In the earlier chapters of this book we saw that we are made members of the Mystical Body of Christ by the sacrament of baptism, and in the last three chapters we have been considering certain means by which we can develop the life that is ours as a result of this incorporation. As in the human body there are special channels which supply the organs and the members with what they need and maintain in them the vital circulation of the whole organism, so also in the Mystical Body of Christ, there are special channels by which we are supplied with the graces necessary for our functions and are maintained in vital union with Christ, our head. These are the seven sacraments. A sacrament is a sensible sign permanently instituted by Christ to give grace. They are, as it were, seven principal arteries of the Mystical Body by which the power of the life-giving Passion of Christ is applied to our souls according to our needs.
Each sacrament needs a human minister, but his qualifications vary according to the sacrament. Only a bishop can ordain, and, except in special cases, confirm; only a priest can consecrate the Sacrament of the Altar, absolve sinners, or anoint the dying; the two parties getting married are the ministers of the sacrament of matrimony; but because of the importance of baptism, any lay person can administer it in case of necessity. But in every sacrament the principal minister is Christ, the secondary and human minister only acts in His name. Christ still lives in His Church—He has promised to be with her all days even to the end of the world—and nowhere is His living power more evident than in the administration of the sacraments; nowhere can He be found in such an effective way as by approaching them. There He speaks to us, there He forgives us, there He strengthens us, there He sanctifies us, there He gives us the kiss of reconciliation and of friendship, there He gives us His own merits and His own power, there He gives us Himself. We have already spoken of Him as a seed that is cast into the soil of the universe, thrusting out roots in all directions to seize upon the very earth and change it into itself. Nowhere is that figure more forcibly realized than in the sacraments. For the sacraments seize upon us, digest us, and make us part of Christ. They are the roots of the vine of which we are to be the branches.
This is so true of the sacrament of baptism that St. Thomas can write: “Baptism incorporates us into the Passion and Death of Christ . . . whence it follows that the Passion of Christ is communicated to each baptized person as a remedy, just as if each one had himself suffered and died. . . . For the Passion of Christ is sufficient satisfaction for all the sins of all men.” And again: “Inasmuch as he becomes a member of Christ, the baptized person shares in the penal value of Christ’s Passion, as though he had himself endured the penalty.” And more generally he states: “Since Christ’s Passion preceded our sins as a kind of universal cause of the remission of sins, it needs to be applied to each one for the cleansing of his personal sins. Now this is done by baptism and penance and the other sacraments which derive their power from the Passion of Christ.”
Here we have an authoritative statement of the working of the sacraments: They apply to each of us the Passion and Death of Christ. There are two principal ways in which grace can grow in our souls; two ways, in other words, in which we can become more closely united to Christ and enter more fully into the life of His Mystical Body. These are: by merit and by the sacraments. We have already considered prayer and meditative reading as two methods of seeking God. We considered them first because they dispose us for the use of other methods. Both are meritorious, and prayer can also obtain grace for us by impetration. This we could call merit in a very broad sense. Merit we have not yet discussed. To all good works done in charity God has attached a promise of a reward. This reward includes both an increase of grace and an increase of eternal happiness in heaven. But although God, and He alone, can produce grace in our souls, He has made His action so dependent on ours that where there is question of merit, we are the cause, in a sense, of our growth in grace; and although the increase comes from Him, it depends upon our own actions, our own powers, and our own dispositions. The scholastic theologians used the phrase ex opere operantis to distinguish this manner of action where the result depends upon the agent, from another where the result depends upon the thing done and not upon the agent, and which they designated by the phrase ex opere operato.
This latter is quite a different manner of action and is the way in which the sacraments give grace. The grace depends upon the intrinsic value of the sacrament itself and not upon the dispositions of holiness of the minister. In the sacraments, God, through Christ, is the cause of the grace produced not merely in the sense that He is the author of the giving of every grace, but in the further sense that the sacrament itself in some way replaces ourselves as the agent, and by a power derived from Christ, does for us in a more direct way what we do for ourselves indirectly in the case of merit. In fact, so far as any question of merit enters in, it is the infinite merits of Christ that are concerned in the sacraments and not our own finite merits.
The power of the sacraments to produce grace, once the conditions for validity are realized, is entirely independent of the dispositions and merits of the human minister; the effect of the sacrament is influenced by the dispositions of the recipient just as the amount of water taken from a well is influenced by the size of the vessel used. The result is that in ordinary cases there is no comparison between the effects produced by the sacraments and the effects produced by the merits of our own good works. To illustrate the point by an extreme example, let us take the case of a man in the state of mortal sin who is sorry for his sin with attrition only, his motive being, say, the loss of heaven. No matter what other dispositions that man may have or how intense his sorrow may be, he cannot merit the state of grace; his soul is dead. If, however, the same man goes to confession with this attrition and validly receives the sacrament of penance, his sins are forgiven, he is restored to the state of grace, his soul becomes alive again. The reason is, to put it summarily, that in one case he is depending upon his own merits; in the other, he is availing himself of the merits of Christ. It is true that the merits of Christ can be applied to us by faith, but even so, our own merits may limit the application.
The sacraments, then, perpetuate and diffuse the life-giving power of Christ in His Church which is His Body. Unlike the organs of the human body, which are in permanent connection with the arteries and channels of supply, we, the members of the Mystical Body, are free; it is by our own choice that we approach the sacraments and join ourselves by them to Christ. Each of the sacraments can give us an increase of life of grace, but each has in addition, a special grace of its own. It puts at our disposal the strength and merits of Christ for a special purpose. In baptism we are cleansed from original sin and born in Christ. The sacrament of confirmation also gives us an increase of habitual grace, as this sharing of the divine nature is called, but it adds a special help. It corresponds to a “coming of age” in civil life—to an entering into manhood—and it puts at our disposal a divine source of strength to live up to our faith in our dealings with others. We are strengthened to take our place in society as Catholics, as members of Christ—for that is what a Catholic is—and to profess our faith openly, even to the extent of suffering and dying for it if there be need.
When that doctrine came first to our notice at school a quarter of a century ago, few of us visualized the prospect of ever having to put their truth to the test. Yet, it can be safely said that since then, more Catholics have suffered and died for their faith than at any period of history; and there is no reason to believe that the days of such things are over. The grace, then, of confirmation is a most practical one for each of us, even in its extreme form of giving us the supernatural fortitude to suffer and die for the faith. This grace is the source of that extraordinary strength and courage which one sees in the martyrs. Woe betide the Catholic who in the hour of trial should rely upon his own natural courage and determination. Far better for him to rely upon his own weakness and put his trust in God’s strength—to glory in his own infirmities and invoke the strength of Christ, which is his by the sacrament of confirmation.
But there is no need to wait for such an extreme situation before using this grace of confirmation. Every lay man and woman in modern society has a daily need for divine help to live up to the faith. The difficulty of doing so is becoming greater every day. But this power that we have of professing our faith by confirmation is something akin to the priest’s power of consecrating bread and wine. One is not conscious of it; it must be believed in, and it must be used with faith and confidence.
One way in which that belief and confidence should become manifest is in courage with which we ought to face all occasions where there is any need to live up to our Catholicity in word or in act, and to face ridicule, scorn, loss, or even injury, by doing so. Once the prudence or the necessity of the action is clear, there should be no more hesitation—no more wondering where the strength is going to come from. For that strength is already ours by the sacrament of confirmation, and all God asks of us is that we admit its divine origin, by an appeal—even by a mute appeal—to Him; He will be with us in the hour of need. Such occasions are numerous nowadays.
One such occasion is when one has to face the superior smiles that are directed to our “old fashioned” notions of Catholic morality, and the strain becomes all the greater when the quiet tide of tacit assumption is slowly but surely carrying the majority away from true Catholic teaching. On such occasions one cannot help feeling unreasonable, provincial, and even childish. But there are times when one has to be a fool for Christ’s sake. There is also a more general need for special help which arises from the fact that we have to “die daily,” to die to ourselves and to our own life because of our faith. On all such occasions, we must remember that we are living members of Christ’s Mystical Body, and that in becoming such we have renounced ourselves, and “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” and that we are confirmed and strengthened by the promise of God’s grace to meet all such difficulties; we should remember that we have to live up to our membership of Christ—noblesse oblige—and instead of being self-conscious by feeling, we should become Christ-conscious by faith. But it is well to remember that although we share in Christ’s strength, we must also share in His prudence, and that supernatural prudence and common sense must govern our conduct in such matters.
Among the other Sacraments which are only received once or rarely, matrimony is of such importance that we shall consider it apart, since for many lay people it can be the starting point of a very spiritual life. The sacrament of holy orders primarily concerns the clergy, but, inasmuch as it constitutes certain men as mediators between God and mankind, it has an effect that concerns the laity, especially when there is a question of discovering God’s will, and it is in that connection that it concerns us. The sacrament of extreme unction has a special connection with that of penance, which is a means of approaching Christ that we must now consider.
The sacrament of penance was instituted by Christ to forgive sins committed after baptism. Baptism removes all sin that is on the soul and all the punishment due to it; everything on the debit side of one’s past life is blotted out. But it cannot be used as a remedy for sins committed afterwards, since it cannot be repeated. These sins must be remitted either through our own sorrow or normally through the sacrament of penance. Where there is question of mortal sins, they can only be remitted by sorrow when that sorrow is that which is called perfect contrition, arising out of the love of God rather than the love of ourselves, and which must also include at least an implicit desire of going to confession. In confession, the sorrow which is called attrition is sufficient; such would be the sorrow which has for its motive the fear of hell or the loss of heaven. When a sinner who has such a sorrow for all his mortal sins is validly absolved in confession, all his mortal sins are forgiven; the eternal punishment which they have earned is remitted, and he is restored to the friendship of God. God again takes up His dwelling in his soul, and he becomes once more a living member of Christ’s Mystical Body, participating again by grace in the divine nature.
It is true that not all the effects of his sin are removed. Even though the eternal punishment has been remitted, there is still a temporal penalty to be paid. This can be done by works of satisfaction in this life; if not paid here, it will have to be suffered in purgatory. The “penance” which the priest imposes after the confession has a very special efficacy for making satisfaction for our sins because of its connection with the sacrament. All our good works, all that we willingly suffer, can be used to make satisfaction, and we can even invoke the merits of Christ, those of His Mother and of the saints in our behalf. The merits of Christ are always at our disposal if we know how to make use of them by faith, hope, charity, humility, and submission. But in the Mass, we can find our Lord’s own satisfaction for our sins in a most accessible form. It is important to realize that there is a great difference between making satisfaction for our sins in purgatory and doing so here on earth. In purgatory, the sufferings are much greater, and we cannot merit by them. Here on earth we can make satisfaction with far less suffering, and every act we perform for that end can be meritorious; so that even in satisfying for our sins, we can grow in love of God and earn a closer union with Him in heaven.
In the sacrament of penance we obtain a special grace to help us to recover from the effects of our sins and a new strength to fight against our weakness. This aspect of confession is often forgotten, especially by those who have only venial sins to confess. Just because they are “only” venial sins, there is sometimes a tendency not to worry about them. By cooperating with the grace of the sacrament, we can acquire a new horror of these sins, a new delicacy of conscience, and a more correct notion of our own weakness. To quote the present Holy Father:
For a constant and speedy advancement in the path of virtue we highly recommend the pious practice of frequent confession . . . for by this means we grow in a true knowledge of ourselves and in Christian humility, bad habits are uprooted, spiritual negligence and apathy are prevented, the conscience is purified and the will strengthened, salutary spiritual direction is obtained, and grace is increased by the efficacy of the Sacrament itself.
It should be noted that the context of this quotation is concerned with the confession of venial sins.
About such confession there is one point that is important. Sorrow for our sins is an essential condition for a valid reception of the sacrament. This sorrow must extend to all the mortal sins of which we have been guilty; if there are no mortal sins, we must be truly sorry for at least some of the venial sins confessed. Otherwise the sacrament is invalid. Now sorrow implies a sincere purpose and decision to avoid sin in the future, and it is important to make sure that we have such a purpose in regard to at least some of the venial sins confessed when there are no mortal sins. To make certain that there is proper matter for absolution, it is always advisable to include some sins of the past for which we are certainly sorry, and which we are determined to avoid in the future. Such a practice saves our confession from being invalid should it consist only of routine venial sins for which we have not such a sufficient resolution of amendment.
The question of sorrow is one which is not always properly understood. The sorrow necessary for confession is an act of the will by which through the help of God’s grace we turn away from our sins, resolving to avoid them in the future, and turn towards God. The motive must be supernatural; the fear of hell, the loss of heaven, or the love of God are such motives. Since the sorrow is an act of the will, it need not be felt. There are some who have such a lively sorrow for their sins that they can shed tears over them; others have such a vivid feeling of eternal loss that they feel a fear that is greater than any other fear. These are exceptional cases. Most souls, even very holy souls, would feel more sorrow at some painful loss, for example, the death of a parent, than they would feel for their sins. That, however, does not lessen the value of their sorrow for sin in the least. Feelings have nothing to do with it; the real measure and test of the depth of sorrow is the will and the decision to avoid sin in the future. In fact, that is the real meaning of “doing penance”; for the old word for penance meant “change of heart.”
This “change of heart” is one of the best ways of finding the kingdom of God which, as He Himself tells us, is within us. When a friend has offended us, all his external protestations of sorrow and his attempts to restore friendly relations are quite inadequate if his heart has not changed. Even his firm resolve not to repeat the offense does not suffice if its motive is a mere selfish regret of personal loss quite unconnected with ourself. If he regrets the loss of our mutual friendship, even for what it meant to him, then, of course, friendship can be restored. But to reach its fullest value such renewed friendship must be based on a regret for having offended us.
It is true that the power of the sacrament makes the case somewhat different when there is a question of sorrow for sin. Imperfect contrition is quite sufficient for the reception of the sacrament. But when we approach the sacrament of penance, we should remember that the friendship we have injured by our sins is the greatest of all our friendships. More than that, we should remember that it is against our greatest friend and lover that we have sinned. More than that still, we should try to see that, even apart from His friendship towards ourselves, we have treated Him in His own self badly and shamefully by our sin, for He is so deserving of all our love. In other words, it is well to try to be sorry for our sins because they have offended Him, even if we start by being sorry because they have injured ourselves.
Still, though our sorrow may not reach the height of perfect contrition, we must not fail to have complete confidence in the generosity of God’s pardon. Provided that we have the minimum sorrow for the validity of the sacrament, the absolution has its due effect upon our souls; and the grace of God, with the infused virtues of faith, hope, and charity—especially that of charity which has been lost by mortal sin—are poured into our soul. This restored virtue of charity gives us the power of loving God again with a supernatural love, and we should strive to awaken the love after confession if we have not been able to do so before it.
It is important to remember that it is for our sins considered as offenses against God that we have to be sorry; there may have been some natural satisfaction or even good result attached to them we cannot regret as such. Even the Church sings of the “happy fault” of Adam which was the cause of such a wonderful Redemption. It is the offense against God that is in question and for which we must be truly sorry. It should also be noted that sincere sorrow is quite compatible with a well-founded fear of falling again. When a bad habit has been formed, such a fear can easily arise. All that is necessary for absolution is that one decide here and now not to repeat the sin and to avoid the danger of falling into it. The fact that weakness afterwards overcomes us does not change the value of the confession. Some people have a very obstinate sort of pride, which makes them very unwilling to admit the guilt of their actions. They feel they would be lowering themselves. The truth is quite the opposite. When a man insists on the rectitude of an action which was really wrong, he is merely showing his own lack of ideals and the lowness of his moral standards. When, on the contrary, he admits that he has done wrong and says he is sorry, he shows that he has raised himself to a new level of ideals and to a higher moral standard. Even in the natural order, he has raised himself by admitting his error.
It is of capital importance that we never, never let our past sins—however filthy or treacherous they may have been—come between us and God, or make us in any way doubtful of His love and afraid to approach Him in absolute and intimate confidence. God does not do things by halves. When He forgives sins, He forgives completely. Their guilt is blotted out in its entirety, and He will not reproach us with them again. But His generosity goes even further. When a soul falls into mortal sin, all the merits of its past life are lost. If, however, the soul repents and obtains pardon, these merits revive again; such is God’s generosity and love.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is the picture which our Lord Himself gave us of how God forgives sins. The prodigal had claimed his inheritance and had lost everything in riotous living. Reduced to want and degradation, he was moved by sheer hunger to say: “I will arise and go to my father, and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee: I am not worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” And the parable tells how, “when he was a great way off, his father saw him and he was moved with compassion, and running to him, fell upon his neck, and kissed him.” The parable goes on to relate that although the son begged to be allowed to become one of the servants, his father received him with all honor, putting on him the first robe and making a great feast to celebrate his son’s return “because my son was dead and is come to life again: was lost and is found.” This is the official picture of God’s reception of the repentant sinner, and no product of our own imagination should be allowed to supplant it.
The point is of great importance. There is always a great temptation to discouragement and distrust even after our sins have been forgiven. We feel that God still holds our sins against us, that His providence will be less favorable to us in future, that He no longer trusts us not to offend Him again, that He will be reserved and sparing in His graces. We feel, too, that no matter how great our progress in the future, the ultimate result will always be spoiled by that unfortunate past. The phantom of what might have been had we always been faithful mocks our efforts, lessens our hopes, and disheartens us. There is a certain height, we imagine, which formerly we might have reached but which is now impossible.
All that, natural though it may be, is quite wrong. It is based upon a wrong notion of God and is the result of a failure to understand His power and goodness. It does not matter whether it is the case of a fervent soul who has suddenly given way to temptation, whether it be some sinner who after a life of sin turns to the whole hearted service of God, or whether it be some one who takes up the spiritual life after many years of carelessness; God can always give us the means to make up for lost time. “To them that love God, all things work together unto good” (Rom 8:28), writes St. Paul, and St. Augustine would include “all things” even their sins. It follows then that God can use all things for the good of those who love Him. Even if we conceive of His plan as setting a certain height of holiness for each man, we should also remember that He can lead us to that height from any point we reach in our wanderings. If we lose our way and leave the path He has marked out for us, He can still bring us to the goal by another route. But it is not unreasonable to suppose that this alternative way will be more difficult; its very difficulty, however, is an assurance of the height to which it can lead us, for it affords us a new opportunity of gaining merit and showing our love.
To avoid presumption it must be remembered that this notion cannot be used as an excuse for committing sin because we feel sure in advance that God can restore everything we are going to throw away. The text says: “to them that love God.” Once a man is in mortal sin he does not love God, and therefore he has placed himself outside this plan. And, moreover, he cannot get back by his own efforts unless God take pity on him. He has rejected grace; he cannot love God supernaturally or repent of his sin without God’s grace; and God is in no way bound to give it to him. So much by way of warning against presumption before sinning. But after forgiveness, one should never let the thought of extra difficulty interfere with one’s confidence. The very difficulties, so often themselves a direct result of our sins—bad habits, for example—are really God’s providential means of giving us an opportunity of earning merit that we would otherwise have earned, in order to make up for our losses. And if there be difficulties, there is also God’s grace to overcome them, which is given to us in a special way by the sacrament of penance, and which is always available in the Blessed Eucharist. There is a principle that must always be remembered. One should never consider difficulties and obstacles without also considering ways and means. Now where God’s will is concerned, God’s grace is always at our disposal, and if one may suggest a slogan for the spiritual life, especially for the repentant sinner, it is: “I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me” (Phil 4:13). For do we not read: “And he said to me: my grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore, will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. . . . For when I am weak, then am I powerful” (2 Cor 12:9, 10)?
We would go so far as to say that there are saints in heaven who would not have reached their present glory had they not fallen into sin. To quote Cardinal Billot: “The penitent can recover something greater; insofar as one who gave himself to heroic works after his sin, is more loved by God, than one who, though never stained by mortal sin, is remiss in the exercise of virtues.” our Lord’s own words are full of meaning: “I say to you that even so there shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than upon ninety-nine just who need not penance” (Lk 15:7). We must, therefore, never lower our hopes or our aim. If it makes it easier for us, we may think of our new destiny as the change in color of a flower. There are white roses and red roses. Shall we say that one is more pleasing than the other? Whatever way we look at it, whatever we have done, we have God for our Savior, and to His saving power and saving mercy there is literally no limit.
If there is one thing in which our Lord “specializes,” it is in saving sinners. “I am not come,” He said, “to call the just, but sinners” (Mt 9:13). He is, “the Lamb of God . . . who taketh away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). St. John tells us: “If we walk in the light . . . the Blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin, and if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all iniquity” (1 Jn 1:7, 10). The whole of Scripture re-echoes God’s power and willingness to remove all our sins and repair our ruin. “Behold, I make all things new . . . I am Alpha and Omega; the beginning and the end. To him that thirsteth, I will give of the fountain of the water of life, freely” (Rv 21:5, 6). But perhaps the most appealing testimony of all is found in St. Matthew’s description of the angel’s message to St. Joseph concerning our Lady: “And she shall bring forth a son and thou shall call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Our Lord’s name then, signifying Savior, is more than a name; it is characteristic office, the work appointed for Him by God. His very name constitutes the sinner’s claim upon His goodness, His power, and His mercy. To understand the spirit in which He fulfils His function, it will be helpful to recall the words He addressed to St. Mechtilde, who was lamenting her sins and her lack of good works and deploring the negligence with which she had squandered the gifts of God. Our Lord comforted her, saying: “Even if thou wert perfectly faithful to Me thou shouldst infinitely prefer that My love should repair thy negligence rather than thou shouldst do it, so that My love may have all the honor and glory.”
If we accept our misery and the humiliation of having sinned, and banish our wounded pride—there is nothing God will not do for us. We, like the Church, are His bride, and He has delivered Himself up for us that He may sanctify us, and present us to Himself, “not having a spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that we should be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25–27). In the sacrament of penance, the Passion of Christ, with its unlimited efficacy and power, is applied to us to heal us of our sins. We are restored to our life in Christ. We have His life and power at our disposal. Even if He sent us trials as a “punishment” for our sins, they are not so much a punishment as a medicine to stir us up to fervent contrition and to afford us an occasion of regaining all we have lost. His mercy is over all His works, and if there is one way of touching God’s heart that can be recommended above all to the sinner, it is to cast oneself with all one’s misery on the mercy of God, who is our Father and our Savior, in absolute confidence and abandonment to His will. Our Lord Himself has shown us how He will run to receive us and restore to us our lost heritage. Many sins were forgiven to Mary Magdalen because she hath loved much. If we love Him as she did, our sins will be forgiven us; and we can be more pleasing to God by a life of ardent love after our sin than by the torpid security of our previous innocence. Truly does He say to us: “Go in peace,” for when our sins are forgiven, we are once more in Christ, who is the peace that passeth all understanding.