Sacraments in the Catholic Church are defined as both the symbol of the thing and the thing itself. There are seven sacraments. The sacraments are different blessings, vows and activities that are considered most holy and sacred. Participating in the different sacraments is meant to bring someone closer to God.
The seven sacraments are baptism, Eucharist or Holy Communion, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick or Last Rites. Most practicing Catholics will not participate in all of the sacraments. For example, taking Holy Orders essentially precludes marriage.
Last Rites is often thought of as prayers before a Catholic dies, however, the sacrament is actually termed Anointing of the Sick. A person may receive this sacrament more than once, if he or she is ill and recovers. Not all Catholics will receive Anointing of the Sick, and this is one of the sacraments that causes confusion. Dying without Last Rites does not mean one is barred from heaven.
Instead this sacrament blesses the person and calls on the healing powers of Christ. It is also meant to comfort those who are ill and their families by reminding all present that they have more than a physical body, and that life in one form or another is eternal through the love of Jesus Christ.
The first of the sacraments normally received, however, is baptism. This usually occurs within a few months of a baby being born. The baptism for a newborn is meant to welcome the child into the Catholic Church, and also is a promise that the child will be raised as a Catholic. It is no longer believed that unbaptized children are not welcome in heaven.
Much emphasis in baptism used to be placed on the rinsing away of original sin, or casting out potential evils in a child. Now more emphasis in the sacrament is based on a commitment to welcoming the child into the church. The same holds for adults who were not baptized as children. This is a time to officially become part of the church.
For a baptized child, Eucharist and Reconciliation are sacraments often received together when a child reaches the age of seven or eight. Reconciliation is usually the first sacrament taken. This is known to most of the world as confession.
A person who makes a heartfelt confession to a priest is absolved of sins committed. Once a heartfelt confession is made, a person has a clean slate. Confession used to be more common in the US, and now has waned in popularity.
Holy communion or Eucharist occurs when people take the bread of Christ, and the wine of Christ. This is both symbolic, and very real to the Catholic. By participating in communion, the person is literally taking Christ into him or herself.
Confirmation used to occur for children at the age of about 13 or 14. It now may be made at a much later time, or never made at all. An unconfirmed Catholic is no less a Catholic. This is often called baptism by the Holy Spirit. It repeats the ritual of baptism, but also is an affirmation by the person that they are committed to Catholicism consciously.
Marriage or Holy Orders are both viewed as sacraments, and are sacred blessing of the church. Marriage joins two people together in the eyes of the church and with Christ’s blessings. It is a very serious commitment, which is meant to last through one’s life. Divorce in the Catholic Church is difficult when people participate in the sacrament of marriage, since the union is considered holy.
Holy Orders are vows to serve the church as priests or deacons. These are again serious vows. Both Marriage and Holy Orders are considered sacraments of vocations. They are a statement of how a person is called to serve the church. Some are called by marriage to serve the church as good husbands and wives. Others are called to serve the church more directly as ministers to the people.