I call this week’s post “historical thought starters.” I would like to help people think about how much the understanding and practice of sacraments has changed over the past two thousand years. Change is a fact of life…even in the church. Today therefore a few historical observations. All seven sacraments will be explored in more detail between now and Easter.

Sacraments of course are not just a Catholic concern. Sacraments are Christian realities. 


The Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 does state that the seven sacraments were instituted by Christ. This understanding was carved in stone by the sixteenth century Council of Trent. Historically speaking, however, there is no direct evidence that Jesus of Nazareth ever created a well-defined and complete set of seven sacramental rituals such as appeared in the church many years after his death and resurrection


The earliest canonical writings, the letters of Paul the Apostle (5 – 64 CE) mention some ritual practices of the first followers of Jesus. Most notably are the immersion of converts in water (baptism) and the sharing of a commemorative meal “The Lord’s Supper.” 


The Synoptic Gospels describe Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, during which Jesus instructs them to continue the practice in his memory, which was the model for the early Christian Lord’s Supper. An agape (“love feast”) was a  communal meal shared among early Christians. The Eucharist was usually part of the agape. At some point however, probably between the latter part of the 1st century and 250 CE, the two became separate.

In 1 Corinthians 11:34, for instance, Paul asks the richer people to eat their meals at home. By doing this, Paul eliminated the meal annoyances and occasional drunkenness problems which had become problematic in some Corinthian agape gatherings. Inequality and partisan discrimination were big problems in the quite diverse Corinthian community. Paul’s exhortation about love in I Corinthians 13 makes very understandable sense here.  


The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23) mention the ritual immersion practiced by John the Baptizer in which Jesus himself participated. Matthew 29:18–20 also portrays the risen Lord, in a post-Resurrection narrative, commanding his disciples to baptize using a Trinitarian formula.The words came probably not from the historic Jesus, biblical scholars suggest, but from early church practice around the year 80 CE. 


The Acts of Apostles enlarges the scriptural picture of the early church with some references to the Lord’s Supper and a number of stories about baptisms. Acts also mentions another ritual action, the laying on of hands, which in this context usually results in charismatic activities such as speaking in tongues, and which is sometimes described as “receiving the Holy Spirit.” See for instance Acts 2:4: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”


The laying on of hands was an action mentioned numerous times in the Hebrew Scriptures. It involved placing one or both hands palms down on the top of another person’s head, usually while saying a prayer or blessing. It was a common practice used by parents blessing their children. Jacob in the book of Genesis, for instance, blesses his two grandsons by laying his hands on their heads (Genesis 48:14). The laying on of hands was also used to bless someone for ministry. In Numbers, the people of Israel lay hands on the Levites to dedicate them to the Lord’s service (Numbers 8:9-10). Moses laid hands on Joshua as his successor in leadership (Numbers 27:18-23; Deuteronomy 34:9). 


Jesus followed the laying on of hands tradition. His most common practice in healing was touch, often described as “laying his hands on” the one to be healed (Matthew 9:18; Mark 5:23; 6:5; 7:32; 8:22–25; Luke 13:13). Jesus also “lays his hands” on the little children who come to him, to bless them (Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:16). Only centuries later was the laying on of hands strictly understood as a uniquely Christian “ordination ritual.”


Confirmation emerged from baptism as a separate ritual in the fourth century, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.


In the New Testament there is no description of a ritual or ceremony associated with penance or reconciliation. Even a quick reading of the Gospels, however, shows that Jesus was greatly concerned with the forgiveness of sins and the reconciling of sinners. And Jesus clearly told his followers to forgive sinners. See Matthew 6:14-15, for example.


Between the eighth and ninth centuries, altar placement and worship space arrangements in church buildings changed. The celebrant no longer faced the people but faced the apse, when celebrating Mass. This practice was first adopted in the basilicas of Rome and then became common practice across Europe. 

What was lost was the sense that the congregation was the Body of Christ. Mass became the celebrant’s ritual and not a community liturgy. The celebrant “said Mass.” The congregation watched everything from some distance, often praying in their own way with their own devotions. Where present, stained glass windows were a source of devotion.  If the congregation made too much noise and the celebrant found them disturbing, bells were rung to keep the people quiet.

Moving way beyond the early Christian understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a community celebration and sharing of and in the presence of Christ, the Eucharist, especially around the thirteenth century, began to be understood and ritualized in a very narrow way. It became not so much a sacrament to be received but a sacrament to be venerated and adored. 

If they received communion at all, most medieval people received communion just once a year. The purpose of the Mass became to consecrate and preserve the Eucharist wafer so that it could be venerated and adored. The celebrant, with his back to the congregation of course, raised the consecrated wafer, the Host, above his head so that it became visible to all in the congregation. Often holding it for a longer time. Some people only came to church when the Host was about to be elevated. So that people could come into the church, for the short time necessary to see the elevation of the Host, the ringing of an announcement bell from the church tower was introduced. 

Since some celebrants, now called “priests,” found it difficult, wearing heavy vestments to raise the Host for a long time, altar servers lifted the priest’s ornate chasuble and supported his elbows to help secure the maximum elevation. Medieval laity wanted to adore Christ at the elevation of the consecrated bread during Mass. Many people, in fact, left Mass immediately following the elevation and never thought about receiving communion.

Monstrances, ornate display cases, were created to display the consecrated Host outside of Mass. They were first created in response to the Feast of Corpus Christi (i.e. the Feast of the Body of Christ) established in 1263. The feast of Corpus Christi was proposed by Thomas Aquinas (1225 to 1274), Doctor of the Church, to Pope Urban IV (1195 to 1264) in order to create a feast focused solely on venerating the Holy Eucharist. Aquinas wrote special hymns for the occasion. The monstrances were placed on altars and enabled the faithful to see, venerate, and adore the consecrated Host. They were also carried in processions. 

Unfortunately, the medieval Eucharistic Body of Christ rituals ignored the biblical understanding of the Body of Christ as, first of all, the community of believers. Recall, for instance, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:27: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” And of course we have the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” And we have, for example, the wonderful words of Jesus in John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”


Up until the eighth century CE, anointing the sick was a widespread if not uniform practice. It was done by Christian people for their relatives, by men and women with a reputation for healing, and by monks, women religious, and ordained ministers. Especially noteworthy, however, is the fact that anointing of the sick was primarily a lay practice.


I will explore this in more detail on March 31. The thought starter for today: The first official declaration that marriage is a sacrament was made in 1184 at the Council of Verona. However, it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in 1563 that marriage was officially deemed one of the seven sacraments.


This is a complex history which I will explore on April 7. The historical Jesus did not ordain anyone at the Last Supper. Ordination began not as a way to pass on “sacred power to consecrate the Eucharist” but as a form of quality control – a way to assure communities that their leaders were competent and people of genuine and solid faith. Today historical theologians would say that we have no direct evidence of ordinations during the first three centuries of Christianity.


Before the thirteenth century, there was no talk of just seven sacraments, because Christians had a variety of rituals and symbols. By the end of the thirteenth century, however, Catholic discussion of sacraments was limited to the familiar seven. Prior to the thirteenth century, however, church practices and Christian beliefs were far from uniform and far from what they would later become. 


What is less well known in fact is that for centuries women had been ordained as deacons and abbesses, and even as presbyters and bishops. This was certainly the case until the 12th century. Gary Macy’s book is very helpful here: The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West. What Macy, professor at Santa Clara University, points out is that references to the ordination of women exist in papal, episcopal, and theological documents of the time; and the rites for these ordinations have survived. 

Not everyone was comfortable with accounts of ordained medieval women. I suggest that when the institutional historians were male and theologians were male, it was easy and convenient for the men in leadership positions to declare findings like Gary Macy’s a “misinterpretation.” As Gary Macy once said: “This is a history that has been deliberately forgotten, intentionally marginalized, and, not infrequently, creatively explained away.”


Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and the other reformers rejected the ritual sacramentality of medieval Catholicism. Using the New Testament they acknowledged baptism and Eucharist, which are both explicitly mentioned in the scriptures, as genuine sacraments. But they regarded the other five as ecclesiastical inventions.


In response to Luther and the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent, meeting for twenty-five sessions between 13 December 1545 and 4 December 1563, initiated a Catholic Counter-Reformation. The greatest weight in the Council’s decrees was given to the seven sacraments, in some detail, refuting the claims of the Protestant Reformers. The bishops insisted on the numbering of the sacraments as seven and that all seven were instituted by Jesus Christ.


It is important for us today to have a clearer sense of the evolution of sacramental rituals. But that is not enough. Sacramental actions today need to regain their dynamism. 

We need better understandings for sure. But changes in ritual structure and regulations are absolutely essential. Sacraments are not just appropriate rituals for various stages of life. As my friend Joseph Martos so often said and wrote, they are “doors to the Sacred.” Today those doors need to be opened wide. People today are hungry and searching for that taste of the Divine. It is truly there of course.

Next week, we look at Baptism and Confirmation.

  • Jack

8 thoughts on “Sacraments – Historical Thought Starters

  1. The order in which the Sacraments are carried out, and the ages at which they customarily happen is also interesting and can vary over time and between different cultures. Many Catholics seem not to know this.

    I lived in England till the age of 8 and had made my ‘First Confession’ aged 6 which had to be done before we could proceed to ‘First Communion’. In England in the late 1960s it was important to be cleansed from sin before participating fully in the Eucharist for the first time.

    At the age of 8 I moved to Belgium and went to a Roman Catholic American/International school. There, my classmates had already made their ‘First Communion’ however they were only now preparing for ‘The Sacrament of Reconciliation’. I had to go to the catechism classes, even though I had already received the sacrament a couple of years previously.

    What I found was truly enlightening – the American version of the sacrament in the early 1970s seemed to be focussed on reconciliation, and was received some time after First Communion. It seemed to me that Reconciliation was a whole different ball game from Confession. Reconciliation focussed on putting things right between myself and others, and myself and Jesus/God. Confession in England had taught me to focus on a list of different types of sin and minor wrongdoings (sometimes made up in the panic of not remembering what to say), and required being ashamed and self-flagelatory about my failings as a person.

    When I was a Catechist in England in the 1990s/2000s it was still Confession first, then First Communion, but the emphasis had thankfully changed to become much more like the 1970s American vision of making things right rather than being shamed.

    Church teachings and practise vary, both through different cultures at the same time, and over time itself.
    Thank you Jack for reminding us of that.

  2. Outstanding, Jack! “People today are hungry and searching for that taste of the Divine.” Imagine if we had a church who cared about satisfying that yearning. Perhaps we already do and I don’t know about it. But I know the RCC does not and that your sage and learned words will go unheeded.

  3. Jack, this has whetted my appetite for more. I have always understood the sacraments to be a physical manifestation of a personal encounter with God but I sense that there is much “good stuff” to come. (I laughed when you described the purpose of the bells in the medieval church because our diocese has returned to the practice of ringing the bells ala 1950s. I think it is intended to be reverent but your description is much more practical: stop the noise or time to come to church!) I am looking forward to an enriched Lenten experience, thanks to you!

  4. Looking forward to all of your messages, but especially your reflection on Holy Orders. So many implications for women, those who have married, and those who have entered alternative life styles.

  5. Jack,
    One of my readers replied to your 1st essay on sacraments: “One of the heresies of the writer is that he thinks the Council of Trent could be wrong. It’s modernism.” Jerry

    1. Thanks Jerry

      All councilor statements are provisional. That is simply a fact of life. To deny that is indeed a great heresy. It is not modernism but contemporary reality.

      Happy Easter!


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