, Christ’s words and deeds anticipated the power of his Paschal Mystery. Sacraments confer the grace that comes forth from Jesus Christ and that appears in the life of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Fourth, the Sacraments transmit divine life. Our share in this life is God’s grace, his gift to us. In the Sacraments, we encounter Jesus Christ. The Spirit heals us and draws us closer to Christ and makes us partakers in the life of the Holy Trinity. Depending on our responsiveness to the grace of each Sacrament, our loving union with Jesus can increase throughout our journey of faith. Fruitful reception of the Sacraments presupposes the faith of the one who receives them. This faith is preceded by the faith of the Church (cf. CCC, no. 1124). We grow in holiness, which is both personal and communal—a matter of personal sanctity and of unity with the mission and holiness of the Church.
Jesus gave us the Sacraments to call us to worship God, to build up the Church, to deepen our faith, to show us how to pray, to connect us with the living Tradition of the Church, and to sanctify us. While God works primarily through the Sacraments, he also touches us through the community of the Church, through the lives of holy people, through prayer, spirituality, and acts of love. But “for believers, the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation…The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers of the divine nature” (CCC, no. 1129).