Please note that,
effective August 6th, AD 2006
“He put His fingers into his ears, and spitting, He touched the tongue: and looking up to heaven He groaned, and said to him: ‘Ephpheta,’ which is ‘Be thou opened’....”
One of the obvious questions we have to ask upon reading today's Gospel, is “Why did our Lord go through this strange ritual as he healed the deaf and dumb man?” We se similar behavior, in another part of the Gospel, as our Lord spit on the ground and made clay to anoint the eyes of a blind man—blind, in fact, from birth—who was then cured as soon as he washed his eyes in the pool of Siloe where he was sent.
What our Lord is doing here is establishing the manner in which His Sacraments would work. He knew that, for the most part, His Sacraments would effect spiritual realities, not physical. While it might not be necessary to accompany the healing of a man's body with signs, the healing of his soul would be much less obvious if not somehow marked with an external act.
So, our Lord established the Sacraments as “Outward signs... to give grace”; signs of the grace which they give. For example, the pouring of water at Baptism symbolizes the washing away of all original and actual sin. Or the bread and wine, which become the Body and Blood of our Lord, symbolize the spiritual nourishment which they provide.
Matter, Form, Intention, and Minister
Over the centuries, our understanding of this principle has become more and more refined. We have come to understand the things which are necessary for the valid conferring of each of the Sacraments. In essence, we know that for us to receive the Sacraments, there must be general effort to “do as the Lord did.” The theologians have distilled this down by saying that for a Sacrament to be valid, there must be proper Matter, Form, Intention, and Minister.
Matter refers to the physical aspect of the Sacrament. We Baptize with water, anoint with oil, consecrate bread and wine, and so on. In some of the Sacraments; notably Marriage and Confession, this is not quite so clearly obvious, yet there is always some outward physical manifestation. A verbal or written exchange of vows, the confession of sins.... A serious departure from the materials used by our Lord would cause us not to receive the Sacrament—for instance the use of cake and fruit juice instead of bread and wine—or whiskey instead of water for Baptism. We are not free to change what the Son of God has established for us.
The Form of a Sacrament is the words which indicate what is being conferred. “I Baptize thee in the name of the Father....” “For this is My Body... This is a chalice of My Blood....” and so on. These are examples of Sacraments with fairly specific Forms, being directly given by Christ. Others were composed by the Church at His command, “I forgive you your sins....” or the forms which accompany the anointing of the sick in Extreme Unction. The form makes clear what is being done with the matter—the laying on of hands, for example, is the matter for several different Sacraments—the form makes it clear which one is being conferred.
The Intention required to confer—or to receive—a Sacrament must be at least the general intention to receive God's graces, or to do what the Church intends us to do. It is better, of course, for us to have a specific understanding of the Sacrament, and to form our intentions according to that understanding. In Confession, for instance, we should intend to have our sins forgiven—by a priest, who in turn, should intend to forgive them.
A Sacrament would not be validly received if either the minister or the recipient had a positive intention not to give or to receive it. In practice this is not a problem. The presumption of the Church is that if the ritual is followed, both had the requisite intentions. For example, we don't have to worry about the intention of the priest who baptized us, or the bishop who confirmed us. If they followed the customary ritual, we can simply put the question out of our mind.
Finally, for the Sacraments to be validly conferred, they must be given by the proper Minister. Now, this varies from one to the other Sacrament. Anyone can administer Baptism, although under normal circumstances this is reserved to the parish priest or deacon. In Marriage, it is actually the bridal couple who administer the Sacrament to one another, although the Church does require a Catholic marriage to be witnessed by a priest or deacon, and two witnesses. A bishop is required for ordinations to Holy Orders, and is usually the minister of Confirmation, although under some circumstances this can be done by a priest. Confession and Extreme Unction require a priest or bishop. Only a priest or bishop can offer Mass, but distribution of Holy Communion may be delegated to a deacon, as the bread and wine, once consecrated, always remain the Body and Blood of Christ.
It is useful to know something about these various minima required in the Sacraments—particularly in these days when they are often abused by the Modernists. However, we should insure that we don't develop too much of a “legalistic” mentality, analyzing all of these aspects each and every time we see a Sacrament conferred.
We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the Sacraments are confected to make us holy, to draw us nearer to God, and to increase sanctifying grace in our souls.
Above all, we must not forget that these “Outward signs” bring about miracles which are far more significant than any of their earthly counterparts. More than any bodily healing, or even the resurrection of the dead, for they heal the soul, and even resurrect it from the death of sin.
Always remember that the Sacraments are tokens of God's love for us—and should mark our love for Him in return.
 This topic was covered in greater detail in the March AD2006 Parish Bulletin, particularly with regard to the specific Sacramental forms. http://www.geocities.com/pelicanlara/answers/qa032006.html
 Gospel Mark vii: 31-37.
 John ix: 1-7.