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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
In this video clip Fr. Francis Martin discusses the depth of the word “mystery” which is an essential component of all the Sacraments. In fact many of the Eastern Churches call the sacraments the “Mysteries” for in every sacrament there is dimension far deeper than what is merely seen or sensed. Enjoy this brief and profound explanation.