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  • Amy MacKinnon

How to Teach the Sacraments

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

Why are the sacraments important?

That’s always the first question to ask, especially when you’re teaching. So why are they?

The sacraments put us into direct contact with God, in a way that nothing else does.

Of course there are many ways that we can be in contact with God—every time we pray we’re in contact with Him. And of course God gives us the grace to do many things, but not the same way that He does in the sacraments.

In the sacraments, we receive sanctifying grace, and God dwells within us.

When you’re teaching someone about the sacraments, then you already understand that they’re important, but how do you explain why?

Did you ever explain something to someone else, and then they:

  • Paused

  • Looked up or away

  • Said, “OHHhhhh…..”

Do you know what that is?

That’s when the other person makes some connection or has an insight that you helped him to make, and then God took over.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both called that, “wonder”

That other person has had an encounter with God in some way. You might have:

  • Helped him to overcome an obstacle

  • Brought clarity to confusion

  • Given him brand new information

In any of those cases, you prepared the soil, and helped that other person to have an encounter with Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Itself: that’s God.

Whenever we teach we're giving students information, but the heart of what we’re doing is helping others to overcome obstacles to faith by showing them how to discover and discern:

  • What is true

  • What is good

  • What is beautiful

All three of those—the true, the good, and the beautiful—are attributes of God. That’s why St. Ambrose said that wherever truth is found, God is present. The truth may be mixed in with errors or confusion, making it harder to see, but this is why we need to learn how to see more clearly by making distinctions.

Every lie contains at least a kernel of truth

That’s why we believe lies that people tell us. We believe the part that’s true—no matter how small it is—and accept the lie that accompanies that truth.

Evil has some part that is good

The very fact that a thing exists is good, because God is Existence itself (“I AM”) so in some way everything that exists reflects God. Evil is an absence or failure of the good, but the very fact that something exists is good, so when that thing is distorted by evil, there is still some good. I know, this is really abstract! That’s why good stories can be helpful when we try to understand that!

Ugliness has some relation to beauty

Ugliness is a distortion of beauty, so we only know what’s ugly when we know what is beautiful. Beauty is not the same thing as being pretty, it’s one of God’s attributes, but ugliness is partly a distortion or failure to be beautiful.

What’s true, good, and beautiful becomes easier to understand when we make comparisons and distinctions between what they are and what they are not, and that’s part of how we teach—no matter what we’re teaching.

What are the Sacraments and How do you Teach them?
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The Role of a Teacher is to Help Students See God More Clearly

Because when we’re teaching them to recognize the truth, understand the good, and appreciate the beautiful—in anything—we’re showing them some of the ways that God is present in the world, or that things in the world point to God.

When I was a director of religious education, part of the job meant trying to find people who would teach the kids.

The two biggest fears that people had about teaching the Faith were:

  • They wouldn’t be able to answer questions

  • They wouldn’t be able to manage behavior problems in class

They could present the information in the books they used and give a basic explanation, but knowing that kids often ask bigger questions made them nervous. The reason: they hadn’t taught before, and didn’t know everything.

When I say it like that, it’s always obvious that no one else knows everything either, because only God knows everything (managing behavior in classrooms is its own issue, so I’m not going into that here).

One of the most important topics that we teach, is the sacraments. That's why I want to help you learn more about them and how to teach them to anyone. The system I'll show you can be used to teach people of any age, and from beginners to more advanced levels.

Teaching the Sacraments

What I will show you here is a quick overview of how I teach the sacraments. I’ll cover:

  • What is a sacrament

  • Why are the 7 sacraments important

  • The 7 Steps I use for Teaching the Sacraments

What is a Sacrament?

There are a lot of ways that a sacrament can be described, and another word for sacrament is “mystery.”

“Sacrament” comes from the Latin, sacramentum, and “mystery” comes from the Greek, mysterion.

“Sacrament” points to the sign value of the invisible mystery, because each sacrament requires both the proper form and matter in order to symbolize the effect of the grace from that sacrament on our souls.

“Mystery” points to the invisible reality of the grace God gives us in and through each of the sacraments.

Both are true of course, so your students should understand both of those ideas when they learn about the sacraments.

What are the Seven Sacraments?

During the 1500s, Martin Luther didn’t just challenge the Catholic Church’s teaching on the effects from the Fall of Adam and Eve; he also challenged the teaching on grace and the sacraments. He believed that baptism was a sacrament, but because he defined grace very differently, his explanation of the effects of a sacrament is very different from what had been taught before.

In defense of the sacraments, the Council of Trent affirmed that there are 7, and exactly 7, sacraments—not just the 1 (baptism) that Luther claimed.

Who created the sacraments?

The Church didn’t just make them up, and they’re definitely not empty rituals. Every one of the 7 sacraments was instituted by Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry.

Not after the Resurrection

Not later through the Church

Directly by Our Lord while He walked the earth

Affirmation of that comes from the Fourth Lateran Council, so it’s a requirement of faith for Catholics to believe that.

Why are the 7 Sacraments Important?

Because they put us into direct contact with God:

  • They give us grace

  • They unite us with Him while we’re still on earth

  • They bring us to Heaven

And yes, since the sacraments were instituted by Christ, we can find the 7 sacraments in the Bible!

They aren’t always as obvious and easy to find as Jesus talking about baptism and the Eucharist, but they are there. Some of them we know because the Apostles put them into practice and mention them in the Bible.

They don’t use the word “sacrament” because that comes from the Latin, sacramentum, but the evidence for the Apostles putting them into practice is there.

So how do you teach the sacraments? Jesus taught us how to teach about baptism in John 1, and the Eucharist in John 5-6, and 1 Peter 3 has a brief teaching on baptism using the model Jesus used for teaching the Eucharist in John 5-6.

So that’s the foundation of the model that I use, and was taught to use, but since we live after the time that Jesus instituted them, they need a little more explanation.

I break that down into 7 steps.

The 7 Steps I Use for Teaching the Sacraments

This method works for any age, I just modify it based on the students. Here are the basic steps:

1. Begin with Genesis

2. Old Testament references

3. How it was instituted by God

4. New Testament references

5. Grace from the sacrament

6. How it helps us get to Heaven

7. How we live it today

First, Start with Genesis

This has 2 parts. The first is the Fall, and why we need a savior. The second is either the image of the sacrament in creation and/or the Fall, or the need for it to heal wounds from the Fall.

Second, Show where they are prefigured in the Old Testament

In Genesis 3:15, God promised that He would send a Savior. Throughout the Old Testament, He shows His people:

  • Reminders that He will send a Savior

  • What that Savior will do

  • How to recognize that Savior

Third, Instituted by God

I do two things with this.

For practicing Catholics, I make sure to mention both the Church Councils of Lateran IV (the sacraments were instituted by Christ) and Trent (there are 7 sacraments).

For young children I don’t mention the councils. I may for older children and adults, but it depends on their level of knowledge.

I definitely emphasize that the sacraments are God’s idea and that He was the one to institute them; they weren’t started by any human person.

Fourth, New Testament References

The entire New Testament is used for this step.

There are two things to emphasize:

  1. Where it was instituted by Jesus

  2. How it was practiced by the Apostles

The second step is important because it shows that the Apostles, who learned directly from Jesus, were doing what He instructed them to do.

Fifth, Grace

Each sacrament gives both sanctifying grace, which restores (or bestows) the life of God within us, and sacramental grace, which gives us the grace we need to reach the “end” of the sacrament.

For example, baptism is the sacrament that opens the Gate of Heaven to us, which had been closed at the Fall in Genesis 3. So the “end” or “goal” of the sacrament of baptism is to bring us to Heaven, which is why we receive the grace to never commit a mortal sin after receiving that sacrament.

Sixth, Ends in Heaven

All of the sacraments give us sanctifying grace, so each of them helps us to get there. The reason God instituted the sacraments is so that we can go to Heaven.

Seventh, How We Live it Today

This is where I mention the requirements for each of the sacraments. That includes any preparation that’s needed, and the conditions required to validly receive it.

Blog Series: Teaching Grace, the Sacraments, and the Church

How to Teach the Sacraments (this post)

How to Teach the Sacrament of Marriage

How to Teach the Sacrament of Holy Orders

How to Teach the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick

How to Teach About the Catholic Church

How to Teach About Sacramentals

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