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To Be or Not To Be a Sacrament

Who can tamper with a sacrament? It is not seldom that the leeway given or taken in certain liturgical practices has raised questions or even serious concerns in the minds of some faithful. This is particularly true with respect to the sacramental worship of the Church, especially the Holy Eucharist, which stands at the apex of the liturgical life of the Church.

The new approved liturgy of the Latin Rite, with its translation into local languages, has made the prayer of the Church—which is the prime worship life of all of us—more understandable and thus more spiritually fruitful. As happens when serious changes take place, there are side effects. Some have experienced a great nostalgia especially for the previous form of the Mass. For them, in its wisdom, the Church has granted competence to local bishops to allow, under certain prescribed norms, the celebration of the Tridentine Mass.

On the other hand, some in the Church, clerical and lay, have new buzz words, “the spirit of Vatican II.” Feeling liberated from the rubrical vise prescribed in the old liturgical books, some liturgical committees and some priests and deacons feel the need to be more “creative” in the liturgy in order that it be more “meaningful.” It is in this area that dissatisfaction, dissension, conflict, and the loss of parishioners to other parish services have occurred.

But, granted the problems which have arisen from time to time with individual sacramental celebrations, we must avoid the danger of uninformed criticism, prejudiced fixation, and a liturgical vigilante attitude. Every Catholic has a right to feel comfortable with the official worship of the Church and to expect that it will be carried out in the manner which the Church has laid down. At the same time it is necessary to be aware of precisely what is required that a sacrament be or not be as instituted by Christ and safeguarded by the regulations of the Church. This involves an understanding of the nature of a sacrament and what makes it valid and lawful.

An early description of a sacrament, called “mystery” from the Greek, is that it is a sign of a sacred thing. But it is a special sign because it sanctifies the receiver; it causes what it signifies, namely, the grace of God won for those redeemed by Christ and given for the purpose for which each sacrament has been instituted. Thus a sacrament is a sign and an instrument of Christ’s saving action at all times and in all places.

The Church did not institute the sacraments; she is not the source of the grace they convey; she has not the arbitrary disposition of them. The Church merely administers them on behalf of Jesus Christ. Thus the sacraments are the central element in the life of the Church and within the Church, forming the Mystical Body of Christ.

In each of six sacraments the power of Christ is immediately experienced: in baptism by the remission of original sin (and any concomitant actual sin) and the incorporation into the Church; in confirmation by the strengthening of baptismal grace so that one might in every way act as an adult follower of Christ; in penance by the forgiveness of sins both serious and slight; in the last anointing by fortifying the soul against the temptations of the final hours; in holy orders by raising men to the status of special ministers of Jesus Christ the High Priest; in matrimony by conferring the grace to reflect the love of Christ for his Spouse, the Church, in the love of husband and wife. In each of these sacraments a special sacramental grace remains in the lives of those who continue to cooperate.

But in the Eucharist there is present not only the power or action of Christ whereby the bread and the wine are changed into his body and blood, but his Real Presence remains and abides with us as long as the appearances of bread and wine remain. Thus the Eucharist is both sacrament and sacrifice.

The bread and wine become, through the words of consecration of the priest in the Mass acting “in the person of Christ,” the cause or instrument of the total Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, becoming present on the altar in a re-enactment of his Passion and death. The Eucharist alone represents and re-presents the Passion itself.

Baptism is our fundamental contact with Christ; it is necessary for salvation in fact or in desire. As it is the beginning of the Christian life, so the Eucharist, and thus the Mass in which it comes to be present, is the summit or goal of each Christian. Baptism is ordered to the Eucharist, and by the hallowings of all the other sacraments preparation also is made for and directed toward receiving or consecrating the Eucharist. Thus the Eucharist is necessary for the Christian in fact or in desire. That is why the Mass is so central to the Christian faith and worship and consequently why the faithful are so sensitive to any tampering with the Eucharistic liturgy by individuals or groups.

With a better understanding of the nature and role of the sacraments and of each sacrament in particular, what is necessary for a valid and lawful conferral is more clearly discerned. A sacrament is said to be valid when all the essential elements to its confection or constitution have been employed by the minister; lacking any such element it is invalid. It is called lawful or licit when all that has been prescribed by the competent Church authority for its confection or administration has been observed; when some prescription has been omitted without proportionate reason it is an unlawful or illicit sacramental administration. A survey of the sacraments most of us experience in life will help.

In baptism the conferral is invalidated by changing the formula “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” to, for example, “of the Mother and of our Brother and of the Vivifier” or “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.” Likewise, only true and natural water, as so understood and used as water by prudent people, is valid material. Doubtful substances, such as light tea and coffee, thin soup and broth, are unacceptable. Baptismal water, especially blessed for that purpose, is the lawful material for this sacramental conferral, except when unavailable in the case of necessity, such as danger of death of an infant.

As the head is the principal part where life integrally resides, to baptize anyone on another part of the body is at least doubtfully valid and, if done in case of necessity, the head should be baptized later conditionally, if possible.

The norm for the lawful administration or conferral of baptism, that is, the faithful execution of the prayers and ceremonies prescribed–and this is applicable to all the sacraments–is summed up in canon 846 of the Code of Canon Law: “The liturgical books, approved by the competent authority, are to be faithfully followed in the celebration of the sacraments.

“Accordingly, no one may on a personal initiative add to or omit or alter anything in those books.” The seriousness of an unlawful celebration is judged by the extent of the addition, omission or alteration, “except in a case of urgent necessity when only those elements which are required for the validity of the sacrament must be observed” (can. 850). In baptism, for example, to pour the water only once instead of three times at the invocation of each Person of the Trinity or to omit the anointing with sacred chrism would probably be seriously unlawful.

In confirmation the only valid matter is sacred chrism, that is, pure olive oil mixed with balsam and consecrated by a bishop. The sacrament is conferred by a bishop. A priest validly confers this sacrament only when he is empowered by law in certain circumstances or properly delegated by the bishop. The lawful administration requires that all the liturgy of the sacrament be observed.

The sacrament of the anointing of the sick requires the use of olive oil or, if opportune according to circumstances, another vegetable or plant oil, blessed for this purpose by a bishop or a priest authorized by law. In conferring this sacrament lawfully, “the anointings are to be carried out accurately, with the words and the order and manner prescribed in the liturgical books. In a case of necessity, however, a single anointing on the forehead, or even on another part of the body, is sufficient <:f>while the full formula is recited” (can. 1000, 1).

In the sacrament of penance only a priest who has been given confessional jurisdiction by a diocesan bishop can validly hear a confession. In cases in which there is danger of death he has jurisdiction by law. For a valid absolution a confessor must pronounce the declarative words, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” To recite merely some prayerful formula, such as “May God forgive you your sins” or “May God reconcile you for your sorrow,” would be invalid. Priests have no right to make up their own formulas; the lawful formula is the integral one prescribed for this sacrament.

On the other hand, a penitent who deliberately represses or is unwilling to confess a serious sin of which he is aware, or who does not have true contrition does not receive the sacrament. The same thing occurs if the penitent does not have a firm purpose to try to amend his ways or refuses to accept the penance imposed or a requirement stated by the confessor, such as ceasing the practice of birth control or fornication.

The sacrament of matrimony is unique among the sacraments in that the ministers are the very parties contracting the marriage. It is a sacrament which is not received by an individual alone, as in all other sacraments, but by the two parties simultaneously and in dependence upon each other for this reception. Thus the validity of this sacred action depends principally and primarily on the parties to the marriage themselves.

The Church has clearly stated the nature and purpose of a sacramental marriage. “The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life and which of its own nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between baptized persons, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament. Consequently, a valid marriage contract cannot exist between baptized persons without it being by that very fact a sacrament” (can. 1055).

This is accomplished by the consent of the parties themselves to what marriage means as God has instituted and as the Church understands it to be. “A marriage is brought into being by the lawfully manifested consent of persons who are capable according to law. This consent cannot be supplied by any human power. Matrimonial consent is an act of the will by which a man and a woman by an irrevocable covenant mutually give and accept one another for the purpose of establishing a marriage” (can. 1057). Also, safeguarding the institution of marriage, the parties to a marriage must be conscious that “the essentials of marriage are unity and indissolubility, which in Christian marriage obtain a special firmness by reason of the sacrament” (can. 1056).

Moreover, the Church in its wisdom has established a particular procedure for any Catholic to enter marriage validly. “Only those marriages are valid which are contracted in the presence of the local ordinary or pastor or of the priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who, in the presence of two witnesses, assists” (can. 1108).

Thus, if the officiating priest or deacon lacks jurisdiction for this marriage, or a witness is not qualified, the marriage will be invalid. Similarly, if the marriage takes place before a justice of the peace or before a non-Catholic minister (unless a special dispensation has been granted), the marriage is invalid. Also, there may be present a factor which impedes or invalidates the marriage, for example, lack of age, the existence of a previous marriage, one of the parties not being baptized, or a too-close blood or in-law relationship.

There are other serious factors which can render a marriage null and void from the beginning. These are rooted in the incapability of one or both parties to enter this marriage at this time. One obvious deterrent is the lack of sufficient reason on the part of at least one party, since marriage requires a certain amount of maturity and understanding in performing a perfectly human act of consent. Cases of this include the insane and gravely mentally disturbed and those totally under the influence of intoxicants or drugs, especially at the time of the marriage ceremony.

More difficult to determine are the psychological realities which may be present in a spouse and which deter a sacramental marriage from coming into existence. In marriage one assumes very serious obligations; it is the most serious step, the greatest commitment in life, the most responsible act one can perform, since it affects intimately not one but two lives.

Thus the prospective spouse must have a sufficient understanding of what marriage partnership is, what is involved especially in view of the intended partner, be aware of the essential rights and obligations which are to be mutually given and accepted in the marital covenant, and possess sufficient ability to carry out the consequences of this interpersonal commitment. In other words, whatever is lacking in the essential quality of marital consent vitiates the contract-sacrament.

Many couples today rush into a marriage without adequate understanding or preparation. Passing infatuation, unexpected pregnancy, just living together with family pressure to marry, the desire of military couples for immediate joint assignment: These and other examples, in proper context, can indicate a lack of sufficient <:f>discretionary judgment in the face of a lifelong and permanent commitment and partnership.

There are psychological factors which inhibit a person from being able to assume the essential obligations of marriage, these being a union with only one person, the intent to remain in this union permanently, mutual assistance and help in the partnership, an openness to the procreation of children and their education. Grave personality disorder, which may even surface from its latent state only during the marriage career, may cause a sacramental marriage to be unable to come into existence at the moment the vows are pronounced. Serious error, fraud, force, or fear can also disqualify a person from contracting a valid marriage.

The judgment in all these cases that a particular marriage has been void from the very beginning belongs to the competence of the local diocesan marriage tribunal, which assembles the data according to strict procedures spelled out in the canon law of the Church.

The formula of the marriage ceremony in the approved liturgical books is to be followed for lawfulness (can. 1119). The extent to which any part is omitted, altered, or addition made will be the degree of unlawfulness. For this reason parties are not allowed to make up their own marriage vows.

In the sacrament of the Eucharist the initiation into Christ and his Church and growth in his fellowship and grace are brought to completion and fulfillment. Each of the other sacraments prepares us for the Eucharist, but in this sacrament we realize the close union of us, members of his Mystical Body, with our Head, Jesus Christ. Among other fruits of this union is the pledge of our future glory. Simultaneously the Eucharist is a sacrifice-sacrament, a Communion-sacrament, and a Presence-sacrament. This is a true sacrifice, a re-enactment of the sacrifice of the Cross that takes place by the words of the priest over the bread and wine as he acts in the person of Christ. Christ is made present to us in the Mass, body and blood, soul and divinity, for our worship and our communion.

Every faithful Catholic is conscious of the central place which the Mass holds in our faith. Thus it is disturbing and causes concern when something is said, taught, done, or omitted which affects the Eucharistic liturgy.

No Mass can be celebrated, no Eucharist confected, validly without the words of consecration pronounced without alteration and without the presence of the required and prescribed bread and wine.

In the case of the latter there has developed a problem in some communities. “The bread must be wheaten only, and recently made, so that there is no danger of corruption” (can. 924, 2). Some parishioners have been given the task of providing the bread for the Eucharist, for which various recipes have been suggested. This has led to the use of some invalid or at least doubtfully valid material at Mass. The bread must be made from genuine and pure wheat flour, mixed with natural water, baked by the application of fire heat (including electric cooking); no other grain is valid. Any addition or admixture of milk, wine, oil and such, or a condiment as salt or sugar, is certainly gravely unlawful, and invalid if the amount is notable.

“The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt” (can. 924, 3). Wines made from other fruits or from flowers, from unripe grapes, or from the stems and skins of grapes after all the juice has been pressed out, and wines from which all alcohol has been removed or to which foreign ingredients, such as water, have been added in equal or in greater quantities are invalid materials for the Eucharist. Wine which possesses more than 20 percent alcohol is invalid. To be lawful wine should not contain more than 18 percent alcohol; wines which would not ordinarily ferment beyond 12 percent alcohol cannot be fortified beyond this limit. The use of “must” (Latin: mustum) is no longer granted to priests; intinction suffices.

What pertains to the very essence of the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is the Mass, namely, transubstantiation, must be approached with the greatest reverence, care, and attention. Thus one should approach the procurement of the elements of bread and wine in this spirit. In addition to care for the proper fabrication of the wheatened bread, sacramental or Mass wine should be obtained from sources beyond suspicion which can guarantee pure and unadulterated wine.

It is the norm of the Church that it is never permissible to follow a probable opinion or course of action with regard to the validity of any sacrament, especially the Eucharist, when a safer opinion or procedure is available which insures the validity (cf. Denz.-Schon. 2101).

Christ is always present in his Church, especially in its liturgical celebrations. It is in the liturgy of the sacraments that the action of Christ is directly and normally experienced by us. It is therefore a serious responsibility of those who confer the sacraments to do so according to the expressed mind of the Church, the appointed guardian of these sources of holiness. Any abuses disturb the faithful in their right to a proper administration.

On the other hand, the faithful are able to make a prudent judgment in a situation regarding the correctness or not of a particular action or omission when they have an understanding about what pertains to the validity and what to the lawfulness of the sacramental action. Instances of their concern usually arise regarding the Mass celebration and in great part in the area of lawfulness.

Recognizing that problems are apt to arise in the liturgy of the sacraments, an instruction, Inaestimabile Donum (April 3, 1980), of the Congregation of the Sacraments and Divine Worship, quotes Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, II:II, q. 83, a. 1): “One who offers worship to God on the Church’s behalf in a way contrary to that which is laid down by the Church with God-given authority and which is customary in the Church is guilty of falsification.”

The instruction goes on: “None of these things can bring good results. The consequences are—and cannot fail to be—the impairing of the unity of faith and worship in the Church, doctrinal uncertainty, scandal and bewilderment among the People of God, and the near inevitability of violent reactions. The faithful have a right to a true liturgy, which means the liturgy desired and laid down by the Church, which has in fact indicated where adaptations may be made as called for by pastoral requirements in different places or by different groups of people. Undue experimentation, changes and creativity bewilder the faithful.

“The use of unauthorized texts means a loss of the necessary connection between the lex orandi and the lex credendi. The Second Vatican Council’s admonition in this regard must be remembered: `No person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.’ And Paul VI of venerable memory stated that `Anyone who takes advantage of the reform to indulge in arbitrary experiments is wasting energy and offending ecclesial sense.'”

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