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Why the Fuss About Sacraments?

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The recent story of a priest who discovered he had never been baptized unleashed a torrent of anxieties and questions around the sacraments. We ask Father Hugh, why is the Church so inflexible about how sacraments are celebrated?


Cy:
Just how important is precision in the celebration of the sacraments? Father Hugh Barbour is next on Focus … Hello, and welcome to Focus the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding and defending your Catholic faith. I’m Cy Kellett your host, and you probably heard about that priest in Michigan, at least he thought he was a priest, but it turned out when he watched a video of his own baptism that the wrong formula had been used, and his baptism was invalid. This meant that he had to receive all of his sacraments, including being ordained a deacon, and then ordained a priest. And then it also called into question and created difficulties around all or most of the sacraments that he had celebrated as a priest. And all of that had to be straightened out, and it took some work.

And you might be asking yourself, “Why? Why did the church go to all this trouble? I mean, really, there was only one word that was wrong at his baptism. Can’t we just say, ‘well, God knew what was intended and handled it, and move on without making such a big deal out of it’?” Actually, there is a reason to make such a big deal out of it, and that’s what Father Hugh Barbour is here to help us understand this week. We’ll get to Father Hugh, but I want to remind you, subscribe to Focus wherever you get your podcasts, maybe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher. If you subscribe you get notified whenever there’s a new episode of Focus out, and also you can help us out by leaving a review, and maybe giving us that five star rating, that really helps. Here’s Father Hugh on why you actually do have to be kind of careful when celebrating sacraments … Father, a friend of mine writes in, my friend Dennis, who puts together the Diocese Newspaper for the Diocese’s of San Diego, very concerned, and he wanted me to ask you some questions.

Fr. Hugh:
Sure.

Cy:
It has to do with this priest in Detroit who was baptized, but not actually baptized. There was an error of form, I guess, in his baptism, in the Archdiocese of Denver-

Fr. Hugh:
Detroit, wasn’t it? Or he was [crosstalk 00:02:00].

Cy:
No he’s ordained in Michigan, yeah. So, and then, okay, so he receives all of the sacraments and he’s even ordained. He becomes a priest. He lives as a priest, and then he sees the videotape of his baptism, and the videotape shows that the deacon who baptized him used an invalid form. He said, instead of saying, “I baptize you in the name of the father, son and the Holy Spirit.” He said, “We baptize you in the name of the father, son … ” Which the Vatican had recently clarified is not valid for baptism. Help me out here.

Fr. Hugh:
Right.

Cy:
So I got the story right, I think.

Fr. Hugh:
Right, right. Fundamentally, yes.

Cy:
Okay, so should I just go right into Dennis’s questions? Or do you want to say anything about this [crosstalk 00:02:44] craziness [crosstalk 00:02:45]?

Fr. Hugh:
Dennis is a great name, because his patron, Saint Denis, the Arabic guy, was one of the first writers on the theology of the sacraments. So, he-

Cy:
Oh, good, and this is all about the theology of the sacraments today.

Fr. Hugh:
Right.

Cy:
He says, “First of all, in the light of this story, how can any of us who were baptized as babies have any certainty whatsoever that we were validly baptized?”

Fr. Hugh:
Oh dear.

Cy:
It seems a little panicky there, but-

Fr. Hugh:
Well, the thing is, you can only have about anything that happens in this life, relatively speaking, that you have a moral certainty. You have the witnesses and the presumption. And so, people shouldn’t trouble themselves to run around looking for videos of their baptism or whatever. If they want to, they can. But the point is, is that the point with this situation is not to generate anxiety, but to emphasize how important it is that people, that is from children in catechism to priests in seminary, especially to deacons who are married deacons, who become deacons after their professional careers and get ordained. Often the instruction given them is not up to par with what the church normally has given to clerics who reached their high level of office.

Deacon is a high office, okay? So I’m just saying, that I’m just underlining that not to diss on the deacons, but just to say that there is a real problem in the church today. Here ye, here ye! Whoever hears this podcast, tell your pastor, tell your bishop. There’s a problem with the formation of permanent deacons. And so, we ought to maybe make this point. Although, what he did, we baptize you in the name of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, is quite possibly something that a priest could have done. We had a priest in our Diocese of Orange who baptized saying the words, and let someone else in the congregation, from the family, pour the water. And so, that’s similarly-

Cy:
Is that a defect of form as well?

Fr. Hugh:
It’s a defect of application of the matter, because you have to have the same person. It’s like one bishop laying on hands, and the other one saying the form. Now, one has to do both and then others can join in if they like, but the one that says the form has to also do the water. And so, and if you’d wanted to have people pour water later, fine, but that isn’t part of the Rite of baptism. So you shouldn’t do that either. But the point is, is that we need this instruction about how to administer the sacraments correctly, and that doesn’t mean that we’re just legalists. It means, if you don’t celebrate a sacrament with a proper matter and form, minister and intention, there is no sacrament. No matter how nice it looks, no matter how many pretty pictures you had, no matter how nice the reception was, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a sacrament.

Now, everybody knows that when they’re hurrying to get an annulment. They can get over the fact that they had pictures, and the, “How can you say … ” And … They can get over all of that, because they want an annulment. Fine, and we understand this, and there are good reasons for annulments. But the fact is, that a lot of these things, more of these things are happening than we realize, because a case like that in Detroit, or the one we had here recently. That was because the Holy seesaw that was a problem that was becoming practically universal, because that destruction was sent out to everyone.

And it actually has to do with a common practice in the German speaking world. German, German speaking world as Pope Benedict would always say. German speaking world. That the priest says, “We, your parents, your grandparents, your cousins, your godparents, our Gemeinschaft, our community. We baptize you in the name of the father, and son, and the Holy Spirit.” Now, anyone who has been to normal, maybe, catechetical instruction, or has been to a Catholic school in recent years, in high school and whatnot, will have heard the importance of the community, not infinitum. And so, what they’ve done is they’ve reduced the minister of the community to everybody.

Cy:
Yeah. He’s kind of a representative…

Fr. Hugh:
Here comes everybody.

Cy:
Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:
And so, and they completely misunderstand the nature of a sacrament, in terms of its minister, and the intention of the minister, and the matter and form that are adopted. And therefore, you end up with invalid sacraments, because the peoples in their minds, the experience of community is more important than the reality of the forgiveness of sins, or the presence of Christ, body and blood, or a real, actual marriage.

Cy:
It seems to me, a failure of attention. That the attention is on ourselves and what we’re doing, instead of attending to the actual things that Jesus himself gave us.

Fr. Hugh:
And to Christ.

Cy:
Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:
Because we … Let’s make it clear, and it’s very good. If you go to the Summa of St. Thomas, it’s all there, as clear as a bell, all right? The sacraments were instituted by Christ. Now, who is Christ?

Cy:
God.

Fr. Hugh:
God, and?

Cy:
Man.

Fr. Hugh:
Man. Right? And so, the question goes, “Well, can anyone other than God institute sacraments?” The answer is, “No.”

Cy:
Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:
Okay?

Cy:
Right.

Fr. Hugh:
Christ institute sacraments, because he is God, right? Now, he can administer sacraments in his own person, or through others as instruments. And he himself is an instrument of God in administering the sacraments, because the effects which the sacraments have are effects which only God can bestow. The removal of sin, original, actual, the bestowal infusion of divine grace, the forgiveness of sins after baptism, the confirming of the grace of the Holy Spirit, the marvel of God’s presence, and the appearance of bread and wine, and his flesh and blood of Christ. And so on, right?

Only God can bring those effects about. So consequently, his instruments are only instruments, important as they are, of the one God, who is the only cause of the sacraments. And St. Thomas says, “If,” the objector comes up, “well, couldn’t the apostles have come up with some sacraments on their own?” And that’s what’s happening today, because some of these ministers think that they can come up with new sacraments. We have Cardinals who think they can do that. We have Cardinals who actually say, “The church needs to move from a model of the church based on the sacraments, to a different model.” That’s Cardinal Casper, right?

Cy:
Oh, that sounds very dangerous.

Fr. Hugh:
Very dangerous, right. Because, St. Thomas says, “Well, if the apostles could have instituted sacraments themselves, they would have instituted their own churches.” Which shows how closely the nature of the church and the nature of the sacraments is identified. And here I just want to say, if you want to talk about Vatican II, well these people are the most anti-Vatican II of anyone, because they want to deprive the church of her sacramental nature. Vatican II says the church is a sacrament of salvation, immediately implying that she is the one who carries in her bosom, the sacraments of eternal life. And so, but they want to say, “We need a non-sacramental view of the church.” Why? So that it can be communion, and unity with our non-Catholic brethren, who still share the same faith, in some sense. I mean, they want another model, because the reformers of the Protestant reformation did not accept the sacraments as constitutive of the church. And so, neither do they.

Cy:
No.

Fr. Hugh:
And that’s why all the confusion about marriage, the insolvability of marriage, the fact that you can have more than one marriage, even when you have a first one that’s valid and perdures, but you can still receive the sacrament, the supreme sacrament, the Eucharist. All this is because they want to relativize the importance of the sacraments to them, and I can tell you, I can show you text, if you wanted, but it’s so depressing you don’t want to know. Where they basically present the church’s teaching of the sacraments as a hindrance to people’s union with each other.

Cy:
Oh, that’s right.

Fr. Hugh:
Right, and that’s … So, why would you be so strict as to not allow someone who’s in a manifest state of grave sin to receive communion? Or, tell them to wait a little bit until they’ve been to confession, at least, or any of these other things.

Cy:
Yes, okay. So, let’s pause it though. Someone that takes the … First of all, takes Jesus seriously enough to take the sacraments seriously, that he instituted these sacraments. What of the person then who says though, “Isn’t this an instance of excessive rigorism in the application of the rules of the sacraments?” Can’t we just say, “well, the intention was there to baptize”? Do you see what I’m saying? That would seem to me to be the other … It’s not a complaint that, “Look, get over it. The sacraments are just symbols that aren’t doing anything.” Not that complaint, but the complaint says, “Yeah, it’s Christ through the sacraments, but did he intend for us to be quite so rigorous?” I guess, is the only way I can, in limiting when we’ll say, “Yes, a sacrament happened.” And when it didn’t.

Fr. Hugh:
Well, the fact is that it’s very easy to determine whether a sacrament occurred or not, generally speaking. Because you have determinant matter, like bread, wheat bread, noid mixture of anything else, and wine, pure wine of the grape. Right? So, and then the words of consecration said by a priest properly ordained, who intends to consecrate the Eucharist. That’s a pretty simple situation. So, the fact is that, yes, God is not bound by his sacraments. He establishes them. So we may hope, and we have a reason to hope, that when others who in good faith approach the church for the sacraments, and are given a stone instead of bread, or a scorpion instead of an egg … I mean, these are the people that are always describing the parable. Why do they give their children bad things, rather than good things, fake things, rather than real ones.

But the fact is, when they come, innocently expecting to receive the sacraments, you can be sure that God and his mercy will supply grace that is not otherwise there, because of the invalid celebration of those sacraments. That’s something God can do, but that still means that the sacramental character is not conferred. That is, the person’s not baptized. So you don’t have baptismal character. They still need to be baptized, and the same with confirmation, and most especially with ordination, and the same with marriage, if it’s not properly celebrated.

So, yes, as far as grace goes and eternal life is, God’s not going to send someone to hell because somebody did everything they possibly could do to get the sacrament to their child. And then the deacon badly instructed, at the fault of their formators and their prelates. Let me say that. I just say it. Somebody please, in the American church hear this. It’s not a funny thing when deacons don’t know what they’re doing, and then brush it off that you’re just some kind of crazy traddy, because you think you should do something a certain way.

This attitude is everywhere, I assure you. So we should really and truly take it seriously, and it leads to people being deprived of the graces they need. Because, even if God’s not going to deny salvation to a little baby, still the non-possession of a sacramental character means something. It means that the person is not able to receive as great an abundance, or with greater freedom, and their lack of protection from the evil one. It’s just like an inoculation, not to get into that whole debate. But the point is, you want your kids to be protected from evils, and that’s a very important point.

So, we need to take seriously the matter and form of the sacraments, recognizing that of course God can act otherwise. I mean, people can be saved in any number of ways, known to God alone. But we are not free to say to ourselves after our Lord says, “Go therefore and preach to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, and in the son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I’ve commanded you.” We’re not free after he said that to say, “Well yes, but if we don’t, they still can be saved.”

Cy:
No [crosstalk 00:14:42].

Fr. Hugh:
Well no, they can say that, if nobody taught them correctly or baptized them correctly, but we can’t say that. And that’s why interestingly St. John Paul II, who very loathe to refer to eternal damnation, ever. He does it once in a while, but very rarely. The one time he refers to it explicitly, is Catholics who do not properly evangelize, because they’re in danger of eternal loss. So, I mean, there’s a point where we have to take this stuff seriously and not just say, because the heresy of universalism, that you’re just sure that everyone’s going to Heaven eventually, anyway is so widespread now that, that’s the attitude.

It’s like, well no one could be lost, and you get to the point where no one could even be punished for their sins. There’s no purgatory, there’s no hell, there’s no downside. And then, these are the people who are also so anxious that the government should supply protection from all evils, plagues, lack of food, jobs, everything. They’re still praying to some power that’s going to give them everything they need to be happy, but they no longer have heavenly happiness as their end. And therefore, they don’t care how the sacraments are administered, and this is the big problem.

Cy:
Yes. But, okay…

Fr. Hugh:
I’m just saying. I’m getting a little excited, but I mean, the poor priest, he said mass, he confirmed, he baptized [crosstalk 00:16:01].

Cy:
He didn’t do anything wrong.

Fr. Hugh:
He didn’t do anything wrong.

Cy:
No. Right, a great wrong was done to him though.

Fr. Hugh:
And we can be sure that God gave graces to all those who were properly disposed and whatnot, but all those people still that he baptized … Baptized is different, because everyone can baptize. But, all those he confirmed, or married, or the masses he said. I mean, they have to get from the Holy … They have to get a condonation. Condonation not condemnation. They have to get the intentions to be celebrated, kind of packaged spiritually and sent somewhere else. It’s kind of an interesting part of Catholic theology, the sacraments. So that the people actually have had a mass celebrated for them, because they haven’t.

Cy:
Oh, wow. I never thought about that.

Fr. Hugh:
If a layman celebrates mass for you-

Cy:
Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:
-It’s not a mass.

Cy:
Yeah. There is a pervasive … I think Cardinal George called it Protestantization of the Catholic Church in America.

Fr. Hugh:
Say it’s not true. Say it’s not true.

Cy:
Well, I do think we have … We’ve been catechized in some ways, to not believe that the sacraments save us. We will believe all kinds of things about the sacraments. They might feed us, and nourish us, and cleanse us, and all these nice things.

Fr. Hugh:
Unite us to the community.

Cy:
But can you still say, as a Catholic, “the sacraments save me”?

Fr. Hugh:
Absolutely, because the sacraments are actions of Christ.

Cy:
Yeah, right.

Fr. Hugh:
Through his ministers, either in his own person or through his ministers. Our Lord already began to baptize through the apostles, and that when the gospel said that he baptized the fathers, I’ll say it’s because his apostles baptized. So, it’s like saying, “Well, if I’m drowning in the sea and Christ offers his arm to me, like Peter, do I need that for my salvation? Do I need the arm exactly? Or do I just need to believe in Christ?”

Cy:
That’s a very good point.

Fr. Hugh:
Well, yes, just believing in Christ is fine, but he’s-

Cy:
Better grab the arm.

Fr. Hugh:
He’s pulling, he’s putting his arm out to you, so why don’t use instrument? Why don’t we use it to be saved?

Cy:
Right. Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:
Yeah, no, they’re not necessarily salvation with an absoluteness that would mean that God could not save you otherwise. This is the finite error.

Cy:
But they are what saves me.

Fr. Hugh:
But they are what saves me. In fact, just like you could say, “Could I ever be a happy person without my mother’s love, and without a close friend?”

Cy:
Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:
Well, maybe.

Cy:
Maybe you could.

Fr. Hugh:
But let’s just say if God offers you a mother’s love and a close friend, you really ought to take it, or you’re not going to be a happy person.

Cy:
Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:
It’s very simple.

Cy:
Yeah, right, right.

Fr. Hugh:
And this is common sense. People want to be legalistic about it, and try to make God out to be unreasonable. As the Council of Trent says, “The sacraments have these external forms as the nature of man requires. We need these outward signs for the conduct of our worship, and for understanding of their meaning. And therefore, when signs are not available, God can use another way. But we should then pray earnestly that he will, in fact, grant the graces for which people are not able to come sacramentally.”

Cy:
So I’m going to … The rest of Dennis’s questions I’m going to kind of summarize, and they relate to the anxieties of the faithful who might say, “Well, how do I know that these sacraments that I’ve received from a priest?” Or, “How do I know that this hasn’t infected the Bishop brick, and then bishops are unbaptized?” So, what do you say to the anxieties, first of all? I mean …

Fr. Hugh:
Well, the biggest answer, which wouldn’t consult individual, is that the church is indefectable. And so, that even if you’re in some kind of line that ends up being invalid and everything, everybody’s not. That’s wanting to say, it’s not universal to this problem. That’s not the only thing. But then you also say that God doesn’t deny the grace of salvation to the one who does what is in himself to do it. And so, if you in good faith have received all these sacraments, you don’t need to then doubt whether you actually have, and go into a scrupulous investigation.

Unless there’s reason to believe that perhaps, like people that are from the parish where that unfortunate deacon who’s now retired, functioned, they would do well, and I’m sure the Diocese of Detroit is going to look into and contact everybody that was baptized, and very carefully indicate if anyone was ordained to the priesthood. That’s why the baptismal register at the church, you’re supposed to put down the baptism, but when they’re confirmed, that’s put in there. And when they’re married, that’s supposed to be put in there. And if they’re ordained at the priesthood, that’s what’s supposed to be in there. And if they become a bishop, it’s supposed to be put in there. And if you become Pope, it’s supposed to be in there. Then it’s a local baptismal register that’s supposed to have all of that information.

Cy:
I see.

Fr. Hugh:
And so, and that’s just so that it’s a clear record, and they kept these records this time. But I would just say, don’t worry about it unless you have an objective, positive reason to think that there’d be a problem. And then, the simplest investigation should resolve the issue. And if there’s no evidence, there’s no evidence. But people should not be scurrying around trying to trouble themselves about this.

Cy:
But if the people say in that parish, that if there’s concern that, that, well, he was doing this for years. Do these people need to be baptized now, like all these people need to be contacted-

Fr. Hugh:
If he baptizes them with the “we” form, yes, they need to be re-baptized. That was the Holy See’s decision that it’s invalid, and those people need to be re-baptized in forma absoluta that they have to be re-baptized. Not even conditionally, but absolutely.

Cy:
Right.

Fr. Hugh:
And that’s not that hard to do, if they haven’t died yet. And if they have, God is a merciful God, but I’m saying, the sacraments are real things that are given to us, vital, effective signs of the grace of salvation, but God himself is not bound to them. And so, there’s a reasonable hope that as he and his mercy gave us the sacraments, he’s not going to deprive of mercy someone who earnestly tried to receive them and couldn’t.

Cy:
Yeah. I think that the possible kind of, this idea that this smacks of legalism or whatnot, it actually is an … We do have an opportunity here to think about in our own disposition to the sacraments, that the church defending sacraments is really needed right now. This is actually a very … I mean, it’s very unfortunate this happened, but as far as the goods that can come from it, I think they’re manifold.

Fr. Hugh:
Right, if people will really pay attention, that is, the church was not founded to promote a particular political position, or to promote natural morality, or to promote particular conclusions of natural morality. I mean, the church is not just a pro-life organization. It’s not a pro-family organization. It’s not a pro-this. The church is the ark of salvation to which people are brought to eternal life, by the grace and the mercy of the savior, in whatever condition they find themselves, through repentance in the sacraments. And that’s what we need to preach. And therefore, we will treat the sacrament seriously.

If we stop doing the church as … Well, the examples I gave have to do with more people, the conservative mentality. But let’s just say, it’s not a psychotherapeutic organization. It’s not a self-help organization. It’s not a NGO. It’s not something that just basically makes the life better, because there are lots of Catholic hospitals and schools. No. The church, if she did nothing else but administer sacraments, would actually fulfill her essence. She would be doing exactly what she’s supposed to be doing.

Cy:
Right, and that’s such a joyful thing, actually. I mean, there’s a certain way in which a sacrament … The fact that I know that when I go to confession, if I make an honest confession and the priest absolves me, what a joy that I have this assurance from Christ.

Fr. Hugh:
Yes, right.

Cy:
And the other thing I would say too, and I think I might have learned this from you.

Fr. Hugh:
You just never leave the confessional, okay? In your case, I just stay there.

Cy:
Well, I’ve had to be educated. Don’t turn around. Don’t come back. Keep going, keep walking. Come back later Mr. Scrupulous. But now you’ve made me lose my train of thought … Oh!

Fr. Hugh:
I wasn’t  thinking that at all.

Cy:
No, this is something that I think that I got, I kind of learned from you, and maybe from some other people too. But if you live as if these sacraments are doing what they say that they do, and the sacramentals are doing what they say, the Holy water is really doing, the rosary’s really doing.

Fr. Hugh:
Believe me, holy water does what it’s supposed to do [crosstalk 00:24:39].

Cy:
It’s so liberating, actually. It’s not an experience of, oh, all these things I got to do. It’s just the opposite of that. It’s like living a little bit of heaven here, before [crosstalk 00:24:48].

Fr. Hugh:
Right, exactly. It’s the intersection of two orders of existence. The sacraments that are Christ, the risen, glorious Christ, the heaven reaching down his strong right hand and doing something, using us as the instrument.

Cy:
Well, thanks father. I’m actually glad you got a little hot about this one, because this one needs to … We need a little more heat on  this.

Fr. Hugh:
Well, we just need better instructions, so that there’ll never be another permanent deacon in the history of the church that doesn’t know how to baptize people, or thinks that it’s not important how you do it.

Cy:
Right.

Fr. Hugh:
I mean, at least for obedience sake, come on. That’s what I mean. So it gets me …

Cy:
Yeah.

Fr. Hugh:
It is business, and these are all people that have secular jobs. If they were that loose with the company’s policies, where would they have been? So, the church should have more self-respect.

Cy:
There we go. We’ll end right there. Father, thank [crosstalk 00:00:25:37].

Fr. Hugh:
God bless.

Cy:
You too, God bless you … Sacraments, it turns out, are things that are done with our assistance, but in particularly the assistance of the priests and deacons of the Catholic church. But they’re done with God’s power, and exercising the power of God, here on earth, is not a small matter. It requires obedience. It requires docility to God, to do things the way he said to do them. This is not legalism. This is obedience to our creator, who came among us as a man to give us these sacraments.

Thanks so much for joining us. Hey, if you have a problem with anything we say, you’re always welcome to get in touch with us at our email address, [email protected] You can also suggest future episodes, and maybe you want to say something nice? We always like getting a nice email. Don’t forget to subscribe to Focus so you’ll be notified, and if you’re watching on YouTube, please like and subscribe right now. Like and subscribe right now, that makes all the difference for us. And don’t forget, we do need your financial support. And if you’re willing to give us that financial support, you can do so by going to the website, GiveCatholic.com, and giving. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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