What is a Sacrament?
The purpose of the sacraments is to make people holy, to build up the body of Christ, and finally, to give worship to God; but being signs, they also have a teaching function. The Latin word sacramentum means "a sign of the sacred." The Catholic Church identifies seven sacraments that were instituted by Jesus and have a unique role in giving God's grace to people. The Catholic Catechism says
The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. the visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.
Some sacraments are repeated many times, while others are performed only once in a person's life. Because the sacraments are so important, Catholic churches are required to keep careful records of most sacraments, especially those that are performed only once in a person's life.
For Catholics, the Sacrament of Baptism is the first step in a lifelong journey of commitment and discipleship. Catholic parents are expected to baptize their children shortly after they are born. Older children and adults who wish to be baptized normally go through months of preparation. If a person is baptized in a non-Catholic church, they are not baptized again if they become Catholic.
The Eucharist, or Communion, is the central part of every Mass in a Catholic church. The Catholic Church believes that the bread and wine blessed by a priest in communion become the body and blood of Jesus. Receiving Christ's Body and Blood, we also are nourished spiritually and brought closer to God. Before joining in communion, a person should understand and accept that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, so communion is not typically given to young children or non-Catholics. Although most Catholics receive the Eucharist many times, "First Communion" is an important milestone. Catholic children in the US and Canada normally receive First Communion around second grade. People who become Catholic after this age receive First Communion when they are received into the Catholic Church.
Confirmation is a Catholic Sacrament which is most often associated with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and a deepening of baptismal gifts. Anyone who is baptized can be confirmed, but in the US children normally prepare for confirmation around the age of 12-14, and Confirmation is understood as a personal choice marking the beginning of mature faith. Confirmation is normally celebrated by a bishop, but adults who join the Catholic church are confirmed immediately after they are baptized.
The Catholic sacrament of Marriage is distinct from a legal marriage. A sacramental marriage is a lifelong commitment made between a man and a woman who have both been baptized and is not ended by legal divorce. Catholics are expected to be married in a Catholic church by a priest or deacon, but any two baptized Christians who make a lifelong commitment are sacramentally married, even if they are not Catholic. A marriage can be annulled by proper church authorities if there is evidence that one of the people participating was unable or unwilling to make a lifelong commitment, and a person whose marriage was annulled can marry.
In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, or Ordination, a person is ordained as a deacon, priest, or bishop. Ordination bestows spiritual gifts on the recipient, including the ability to celebrate the sacraments.
The Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Penance, or Penance and Reconciliation) is still popularly called "confession." A person can celebrate this sacrament many times in a lifetime. The name identifies Reconciliation as a sacrament that reconciles a person to God. Because a person who participates in Reconciliation discusses their sins, there is an absolute right of privacy. Thus the sacrament of Reconciliation is not recorded in any way. Parishes are permitted to note that children have been prepared to celebrate Reconciliation.
The Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, formerly known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction, is a ritual of healing appropriate not only for physical but also for mental and spiritual sickness. While people are commonly anointed shortly before death, Anointing of the Sick is given for anyone facing a serious illness or surgery even if they are not at serious risk of death. A person can receive Anointing many times through their life and so it is not formally recorded.
What is Canon Law?
Canon Law is the name for the set of rules that govern the Catholic Church. Although some laws are ancient, the current revision of the Code of Canon Law was released in 1983. In addition to setting laws that apply to the entire church around the world, canon law establishes areas where regional conferences or individual bishops can make decisions that fit their local area. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has made rules called Complementary Norms that apply to Catholic churches in the United States.
Canon law dictates that baptism MUST be documented. Canon 877, Section 1 states that "The parish priest of the place in which the baptism was conferred must carefully and without delay record in the register of baptism the names of the baptized, the minister, the parents, the sponsors and, if there were such, the witnesses, and the place and date of baptism. He must also enter the date and place of birth."
Canon 958, Section 1 states "The parish priest, as well as the rector of a church or other pious place in which Mass offerings are usually received, is to have a special book in which he is accurately to record the number, the intention and the offering of the Masses to be celebrated, and the fact of their celebration."
There are other canons such as 1054 and 1121 that refer to good order keeping of the Sacraments. Every parish is required by the law of he church that the sacraments must be tracked and kept in good order.
Parishes are also expected to document dates of first communion, confirmation, and marriage. USCCB guidelines state that no parish may keep a register for the reception of first penance or any type of reception of the Sacrament of Penance. This is a violation of the Seal of Confession for the cleric and the penitent. Without exception, no certificates are to be issued for the Sacrament of Penance for the same reason. Sacramental preparation for First Penance may be tracked.
Helping to provide our Catholic friends an avenue to track the sacraments in accordance with the laws they follow is an important part of our business at Parishsoft and finding the best way to do so is of utmost importance.
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