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.

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.

6 Responses

  1. Shari says:

    Well now, I really am ashamed.

  2. Sherry M. says:

    Your illustration of fruitfulness is a wonderful example. The two people looking at the Rembrandt, having two very different experiences based on their training, knowledge, and interest, speaks to our need for life-long learning of our Catholic faith to come to a better understanding and appreciation for that with which we have been blessed. Many people miss out on so much when they think they don’t need to learn past their “school days”.

    The joy that comes from pursuing the depth and breadth of Catholicism is overwhelming. Our Lord has provided us with infinite possibilities to get to know Him in everything from the Bible and Catechism, to the Sacraments, to our saints, art, music, architecture, literature, classes – to learning of all kinds – - – and in the Love Letters He sends to each of us with the sunrise each morning and the stars at night.

    There are so many opportunities today to delve deeper into our faith and to help us to grow in holiness. The recently announced Catholicism Series (10 episodes on 5 DVDs), by Father Robert Barron, addresses so much that is good, true and beautiful in our faith, including helping us to a better understanding and appreciation of the Sacraments. The cinematography and music and universality of the series is magnificent and spurs one on to want to learn – and Love – more and more and more.

    Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for this wonderful and helpful article on the Sacraments. You and Father Barron are evangelizers “par excellence”!

  3. Nathan says:

    Great post. In example 2, when the priest pronounces the words of absolution over the second man does the man receive forgiveness for his sins?

  4. Sasha K says:

    Msgr, I have a question about fruitfulness… not intended to be hairsplitting. But, in example #1, I am usually the first woman – I do attend daily Mass and I think I am usually attentive, mindful, and prayerful. However, occasionally I am distracted, typically by something I am worrying or stewing over. On those days, as I approach, I usually pray something like, “O my Jesus, You know I love You and that I desire to give my whole self to You. But You know I am distracted by X today. Please know that my presence here is a sign of my love for You. Please forgive me for not bringing my whole heart to You today and please meet me where I am and give for me what I am unable to give.”

    I have always thought that receiving Holy Communion in this manner was still fruitful… both because I believe it is still pleasing to Jesus when I come to him even more imperfectly than usual, and also because typically I find in such cases that whatever I am worrying about or stewing over lessens its grip on me.

    What would you say to this? Assuming I believe myself to be in a state of grace, but that it is one of those times when I struggle with mindfulness, is it still worthwhile to receive Holy Communion like this? Or is it better to abstain and make a spiritual communion instead, and wait to receive the actual sacrament when I can give it my whole attention?

  5. Bill says:

    Monsignor,
    Thank you for this post. It does raise some questions for me, though. You note that for a sacrament to be effective, to impart fruitful grace, the recipient must be properly disposed. But how do we know that the sacrament is what bears fruit in the person’s life afterwards, and not his own prior disposition (admittedly God-given)? For example, in preparing for Confession, I examine my sinful self, which leads me resolve to amend my life and to live in God’s love–before I even enter the confessional. The absolution I receive is one of the graces of the sacrament, but the determination to live rightly–supposedly another of the graces the sacrament gives–exists before the sacrament.
    I hope my question is clear enough. Grace and the efficacy of the Sacraments is one of the issues I’m trying to come to grips with. The Church’s teaching on this is hard for my rational mind to accept, but I’m chalking it up to a lack of understanding on my part. Thanks for any insight you can give.

  6. MLP says:

    Thank you, Msgr, that is illuminating.

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