Not Magic: On the Fruitful Reception of the Sacraments.

A fundamental principle of the seven Sacraments is that they have a reality that exists apart from the priest’s holiness or worthiness. They work ex opere operato (ie.. they are worked from the very fact of the work). One need not doubt therefore that a sacrament is in fact given just because a bishop, priest or deacon seems less than holy or worthy. Neither can the disposition of the recipient un-work the work. For example, Holy Communion does not cease to be the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ merely because the one who steps forward is unworthy or even an unbeliever. The Sacrament has a reality in itself that transcends the worthiness of the celebrant or recipient.

However, sacraments are not magic in the sense that they work effects in us in a manner independent of our disposition or will. Sacraments, though actually conferred by the fact that they are given, have a varying fruitfulness dependant upon the disposition, worthiness and openness of the recipient. One may receive a sacrament to great effect or lesser effect depending on how well disposed they are to those effects. This is referred to as the fruitfulness of the sacraments.

To illustrate fruitfulness let’s take a non-sacramental example. Imagine two men in the Fine Arts Museum and lets us also imagine that they are looking at a Rembrandt painting:  Apostle Peter Kneeling of 1631 (See photo at right). Now one man is a trained artist. He knows and understands the use of shadow and light. He can observe and see the techniques of brush strokes. He knows of  Rembrandt and his life and times. He also knows the Bible and a good bit about hagiography. He knows about St. Peter, the significance of the keys, of Peter’s penitence and how he finally died. The second man knows none of this and is actually rather annoyed to be in the “boring” museum. All he thinks is, “Who is that guy and why is he sitting on the floor?….Why don’t we get out of here, go to a sports bar and hook a few brews or something more interesting?”

Now, both men are actually standing before a Rembrandt painting. It has a reality in itself apart from what either man thinks. It is, in fact,  what it is. But the experience of beholding the painting is a far more fruitful experience for the first man than for the second. The first man gains a lot from the experience, the other gains little and may in fact have an experience that is adverse or repelling.

It is like this with the sacraments. They have a reality in themselves that is objective and real and they actually extend the graces they announce. But how fruitfully a person receives them is quite dependent on the openness and disposition of the recipient. Sacraments are not magic as though they zap us and change us independently of our disposition.

Consider some examples:

  1. Two people come forward to receive Holy Communion. One comes forward with great piety and mindfulness  to what and Who she is to receive. She has recently made a good confession and is in a state of grace. She prayerfully, mindfully and devoutly receives the sacred host and returns to her pew to pray. The second person comes forward inattentively. Instead of thinking of what she is about to do she is irritated at the priest for going long in the homily and distractedly considering what she is going to do when she leaves here. She has not been to confession in many years and may in fact be in mortal sin. She receives the Sacred Host with little thought or devotion and heads for the nearest door. Both in fact receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity  of Jesus. Objectively the sacrament is conferred. But one receives fruitfully and the other has little or no fruitfulness. In fact, if she is in state of mortal sin, not only did she not fruitfully receive a blessing but she may have brought a condemnation upon herself (cf 1 Cor 11: 29). So the sacrament is not magic and does not zap the second woman into holiness. A sacrament worthily received in a mindful manner to a person well disposed can have great effects, but proper and open disposition including faith-filled and worthy reception are essential. The more open and disposed one is, the more fruitful the reception.
  2. Two people go to confession. One carefully prepares by examining his conscience and has a true contrition (sorrow for sin and a firm purpose of amendment). In examining his conscience he does not merely consider his external behaviors but looks to the internal and deeper drives of sin within him. He seeks to reflect on his motivations, priorities, resentments and the like. He goes to confession once a month. Once in the confessional he makes a good confession and listens carefully to what the priest says and accepts his penance with gratitude to God. The second man makes little preparation only coming up with a few vague sins on his way from the car. He comes yearly to confession to make his Easter duty and after a year can only figure he has said a few bad things and been a little grouchy, and looked at a few dirty pictures. In the confessional he mentions his sins only in a perfunctory way and pays little attention to the exhortation of the priest. Now both men receive absolution but one receives the sacrament for more fruitfully than the other. The first man will likely experience growth in holiness and spiritual progress if he routinely approaches the sacrament in this manner. The other will probably be back next year with the same list or with worse things.
  3. Marriage is a sacrament received once.  As such it’s graces are received at once but unfold throughout married life. Hence, two are made one on the day of marriage but the couple’s experience of this may vary and hopefully grow as time goes on. Through daily prayer, weekly communion, personal growth in holiness of the spouses, consistent work at their relationship, the graces of marriage will be experienced more fruitfully as time goes on. But it is also possible to stunt or hinder the fruitfulness of graces of marriage through neglect of prayer, sacraments, interpersonal growth and communication.

Sacraments therefore are not magic acts. They convey a reality,  but internal disposition, worthy, mindful reception and faith are all essential factors for the sacraments to be received more and more fruitfully. Perfunctory and mindless reception yields little fruit. Devout, mindful and worthy reception yields increasing fruit. And those are the ones on whom seed was sown on the good soil; and they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold (Mark 4:20).

More can be said on this topic and I invite your comments and questions to fill in the details.

Now here’s a daring video to put in this post where we have talked about Catholic Sacraments. It is of a Protestant Preacher, Paul Washer who talks about the Protestant version of the Problem of perfunctory observance. He states rather memorably that Jesus is not just some flu shot you can take. The fruitfulness of faith cannot proceed from perfunctory observances.

23 Replies to “Not Magic: On the Fruitful Reception of the Sacraments.”

  1. I’ve been thinking about the Sacrament of Healing (anointing of the sick) and how little faith I have. If I truly believed, wouldn’t I be healed? But the instant doubt enters my head, it is all lost. If I ask in Jesus’s name, shouldn’t I receive relief? In the end, I pray for grace … and He has given me that. But if faith can move mountains, why don’t we believe that these miracles can happen to us?

    I watched a movie called Faith Like Potatoes and it was amazing how this man abandoned himself to God. I want to be able to do that … but it feels like jumping off a cliff. I just can’t do it. I am afraid … But, I am walking towards Him and I am learning to trust in Him. I know He will catch me when I’m ready to jump. Perhaps I’ve already jumped and not aware that He is holding me …

    Thank you for this post. We should be mindful of everything we do.

    1. You have to be a bit careful here. Firstly, faith is a gift of God not something we muster up by ourselves. Therefore, if you want more faith, pray for it:

      “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” – Mark 9:24

      Secondly, all prayers for healing will ultimately be fulfilled…when are bodies are raised at the resurrection. However, you don’t have to live much life before you come across some very saintly people who have not received physical healing on this earth. It is hard to imagine that they lack the faith for God to heal them, so what might God be doing in withholding this healing? Well, it might not be the right time for that person to be healed, but it may also be something else…

      The Apostle Paul tells us that had a “thorn in the flesh” which he prayed for God to remove. Scholars will argue over what exactly this “thorn” was (an eye infection etc.), but it really doesn’t matter what it was. The point is that Paul, the great Apostle of FAITH asked God to remove something which was encumbering him and God did not. However, although he didn’t heal Paul then and there, God shared with him one of the most beautiful truths of our faith:

      “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take [the thorn in my flesh] away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Cor 12:8-10

      I hope this helps.

      1. I used to think it’s because I’m being selfish (asking for my own relief) but even my most fervent prayers for others who are desperately ill feel like they are falling on deaf ears. I know that only God knows what is best for us, but Mark’s quote sums it best.

        “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” – Mark 9:24

        Thank you.

    2. God bless you both. I know that we struggle with God’s delay with the problem of evil. I too have had to duke it out with God at his apparent delay and “no’s” . In the end all I can do is abandon myself to his will. But I admit I struggle to accpet the problem of evil and why the “just” suffer more than the “wicked”

  2. For me, Matthew 25:29 filled my head… has always been a verse that confused me…..perhaps now, not so much: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away.” I am sad for those who are so unaware of He whom they receive.

    1. Yes, my interpretation is that those who have more are those who have the kingdom. Those who have little are those who have the world. They will lose all and the spiritual will get more until they grow rich.

  3. Thanks, Monsignor. This truth is crtitical to having a living faith. You’ve explainded it with more precision and brevity than anywhere else I’ve seen.

    Mr. Preacher in the video also makes excellent points. Essentially, “Don’t be lazy in regards to yr salvation, ya’ll. But also let God work.” Seems like a very Catholic approach to salvation.

  4. Wonderful post – in the sense that it resonates my own convictions. St. John Bosco made saints this way. That is why we try to go to confession every week and communion as ofter as possible. I really appreciate the daily Masses specially the early ones. It would be nice if the priest would celebrate their Masses either very early and very late. That way, people who work can still go at the end of the day in case they miss the early Mass.

  5. Here is a reflection… Once I was watching a nature show (this is true).

    In this one desert there are these boulders and on the top of these boulders they have been wore down into shallow pools. Now heavy rains come during the rainy season and fill the shallow pools. Within one night there is an abundance of tiny creatures. They just appear as if out of no where. They look like tiny little “seahorses”. These seahorses live only a very short time, long enough to be hatched and procreate before the waters dry up again.

    Though a person may look as though they are not open to the Spirit…They are always receiving seeds/Grace and when it is time, God will make those seeds grow. But in His time, not ours.

    1. Yes, I agree. Sometimes we need to be content to sow seeds. The harvest may later and we have to wait for some one else to reap it. We never know what seeds we may be sowing. .

  6. That video is so POWERFUL. Talk about an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, what an incredible witness of truth, beauty and grace. I suppose God has him just where he wants him right now, but this guy needs to be hooked up with Scott Hahn and the St. Paul Institute or something!! At any rate, I hope someday he and his audience find themselves in full communion with the Catholic Church, can you imagine the outcome?

  7. I don’t mean to be Debby downer, but I’m a little upset by the use of the word “should” in relation to the number of marriages. I know many people who were widowers and remarried. I don’t think that the Church discourages members from marrying again. The word “should” could also be hurtful for a person who did loose a loved one and remarried. I fervently ask you to remove the phrase on the number of marriages or at least hope that in God’s Divine Mercy a person has a long and happy marriage.

    1. Ok good distinction. But I might also appeal to you and others to consider my obvious intent here which is to address the divorce and remarriage problem not the situations you describe. I would hope that readers presume good will and not too quickly conclude hostility. I will consider removing it but I also appeal to your sophistication in understanding and interpreting the parenthetical remark. The smiley face emoticon is also a little hint as to the purpose of the remark

      1. I understood that your intent was for divorced persons but the distinction was not made in the text. Therefore, a person widowed and considering marriage could take it as an affront. I get rather upset with the Church in general when it comes to remarriage. It is often portrayed in a negative light.

        Also in regards to divorce/annulment, I understand that it is not encouraged. That being said, one cannot understand all the circumstances surrounding a divorce/annulment. Sometimes a spouse is beaten or abused and should seek a divorce or annulment for their own safety and well being. I don’t think that the Church would actively encourage a person to remain in such a marriage. Other cases also include a spouse leaving another spouse. The Church issues annulments for many cases. However, it is the culture of the Church to “punish” such men and women.

        I understand that the Church is actively trying to get married persons in healthy relationships to remain married. In American culture, the divorce rate is very high. But as I said, one cannot lump all divorce/annulment cases together. To do so is hurtful for those who truly tried to make their marriage work. I appreciate your removal of the statement. It is a step in the correct direction. It is my fervent prayer that Catholics will consider my statements before treating those who remarry as “second class Catholics” if you will understand my meaning. Jesus taught us to love one another. He never said only love the righteous.

        Thank you.

  8. You are so good at bringing things across. Every day I look for what you have to say. The preacher was truly a serious seeker, no, he found salvation. I also liked the Rembrandt painting. Always the light which only he was able to really use in his works. Now without even having started to read I knew who it was from the keys.

  9. The disappointment of some in the lack of immediate healing desired by the (human) will of the one receiving a sacrament reminds me of a speaker who told about a time she went through a period of trial and tribulation in her life and was developing a resentment that God wasn’t doing anything apparent to ease her suffering. It was a while since I heard her testimony but, I seem to recall that she cried out to him, not for help but, to ask why He wasn’t already helping instead of leaving her to suffer.
    About that time her very young daughter had to go into the hospital for a period of several days or more (adding to her woes) and: when the medical personnel were installing an intravenous setup in the daughter’s arm; the daughter called out to her (the speaker) in an accusing manner asking why the mother sat there doing nothing while those people hurt her (the daughter) so much.
    I will add an aside here that I don’t think for even a moment that God made the daughter sick to teach her mother a lesson but, rather, He knows that uncomfortable things happen and makes the “big picture” and the “little picture” fit His loving plan to perfection. Even though I’ve accepted this for years He still manages to startle me on how well He does this. I’m sure glad that I’m not in charge and responsable to co-ordinate things so well.
    At any rate, I firmly believe that our Heavenly Father is not like an overprotective parent who stifles growth by destroying challenges.
    God has been called harsh by many yet; a coach who demands that his/her athletes do more excercise when they want to go home when they’re only a little tired is often called harsh. Furthermore, a non-com in boot camp who sees the recruits put in a half hearted effort to learn a skill and, who then makes them come back after supper and do it over until they show improvement (which they usually do pretty quickly in order to get the evening off) is often called harsh.
    However the athletes gain better fitness and return from the contest with more awards.
    And, the recruits put more effort into learning and more return home from conflict on their feet than in a box.
    So, I am very grateful that the sacraments are not magic; especially not the magic which is so criticized in the bible. Having seen the experiences of those who have drifted to the temptations of new age philosophies and, even having given in to these temptations to try it once, I’ve seen how superficial the benefits of such erronious behaviour are and how much they lack in true benefits fall compare to the sparing but fruitful benefits of the sacraments and His miracles which He wisely distributes in a sparse manner which leaves us opportunities to grow instead of creating an unhealthy dependency like the magic of the idolaters.

  10. Dear Father Charles, You are a gift, your vocation, Ministry, your mind, your heart and your reflections each day on this Blog, helps and heals my hardened soul, you encourage me on my journey, crippled by wounds from my past, helping me see heaven through times when it just looks like a copper top.

    God Bless You, dear future Saint and Angel on earth!
    I Bless the Good Lord for your Ministry, I pray for you and with you.
    London, UK

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