Its as if though if you don't participate you will not receive the full
graces or all the effects of being present at Mass. Its as if the God needs us
to give us his grace. The mass by itself is enough to give anyone the graces
necessary for God to do what he wants in their lives. No matter what state of
ignorance we may be in God will work with us as long as we are in state of
humility. Didn't you tell us that "validly conferred, the Sacraments are
effective of themselves as long as we don't place an obstacle to them"?
Answer: The May A.D. 2000 Parish Bulletin carried a brief article on the history of participating at Mass; the reader may find it of interest.1 In this present article, we will explore this idea of the Sacraments being effective of themselves, the ways in which the Sacraments are received most fruitfully, and the obligation of Christians to worship God both individually and as members of the Catholic Church. The article on "Donatism" in the April A.D. 1995 Bulletin may help with the first of these concepts.2
Ex opere operato
Although the Sacraments appear to be conferred by their human ministers, it is more accurate to say that they are the actions of our Lord who uses human beings as His instruments. Saint Augustine put it this way:
The technical term used to describe this is:
This mode of sacramental operation was defined at the seventh session of the Council of Trent:
In a sense, the Sacraments have to work this way. It is difficult enough to evaluate one's own dispositions -- let alone those of the priest or other minister. This is particularly important for the Sacraments of indelibility, (especially Baptism and Holy Orders) which are not repeated, and have a direct bearing on the salvation of souls. The Church simply could not function if no one was sure of his Baptism or Ordination!
Yet the dispositions of the minister and the recipient do have an effect on how fruitfully the Sacraments are received. Certainly, the prayers of holy people, uttered or attended to with devotion, are well received by Almighty God -- and correspondingly not well received when uttered with haste or indifference. Sadly, we see an "ex opere operato mentality" in some Catholics -- even priests -- who conduct themselves as though the sacramental formulae and other prayers were just so many words to be recited at breakneck speed and without any regard to understanding them. One is reminded of the Tibetan prayer wheel, or perhaps of a tobacco auction.
While one may administer or receive a Sacrament validly with such minimal devotion, that certainly cannot be what God desires of us, or what He is most likely to reward with abundant graces. We can learn from the official practice of the Church, which, apart from dire emergency, always confers Its Sacraments with much more than the minimum possible ceremony required for validity. For example, even in the case of infant Baptism, with the child oblivious to the proceedings, the Church adds a number of ceremonies to instruct and edify the onlookers, and to beseech God's graces for the recipient. The sponsors represent the infant when he is called upon to speak. Beyond the minimal sacramental form, "I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost," there are signings with the sign of the cross, the reception of blessed salt, two exorcisms, recitation of the Apostles Creed and the Lord's Prayer, the making of baptismal promises, an anointing with oil, clothing with a white baptismal garment, and receiving a lit candle, and a number of general prayers for the child. The same idea is true for all of the Sacraments, and particularly for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.6
Prayer, Instruction, and Edification
Under normal circumstances the Mass and Sacraments are occasions of prayer for the recipients. Many of the prayers are reserved to the priest alone, but the recipients are always encouraged to make those prayers their own, at least mentally, but verbally as well, when appropriate. The idea that all prayer should be left to the priest is foreign to the mind of the Church. If at all possible, we should assist at the Masses which we ask the priest to offer for our personal intentions or for the dead.
Most of the Sacraments, and surely the Mass, are opportunities for instruction. The epistle, Gospel, and sermon at Mass are obvious examples. Some of the Sacraments (e.g. Ordination and Matrimony) have sermons concerning the nature and obligations of the Sacrament as part of the prescribed ritual. But the more general prayers and even the ceremonies tend to be instructive -- when the Mass and Sacraments are reverently celebrated, every prayer and every gesture has meaning -- we ought to be as conscious of these details as possible. It is often said that the "law of prayer is the law of belief." The Church often teaches through the example of Its public prayers, especially the Mass and Sacraments.
Edification is another important dimension of the Church's public prayer life. That is to say that we should be attracted by, and come to love, the things of God. The Mass and Sacraments are earthly realities that allow us a foretaste of heaven. Catholicism is well known for addressing the senses of the worshipper with beautiful sights, sounds, and smells. The human soul has two faculties, the intellect and the will -- it is not enough to know God, but we must love Him as well. While feelings do not define truth as the Modernists believe, it is not Modernism to say that we should "feel good" about being Catholics, or that we should feel love for God and for holy things.
The Obligation to Worship
As His created beings, we have the obligation to worship God as our Creator. This obligation is both personal and corporate.
Some of our worship is conducted in private. Many people are unable to assist at the full public worship of the Church, but everyone is capable of private prayer, and ought to consider it a daily obligation. Even when we attend Mass, some of our worship will take on a personal character. We adore God, thank Him for his goodness, request His forgiveness for our sins an the sins of others, and request the material and spiritual favors we think we need -- much of this is quite private -- we don't publicly vocalize our intentions about Aunt Martha's drinking or the new car we would just love to have -- such things are between God and the worshipper.
We also have an obligation to worship God as a member of the Catholic Church. Our attendance at Mass is required under Church law each Sunday and a few holy days of obligation. But that is a minimum. Except for Holy Week, Mass is offered every day of the year -- and whenever we are at Mass we can worship God with more than our physical presence and general attitude of religiosity. As worshipping members of the Church, we should actively meditate on the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary being re-presented before us. That may take the form of the Rosary or meditations in a prayer book. Ideally, if we are able, we will pray the prayers of the missal along with the priest, reciting or singing the appropriate parts where this is practical. Over the years the Roman Missal grew to include the texts proper to the deacon and subdeacon, the choir and the congregation, as well as those common to all or exclusive to the celebrant. When these are incapable or unavailable to take their proper part, the priest will read it for them. But the ideal of public worship is not best served by this minimal expedient, any more than a great play is best produced with one actor reading all the parts. The minimum essentials for validity of the Sacraments and the minimum fulfillment of the laws obliging us to public worship may be fulfilled with very little -- but should we ever purposefully do very little to worship our infinite Creator?
No one is forced to sing or recite the prayers of the Church's public worship. Pope Pius XII reminded us that some are incapable, and sometimes circumstances make close participation impossible. But like so many holy things this ought to be seen more as an opportunity than as an obligation or a burden. In 1947, the same holy Pope wrote:
Finally, it ought to be recognized that the Modernists came very close to taking the Mass away from us -- at least in part, because so few of us really knew the Mass. We must not let that happen ever again.