Teaching the Sacraments: The Heart of the Matter

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“The Sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify” (Catechism of the Catholic, n. 1084).

The Seven Sacraments make up a central and unifying aspect of our Catholic Christian identity. In faith communities around the world, Catholics gather regularly to share sacramental rites in which they bless and adore God and encounter Christ in words and actions that give rhythm and expression to their lives of faith. As individuals, we tuck away our personal memories of each Sacrament as it is celebrated in our parish church and within our families.

Despite our familiarity with and personal attachment to the Sacraments, teaching them to others can be challenging. After all, there are seven unique Sacraments to review, and each one is marked by its own theology and liturgical celebration. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer dimensions of our teaching task. Fortunately, our textbooks give us the tools to accomplish this task.

Here is a simple idea for introducing or reviewing the Sacraments. Consider presenting the Sacraments by focusing on what we know is at the core of all of the Sacraments: the limitless and unconditional love of God for humankind. This is the heart of the matter.

The Power and Importance of Signs

The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Sacraments as “perceptible signs.”

Open your lesson about the Sacraments with a simple exercise about the use of familiar signs. You easily can alter this exercise to fit the age range of your students and their various abilities.

First, demonstrate several signs that are likely to be familiar. Ask students to identify signs such as “time out” (hands formed in the letter T), “peace” (index and middle fingers held in a V shape while the other two fingers are held down by the thumb), “quiet” (index finger over closed lips).

Next, have students draw other signs with which they are familiar, perhaps from school or around the community. You may need to offer a few suggestions such as signs that indicate “poison,” “no smoking,” “stop,” or “train crossing.” Allow time for students to share their drawings.

Finish this discussion about signs by presenting (or choose a volunteer to present) the American Sign Language sign for “I love you” (thumb, index finger, and pinky finger held up, other two fingers folded into the palm; see signingsavvy.com). This sign will be referenced later in your discussion.

Explore Signs Further

Talk with students about the reasons people use signs. Signs help us communicate with others. Signs make our messages clearer and easier to understand. People who have hearing or speech limitations use signs to communicate. Signs let us share information even when we need to remain silent. Signs give us important information that helps us when we travel and protects us from harm.

Have learners discuss these and other ways in which signs are important to us.

God’s Signs

As comfortable as they may be with familiar signs, your learners may not have given much thought to how God uses different things as signs. (For your own information and formation, review nos. 1113-1134 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, specifically no. 1123 and 1131).

Ask students to name examples from Scripture of situations in which God used signs to communicate with his people. Students might offer things like “a rainbow” (a sign of God’s covenant with his people, Genesis 9:14); “the parting of the sea” (a sign of God’s power, Exodus 14:22), “manna” (a sign of God’s care, Exodus 16:4-31), or the Passover (a sign of God’s liberating presence, Exodus 12).

Depending on the age of your learners, you may want to mention that God sent his Son Jesus as his most important sign. You might also pursue some of the signs that Jesus used to show he was the Messiah: multiplying loaves and fishes (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15), calming the storm (Mark 4:35-40), turning water into wine at Cana (John 2:1-11), raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45).

Conclude this part of the discussion by emphasizing that God continues to speak to us today through the Church and the Sacraments.


I Love You

In each Sacrament, God announces one simple, astounding message—something we all long to hear: “I love you.” No matter what else your students learn about each of the Sacraments, this reality stands at the heart of the matter.

Emphasize God’s love in the Sacraments as the heart of the matter by closing with a prayer involving the American Sign Language sign for “I love you.” With this kind of sending-forth moment, your students are prepared to share what they’ve learned with their families.


Lee Danesco holds a master of arts degree in teaching from Brown University. She has served as a DRE and a pastoral associate, and is a published author. Her first book, Planning a Youth Service Week, was published by Twenty-Third Publications in 2001. The Confident Catechist was published by Saint Mary’s Press in 2007.

This article was first published in Catechist magazine, December 2009.

Image Credit: Zolnierek/Shutter Stock 

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