Not Magic: A Meditation on the Fruitful Reception of Sacraments

070413-pope-1A 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 upper 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. Holy Matrimony is a sacrament received once. As such its graces are received at once but unfold throughout life. Hence, two are made one on the day of the wedding 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 matrimony will be experienced more fruitfully as time goes on. But it is also possible to stunt or hinder the fruitfulness of the graces of matrimony 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.


24 Replies to “Not Magic: A Meditation on the Fruitful Reception of Sacraments”

  1. Think that the priest can also have a great effect on the disposition of the receiver. A priest who is totally focused on what he is doing and committed to using all the gifts he has been given to dispose his parishioners to receive the sacraments in a “good disposition” is going to result in more folks with the proper disposition to receive all that God desires to give to a soul. A priest who is going through the motions is unlikely to nudge the once a year perfunctory penitent towards a more profound encounter with God’s mercy, a priest who, on the other hand, prays and makes sacrifices for his penitents and seeks to nudge them to a deeper understanding of God’s mercy will end up with many spiritually fruitful confessions being made by the penitents who come to him.

    1. Therese, I see your point. However, we parishioners can also bolster one another’s dispositions — through reverence during Holy Mass, participation in the community’s other spiritual activities and works of mercy, and contact with our fellow parishioners — especially newcomers — outside of the hour on Sunday.

      With regard to proper disposition to receiving Communion, wouldn’t it be something if one were to remain in one’s pew during Holy Communion when not in the state of grace. Too often one is tempted to succumb to pressure to endanger one’s soul by receiving Holy Communion when in mortal sin — or, what is also very bad, to downplay or dismiss the seriousness and effects of one’s sinful acts. By succumbing to the pressure ourselves, we place further pressure on our neighbor; conversely, by not receiving when ill disposed, we affirm to ourselves and our neighbor the reverence due to Jesus in the Eucharist and the value of, and need for, reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance.

      To be sure, I am blessed to attend parishes whose priests do not shy from openly affirming the need for Confession. It is now up to us in the pews to live their message, through frequent use of the sacrament of Penance and reception of Holy Communion only when properly disposed.

      1. I think that the faithful must make the time to go to Confession before they even get to Mass. That stated, I recommend that priests, at every Mass, remind the faithful of the days/times for the Sacrament of Reconciliation at their parish and remind parishioners of the ones which offer the Sacrament daily.

    2. The priest certainly can, Therese, and the lay faithful can also help the priests. Pray about it and seek to become a helper. šŸ™‚

  2. Your analogy about the Rembrandt masterpiece was a fantastic analogy. From a Protestant perspective this is the best explanation I have ever heard from a Catholic about how to understand the Catholic teaching on how Christians receive the graces from the sacraments. Usually, from a Protestant perspective, the language used to describe how the graces of the sacraments work in Catholic “does” appear to be invoking vestiges of medieval “magic” rather than relying upon describing the eternal metaphysical order or laws of God’s nature. As an amateur philosopher & professional scientist, from my perspective, I see eternal metaphysical laws at work which are a part of God’s nature and which is expressed in His creation or masterpiece work. The sacraments are expressions or analogies given to us of the very nature of the metaphysical truths or laws of His graces given to us. Without the divine revelation and gift of these graces to us we are blind to them as we are unable to apprehend them on our own without His revealing and giving of them. It is a multi-layered process of God’s divine revelation. God creating everything according to His purposes and a reflection of His very good (holy) nature. Marriage being a sacrament given to us, apart from the modern day church, when Adam and Eve were one together without shame. Later, after the Fall into sin, God has to continue His divine revelation of His graces in order to effect HIs restoration project of man and creation, and so that man can receive the benefit of new (new to man as being revealed in history, but not new to God) graces previously unknown to man. Before the foundation of the world the lamb was slain. Anyway, I digress in my excitement of your fantastic analogy and the glory of God’s graces.

    My intention, before I digressed, was to point out that the eternal metaphysical law at operation behind these graces from my perspective is the law of faith in God and in His masterpiece works, and also the law of faithfulness to God and to His masterpiece works. As the book of James so deftly points out, faith without works is dead, and a faith that wavers is like being tossed to and fro upon the sea. The works being prepared beforehand by God for us to walk in them.

    Therese above, also makes another great point which I also wanted to add. We are also God’s workmanship, God’s masterpieces in progress, so that the work God has done in us is also means of graces to others. We are all created to be a holy priesthood set apart for God. God has begun His restoration project from sin within us through Jesus. This is where I believe Catholics and Protestants tend to have differences in the extent of the work God has completed within us so far. Being a Protestant, I believe the work of Jesus for salvation, redemption, and unfettered access to God has been completed by Christ, but the works which God has prepared for us beforehand are yet to be done by the eternal metaphysical laws of faith and faithfulness with our faith even being a gift from God, like my mental and physical faculties also being gifts from God for use to His glory. My faith and also my will, even though a gift, I must choose to use it in faithfulness to His glory.

    Anyway, a fantastic post. I thoroughly enjoy reading your expositions of God’s word and its application to our day and time.

    1. Actually, love Fr Pope’s original explanation and the subsequent commentary by Mark O’Neil. Brilliant brilliant analogy to the masterpiece. Taken me years to understand! Thanks so so much Father. Love love loved it!

  3. What about infant baptism? The days-old infant doesn’t have any sort of will or disposition. Does the fruitfulness depend on the will and disposition of the parents & godparents? That doesn’t seem right.

    Can you please explain your idea further for the case of infant baptism?


    1. Yes, the parents must supply this for the child and carry it through as they grow in stages. But of course this is true for everything an infant receives. The parents must receive the gift, open the gift, and use it in such a way as to bless the Child. Otherwise the gift, be it clothes, or food, or toys, or money, will not be fruitful. It is the same with baptism. The waters of baptism surely confer the washing of sin, and bestow the grace of sonship, faith and the Holy Spirit. But as in any case the fruitfulness is effected by how the sacrament is explained and lived. Unlike Communion and Confession, Baptism confers gifts that unfold more richly as life goes along. And for this the rules of fruitfulness surely apply.

  4. Monsignor, I have difficulty with the concept of the interaction of grace and free will, which I think is ultimately what the concept of worthy reception is about. This has vexed far more intelligent men than me and has given rise to all manner of heresies over the centuries, including Manichaeism, Calvinism, Jansenism, etc.

    The concern I have is that if it is ultimately our own decision to accept God’s grace that leads to our salvation, then this seems to imply that we will be saved by our own will – our own independent decision to accept God’s grace. It seems like a kind of “back-door” Pelagianism. The Calvinists and Jansenists of course solved the problem by rejecting free will and emphasizing grace, predestination and election. This back-door Pelagianism also gives some ammunition to atheists, some of whom have argued that a God who would allow people to have free will is not really an all-powerful omnipotent God. They argue that human free will shows that God, if He exists at all, is not infinite, but limited.

    I would be grateful if you or others have thoughts on this issue.

    1. St. Augustine says, does he not, that even our desire for salvation is itself a grace, and goes on to point out that in his mercy God allows his graces to be our merit. But at the end of the day the interaction between grace and free will is mysterious, as is the interaction between God’s sovereignty and our freedom. As is always the case with orthodoxy, we hold the tension rather than by trying to resolve it by choosing (haereses) one and discarding the other. In the end, all is grace and the only thing we can claim full credit for is our sin.

    2. “What do you have that was not given to you?” St. Paul, in 1st Corinthians 4, I believe.

  5. When we were children in the ’50’s, there was always a line for Confession on Saturday. It was very common to maneuver in front of others in your pew at Sunday Holy Mass as others gave way for you to ” step around them” as you went to receive Holy Communion and they remained in the pew. If it had been beyond a certain amount of weeks since you went to Confession, you did not consider yourself worthy of receiving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord. Probably less than 1/2% of those at Mass now do not receive Communion. Either we have become holier in our daily lives or the concept of what the Eucharist truly is has been lost by many. As an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, I silently pray that all who partake receive Holy Communion as a saving grace to their eternal salvation rather than a condemnation to their soul.

  6. Sometimes, I think back to when people only went to Confession once or twice in their lives. I am not even sure at what time in history this was the case. I think it would have been impossible for many people to confess all of their sins in number and kind. So, I guess the price of frequent access to Confession is that we have to be more precise about our sins.

    From our parents, at least, we all have a sense of what a marriage that is going well looks like and what a marriage that is going poorly looks like. Maybe we can use that as a working metaphor for how our relationship with the Church is going.

  7. Fascinating topic: I’m with commenter Hal above – infant baptism doesn’t seem to fit the analogy too well. I’m not surprised that Protestant commenter Mark loves the analogy given many Protestants don’t have a high view of the sacraments — I wouldn’t be surprised if non-Catholics read this and say, “If all that matters if what you bring to the sacrament that matters, then it’s hard to see how the sacrament help.” It sounds like if you’re not already spiritually evolved, then the sacraments won’t change you, which is sort of a circular argument or catch-22 that undermines hope.

  8. I have found that my most fruitful experiences with the Sacraments give me great personal testimonies for evangelizing.

  9. Brilliantly elucidated, Monsignor.
    If I may, I would suggest a slight edit in your summary paragraph, from:

    They convey a reality, but internal disposition, worthy, mindful reception and faith are all essential factors…
    They convey a reality; but internal disposition, worthy and mindful reception, and faith are all essential factors…

    It’s slightly smoother, and clearer on first pass.

    May we all strive to become ‘trained artists.’

  10. I’ve heard it said, via Fr. Groeschel, that magic is something that appears to happen but really doesn’t, and that with the sacraments nothing appears to happen, but does.

  11. Catholics no longer know where they are at the most Holy sacrifice of the mass. God is outside of time, we go to the one and only crucifixion of our Blessed Lord. We are there with our Blessed Mother, St. John, and St. Mary Magdalen. But at the cross are also the hard hearted Pharisees, pagans, etc.

    I can only imagine the hardened disposition of our hearts at Vaticn II for so many priests, religious, and Laity to lose their faith after the council. No one wants to be at the crucifixion, the last supper is more fun. The message of Fatima, “there will be no reverence for Christ in the Eucharist in the end times. People will care more for their bodies than they do their souls.”

    I went to a night “Charismatic” mass, because I was starving for the Eucharist. I knew I would not be comfortable with the singers inserting themselves into the consecration, and I despise the upbeat Agnus Dei. They have no idea what the mass is. It is torture to go to these masses with no reverence, but I’m sure that is how our Blessed Mother feels at the foot of the cross, so I go and I try to suffer with her and console Him.

    In the Old Testament when Moses is bargaining for the Israelites, sometimes Pharoah hardens his heart and sometimes God hardens Pharoahs heart. That’s what I ask myself am I hardening my heart?


  12. It seems problematic that we grant declarations of nullity to marriages so frequently. If you have a bad disposition you may not receive the grace of the sacrament, but that doesn’t make the sacrament invalid.
    If a couple knows the vows of marriage and state the vows in the liturgy, then doesn’t something happen there?

    What role does “ex opere operato” in regard marriage?

    1. Yes, this is a very good question. To some extent (in terms of the vast numbers of nullity) our pastoral practice does not well reflect our sacramental theology well.

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