Next to the determination of the faith, the greatest power of the Church lay in the administration of the sacraments—ceremonies symbolizing the conferment of divine grace. “In no religion,” said St. Augustine, “can men be held together unless they are united in some sort of fellowship through visible symbols or sacraments.”56 Sacramentum was applied in the fourth century to almost anything sacred—to baptism, the cross, prayer; in the fifth century Augustine applied it to the celebration of Easter; in the seventh century Isidore of Seville restricted it to baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist. In the twelfth century the sacraments were finally fixed at seven: baptism, confirmation, penance, the Eucharist, matrimony, holy orders, and extreme unction. Minor ceremonies conferring divine grace—like sprinkling with holy water, or the sign of the cross—were distinguished as “sacramentals.”

The most vital sacrament was baptism. It had two functions: to remove the stain of original sin, and, by this new birth, to formally receive the individual into the Christian fold. At this ceremony the parents were expected to give the child the name of a saint who was to be its patron, model, and protector; this was its “Christian name.” By the ninth century the early Christian method of baptism by total immersion had been gradually replaced by aspersion—sprinkling—as less dangerous to health in northern climes. Any priest—or, in emergency, any Christian—could confer baptism. The old custom of deferring baptism to the later years of life had now been replaced by infant baptism. In some congregations, especially in Italy, a special chapel, the baptistery, was constructed for this sacrament.

In the Eastern Church the sacraments of confirmation and Eucharist were conferred immediately after baptism; in the Western Church the age of confirmation was gradually postponed to the seventh year, in order that the child might learn the essentials of the Christian faith. It was administered only by a bishop, with a “laying on of hands,” a prayer that the Holy Ghost would enter the candidate, an anointing of the forehead with chrism, and a slight blow on the cheek; so, as in the dubbing of a knight, the young Christian was confirmed in his faith, and was sworn by implication into all the rights and duties of a Christian.

More important was the sacrament of penance. If the doctrines of the Church inculcated a sense of sin, she offered means of periodically cleansing the soul by confessing one’s sins to a priest and performing the assigned penances. According to the Gospel (Matt. xvi, 19; xviii, 18), Christ had forgiven sins, and had endowed the apostles with a similar power to “bind and loose.” This power, said the Church, had descended by apostolic succession from the apostles to the early bishops, from Peter to the popes; and in the twelfth century the “power of the keys” was extended by bishops to the priests. The public confession practiced in primitive Christianity had been replaced in the fourth century by private confession, to spare embarrassment to dignitaries, but public confession survived in some heretical sects, and a public penance might be imposed for such monstrous crimes as the massacre of Thessalonica or the murder of Becket. The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) made annual confession and communion a solemn obligation, whose neglect was to exclude the offender from church services and Christian burial. To encourage and protect the penitent a “seal” was placed upon every private confession: no priest was allowed to reveal what had been so confessed. From the eighth century onward “Penitentials” were published, prescribing canonical (ecclesiastically authorized) penances for each sin-prayers, fasts, pilgrimage, almsgiving, or other works of piety or charity.

“This wondrous institution,” as Leibniz called the sacrament of penance,57 had many good effects. It gave the penitent relief from secret and neurotic broodings of remorse; it allowed the priest to improve by counsel and warnings the moral and physical health of his flock; it comforted the sinner with the hope of reform; it served, said the skeptical Voltaire, as a restraint upon crime;58 “auricular confession,” said Goethe, “should never have been taken from mankind.”59 There were some bad effects. Sometimes the institution was used for political purposes, as when priests refused absolution to those who sided with the emperors against the popes;60 occasionally it was used as a means of inquisition, as when St. Charles Borromeo (1538–84), Archbishop of Milan, instructed his priests to demand of penitents the names of any heretics or suspects known to them;61 and some simple souls mistook absolution as license to sin again. As the fervor of faith cooled, the severe canonical penances tempted penitents to lie, and priests were permitted to substitute lighter penalties, usually some charitable contribution to a cause approved by the Church. From these “commutations” grew indulgences.

An indulgence was not a license to commit sin, but a partial or plenary exemption, granted by the Church, from some or all of the purgatorial punishment merited by earthly sin. Absolution in confession removed from sin the guilt that would have condemned the sinner to hell, but it did not absolve him from the “temporal” punishment due to his sin. Only a small minority of Christians completely atoned on earth for their sins; the balance of atonement would be exacted in purgatory. The Church claimed the right to remit such punishments by transmitting to any Christian penitent who performed stipulated works of piety or charity a fraction of the rich treasury of grace earned by Christ’s sufferings and death, and by saints whose merits outweighed their sins. Indulgences had been granted as far back as the ninth century; some were given in the eleventh century to pilgrims visiting sacred shrines; the first plenary indulgence was that which Urban II offered in 1095 to those who would join the First Crusade. From these uses the custom arose of giving indulgences for repeating certain prayers, attending special religious services, building bridges, roads, churches, or hospitals, clearing forests or draining swamps, contributing to a crusade, to an ecclesiastical institution, to a Church jubilee, to a Christian war…. The system was put to many good uses, but it opened doors to human cupidity. The Church commissioned certain ecclesiastics, usually friars, as quaestiarii to raise funds by offering indulgences in return for gifts, repentance, and prayer. These solicitors—whom the English called “pardoners”—developed a competitive zeal that scandalized many Christians; they exhibited real or false relics to stimulate contributions; and they kept for themselves a due or undue part of their receipts. The Church made several efforts to reduce these abuses. The Fourth Lateran Council ordered bishops to warn the faithful against false relics and forged credentials; it ended the right of abbots, and limited that of bishops, to issue indulgences; and it called upon all ecclesiastics to exercise moderation in their zeal for the new device. In 1261 the Council of Mainz denounced many quaestiarii as wicked liars, who displayed the stray bones of men or beasts as those of saints, trained themselves to weep on order, and offered purgatorial bargains for a maximum of coin and a minimum of prayer.62 Similar condemnations were issued by church councils at Vienne (1311) and Ravenna (1317).63 The abuses continued.

Next to baptism the most vital sacrament was the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. The Church took literally the words ascribed to Christ at the Last Supper: of the bread, “this is my body”; and of the wine, “this is my blood.” The main feature of the Mass was the “transubstantiation” of wafers of bread and a chalice of wine into the body and blood of Christ by the miraculous power of the priest; and the original purpose of the Mass was to allow the faithful to partake of the “body and blood, soul and divinity,” of the Second Person of the Triune God by eating the consecrated Host and drinking the consecrated wine. As the drinking of the transubstantiated wine risked spilling the blood of Christ, the custom arose in the twelfth century of communicating through taking only the Host; and when some conservatives (whose views were later adopted by the Hussites of Bohemia) demanded communion in both forms to make sure that they received the blood as well as the body of the Lord, theologians explained that the blood of Christ was “concomitant” with His body in the bread, and His body was “concomitant” with His blood in the wine.64 A thousand marvels were told of the power of the consecrated Host to cast out devils, cure disease, stop fires, and detect perjury by choking liars.65Every Christian was required to communicate at least once a year; and the First Communion of the young Christian was made an occasion of solemn pageantry and happy celebration.

The doctrine of the Real Presence developed slowly; its first official formulation was by the Council of Nicaea in 787. In 855 a French Benedictine monk, Ratramnus, taught that the consecrated bread and wine were only spiritually, not carnally, the body and blood of Christ. About 1045 Berengar, Archdeacon of Tours, questioned the reality of transubstantiation; he was excommunicated; and Lanfranc, Abbot of Bec, wrote a reply to him (1063), stating the orthodox doctrine:

We believe that the earthly substance … is, by the ineffable, incomprehensible … operation of heavenly power, converted into the essence of the Lord’s body, while the appearance, and certain other qualities, of the same realities remain behind, in order that men should be spared the shock of perceiving raw and bloody things, and that believers should receive the fuller rewards of faith. Yet at the same time the same body of the Lord is in heaven … inviolate, entire, without contamination or injury.66

The doctrine was proclaimed as an essential dogma of the Church by the Lateran Council of 1215; and the Council of Trent in 1560 added that every particle of the consecrated wafer, no matter how broken, contains the whole body, blood, and soul of Jesus Christ. Thus one of the oldest ceremonies of primitive religion—the eating of the god—is widely practiced and revered in European and American civilization today.

By making matrimony a sacrament, a sacred vow, the Church immensely raised the dignity and permanence of the marriage bond. In the sacrament of holy orders the bishop conferred upon the new priest some of the spiritual powers inherited from the apostles and presumably given to these by God Himself in the person of Christ. And in the final sacrament—extreme unction —the priest heard the confession of the dying Christian, gave him the absolution that saved him from hell, and anointed his members so that they might be cleansed of sin and fit for resurrection before his Judge. His survivors gave him Christian burial instead of pagan cremation, because the Church held that the body too would rise from the dead. They wrapped him in his shroud, placed a coin in his coffin as if for Charon’s ferriage,66a and bore him to his grave with solemn and costly ceremony. Mourners might be hired to weep and wail; the relatives put on black garments for a year; and no one could tell, from grief so long sustained, that a contrite heart and a ministering priest had won for the departed the pledge of paradise.

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