When studying the theology of the Sacraments in the seminary I had to try to understand the definition of a sacrament including an understanding that: Sacraments signify what they effect and they effect what they signify! At first this looks like a circular argument, however, ultimately it unravels for us something of the essence of the Catholic understanding of the Sacraments. Let me try to explain.
The Sacraments are guaranteed by Christ, through the ministry of the Church to always be effective in what they are as long as the intention of the minister of the Sacraments is that of the Church when they are celebrated. That is, when a sacrament is celebrated, it works! This is guaranteed by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Church. The effectiveness of the sacrament per se is not dependent upon the holiness of the minister or the recipient. However, the fruitfulness of the celebration of the sacraments in the lives of individuals is a totally different matter.
The Church guarantees the effect of the Sacrament per se; the fruit of the sacrament is dependent upon the faith of the recipient. That is, the Church cannot guarantee the fruit of the sacrament being present in the life of the individual. It all depends on whether or not the person receiving the sacrament activates the grace of the sacrament in their life through faith. The sacraments are not a magical way of bringing change to a person’s life. The effectiveness of the sacraments will depend upon whether or not the individual is willing to persevere in faith to the point that they allow the Holy Spirit to work in his or her life.
When the sacraments are celebrated they work. Whether or not they have an ongoing effect upon the life of the individual is up to that individual. This is why we should not take the sacraments lightly. They are an important aspect of the Church’s life and God can use them powerfully in our lives if we open ourselves up to the grace that is at work through them.
Do I celebrate the sacraments in a mechanical fashion or with faith? How well do I dispose myself to the grace of the sacraments when I celebrate them?
Holy Spirit, you are the animator of my faith. I acknowledge that I need all of the grace that you can give me in order to be faithful to God’s call. Help me to celebrate the sacraments with faith.