Ave Maria!

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—8 August A.D. 2010

The Sacraments & Sacramentals


“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’....”[3]

Ordinary of the Mass
Mass Text - Latin
Mass Text - English

    Today’s Gospel mentions one of at least two events on which our Lord cured someone by means of a ritual that seems symbolically connected to the illness.  He cured other people in different ways, often doing nothing more than proclaiming them to be cured.  Today’s account is important to us because it seems that our Lord used this healing  in order to acquaint His followers with the concept of the Sacraments.

    Today’s cure was effected by an outward sign—the touching of the man’s ears and tongue—and a from of words—“be thou opened” that more specifically designated our Lord’s intention in making the sign.  The Sacraments that our Lord would institute during His time on earth would all operate in a similar manner.  Probably the best example is the Sacrament of Baptism.  The pouring of water on the recipient’s head is the outward sign (called the matter) of washing or cleansing, and the accompanying words (or form) indicate that the recipient is receiving the spiritual cleansing effected by the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

    To be more complete, we must observe that there must be a minister of the Sacrament—one who has the power to confer the particular Sacrament—for it is clear that had someone other than our Lord done the exact same thing, touching the deaf and dumb man’s ears and tongue and saying the same words, nothing would have happened.  The deaf and dumb man could not be cured by someone lacking the power to heal.  It is the same with the Sacraments, for our Lord has reserved the power to confer some of them to his priests and bishops.  Anyone may baptize, and the bridal couple confer the Sacrament of Matrimony on one another, but only a priest is capable of forgiving sins in Confession, Anointing the Sick, and celebrating the Sacrifice of the Mass.  Only a bishop can ordain the various Orders of the clergy, and, in the Western Church, confer the Sacrament of Confirmation.

    Finally, there is the question of intention.  For each Sacrament to be valid the appropriate minister must intend to confer it through the use of the matter and form (the essential actions and words of the Sacrament.  It is adequate for the minister to intend to “do what the Church does,” so no great theological understanding is required.  We presume that the minister has an adequate intention simply because he follows the prescribed rite, but we can see that the intention would be defective if the minister was forced to confer the Sacrament, or did so while insane or intoxicated.

    There must also be an intention of the part of the recipient to receive the Sacrament, or at least not to oppose its action.  The infant is validly baptized (and, perhaps, confirmed) because he is incapable of any intellectual rejection of the grace of the Sacraments.  For adults there must be at least a minimal understanding of what the Sacrament represents.  This is particularly true in the case of Matrimony, for there must be an understanding of the rights and duties of the married state, as well as the free exchange of consent to marriage—and of course there must be no force, insanity, or intoxication.

    It is the immemorial teaching of the Church that our Lord established seven specific Sacraments—no more, no less.  The traditional names of these seven Sacraments are:  Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  We often refer to the Holy Eucharist as “Holy Communion,” and Penance as “Confession.”  The modern term for Extreme Unction is the “Anointing of the Sick,” and the Eastern Church often refers to Confirmation as “Chrismation.”  Except for Marriage, each of these Sacraments is explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures.  And Marriage seems to be implied in our Lord’s statement that “the Creator, from the beginning, made them male and female ... that they are no longer two but one flesh ... [that] God has joined together.[1]

    The Sacraments were all instituted by Christ.  In practice, the Church adds peripheral ceremonies to the essential matter and form, both for the edification and education of the faithful.  But in ties of serious emergency the Sacraments can be conferred with no more than the essential matter and form—for example, on the battlefield, or at the scene of a disaster, where time is short and delay would endanger the salvation of souls.  When things are back to normal, the Church may “supply” the ceremonies that were omitted—this is often the case following an emergency Baptism.  And, of course, while the priest might grant forgiveness of the sins of everyone on a battlefield or disaster location, the obligation to confess those sins remains when it becomes possible once again.

    As I said, only seven Sacraments were instituted by Christ.  But the Church has extended the principle of the Sacraments—the outward sign and form of words—to any number of more mundane things, which we call the “sacramentals.”  The most common sacramental would be holy water, which the Church blesses and implores God to make effective and to drive away the influence of the devil.  (Every Catholic home should have a holy water font or two, freshly filled with the water we bless on the great feasts and regularly throughout the year—feel free to help yourself.)

    Like holy water, blessed ashes and blessed palms are intended to focus our minds on the things of God.  The ashes help us to begin the penitential season of Lent with a right disposition;  the palms put us in the scene of our Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, and ought to remind us of the fickleness of human nature.

    There are blessings for all sorts of things—not limited to animals and bees and butter and beer to railway lines, typewriters, and telegraph stations.  With these, the sacramental blessing asks God to protect and to make these things good for the fulfillment of human needs.

    The Church blesses several kinds of clothing: vestments, habits, and scapulars to remind us that we are to take holiness upon ourselves, perhaps in cooperation with one of her religious orders.  She also blesses a number of kinds of prayer beads to give some structure and routine to our daily prayers.

    So we have the seven Sacraments instituted by Christ, and any number of lesser sacramentals instituted by His Church.  Like the deaf and dumb man of the Gospel, all of these things are to make open—not to the sounds of the world, but to the grace of God, which, through the prayers of Christ and His Church, will open to us the joys of eternal life.  It is up to us to receive them frequently.


[1]   Matthew xix:4-6.

[2]   http://www.arch.mcgill.ca/prof/mellin/arch671/winter2000/mchan/final/healing-blind.JPG

[3]   Gospel  Mark vii: 31-37.