Sacraments: “Everyone” or “Anyone”?

Before with my post, My Paradigm Shift, I marked the moment when I realized I had changed from a Protestant worldview to a Catholic worldview. Since then, I have wondered what it was that flipped the switch. The best I can do is to trace the force that caused the breakdown of my Protestant mindset back to a conversation with our old priest, Father Chuck, when we met with him to sign the papers to convalidate our marriage. Chris has already written a little about this, but I thought I could expand on the event a little and why this one thing got through to me when it seemed nothing else would.

Chris and I had gotten married before he had officially converted to Catholicism. I knew full well what I was getting into with him, though. He never minced words when it came to laying out his faith for me to accept him with it or reject them both. Living in Northern Ireland in a Protestant family and a Protestant neighborhood, there were many obstacles to his Catholic conversion. It turns out by immigrating to marry me, Chris was enabled to officially join the Church. It was during the process of RCIA, making preparations for the approaching Easter vigil two years ago at which Chris would take his First Communion and our daughter would be baptized, that several couples were getting their marriages convalidated.

I couldn’t understand the other couples’ cavilier attitude. They behaved as if they were just checking something off the list as they went about joining just another church. I had something of the attitude that I was already married and already said my vows, and once is good enough. Otherwise it would imply that we didn’t mean it the first time or our commitment had waned since then and our marriage needed “refresher” vows. But we met with the priest and I was ready to grumpily sign the papers under protest that my husband’s faith forced me to do all kinds of crazy things on his behalf. Chris would have none of my false sacrificial spirituality and so wanted to make sure that I was comfortable with the whole thing before we committed to it. Then we talked about convalidation.

I related my view on vow renewals, that it somehow invalidated our initial vows, and Father Chuck kindly asked why in light of the fact that Protestants rebaptize people. That’s somewhat like renewing vows, isn’t it? I can’t remember what I stammered out in reply to that, but we went on discussing exactly what convalidation was and meant. Father Chuck repeatedly called it a blessing. I thought I understood blessings, and I was fine with that. If the Catholic Church wanted to ask God to bless our marriage or give their approval for it, let them. Then occasionally he threw in the word “sacramental”, saying that a marriage outside of the Church wasn’t sacramental.

Every time the word “blessing” was mentioned, I calmed down. But every time Father Chuck said the word “sacrament”, the hairs on my neck stood up. What’s a sacrament?, I thought. Outwardly I bristled, “What do you mean my marriage isn’t sacramental!?” How dare anyone say my marriage is missing something! So I asked why the blessing of the Catholic Church was necessary to make it sacramental. Father Chuck seemed to be having a hard time warping his mind, trying to understand exactly where I was coming from and why this concept was so difficult for me. He tried to tell me we needed a priest to perform the blessing. “Why do we need a priest? We already had a pastor marry us and bless us.” Because a pastor hasn’t been ordained by the Church to administer sacraments. What’s a sacrament??

In my usual fumbling and incoherent manner, I explained to Father Chuck that I had been raised to believe that God and His grace was equally available to everyone. A lightbulb appeared over his head. He leaned back in his chair and said, “So you think that anyone is able to perform marriages and convey God’s graces?”

Well, no.

I went on conversing with myself:

Well then, who?

Certainly we cannot base it on our own spirituality. I’ve seen how that doesn’t work. We all fall short of the grace of God.

Then, who?

Only those ordained by God through the Holy Spirit.

Who has been ordained by God through the Holy Spirit?

I don’t know. But I don’t think being ordained by men who have formed a church of their own accord is the same as being ordained by the Holy Spirit. It should look like something… like something real… so those of us seeking Him can find His grace…

But I replied to Father Chuck, “Uh… yeah.” We left without signing the papers and still haven’t convalidated our marriage. I think my pride still says “How dare you say my marriage is missing something!” But that simple word change, from everyone to anyone, had worked on my thoughts for a year and a half before I began to understand it.

God gives us actual grace. He has left us actual means to come to Him and receive that grace, and those means are known as “sacraments”. However, He has not based the conferrence of His grace on our own righteousness or that of the person administering sacraments, because “not one is righteous” (Rom 3:9-10). Instead, He has given His blessing, and enabled some of us sinful creatures to serve as His instruments of grace through His ordination. That ordination can be found in Christ’s choice of the twelve disciples and His life given to them, Him living in them and through them, at the Last Supper, passed on through those men by the laying on of hands to others who would succeed them. By partaking of the sacraments, we acknowledge our utter dependence on God and His grace, denying our own merit to find these things apart from Him and His chosen.

It’s not surprising that the concept of sacraments and things sacred as blessed by those ordained by Christ through Apostolic succession was completely foreign to me. What is sacred in the Protestant world apart from the Bible? I don’t know much about those Protestant churches who retain “sacraments” as they call them, but it is not like the Catholic term. Reading through Luther’s biography, Luther the Reformer: The Man and His Career, I see the reduction of sacraments from seven to two, and the debate of any actual grace being conferred. Though Luther steadfastly held to baptism and the Eucharist and desired reform of the Catholic Church, his contemporaries were looking for a way to separate from the Church, not only from the authority of the pope but also from the power of the priests in the sacraments. If the Eucharist hold the real presence of Christ and real graces are conferred in sacraments, then the priesthood is necessary. They knew there was no turning to our own qualifications to confer God’s grace. If there was actual grace, then we needed those ordained by God. Their solution was simply to destroy the sacred, annihilate the sacraments, and maintain that God’s grace is only ephemeral and handed out on a case by case basis by the Holy Spirit working alone.

Much like the Eucharist drew Chris to the Catholic Church, the sacraments drew me in. I began to understand how God works through us and not by our own merit. This humble reliance on God’s grace was in stark contrast with the theology of glory found in my early evangelical days, complete with pastor veneration and self-proclaimed callings. Things began to fall into place. For me, Sunday fellowship began to depend on the sacraments instead of the pastor’s ability to preach a good sermon. The unity of the Church depends on God grace and our submission to Him, not on the greatness of any given man to lend logic, consistency and loyalty to his theology. All because God chose to use Father Chuck and two little words, “everyone” and “anyone”, to reveal His sacraments to me.

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12 Responses to Sacraments: “Everyone” or “Anyone”?

  1. stirenaeus says:

    You’re saying something I feel deeply — that in the sacraments, in physical things, God is really present. He’s There. Not off in heaven or in our [psyche] hearts, but in our very midst. When I’m at adoration, for instance, Bethlehem has come to the suburbs…

  2. lenetta says:

    > For me, Sunday fellowship began to depend on the sacraments instead of the pastor’s ability to preach a good sermon. The unity of the Church depends on God grace and our submission to Him, not on the greatness of any given man to lend logic, consistency and loyalty to his theology.

    Amen, and amen. I wish I’d have had a better grasp on this six years ago, and I’m thankful that I’ve started to figure it out now. (Thank you, Holy Spirit!)

    Hey, I think we’ll be traveling by your neck of the woods in a few weeks on the way to visit my brother and his family in Lee’s Summit. I’ll send you happy thoughts as we go by. :>)

  3. Lacey says:

    > God gives us actual grace. He has left us actual means to come to Him and receive that grace, and those means are known as “sacraments”… Instead, He has given His blessing, and enabled some of us sinful creatures to serve as His instruments of grace through His ordination.

    I love the way you’ve put that! Such a simple way to explain both the sacraments and the need for ordained priests. Thanks for the post!

  4. Chad Toney says:

    Weren’t you both baptized protestants when you married? I thought that in that situation the Church assumes a valid, sacramental marriage and nothing needs to be done if one or both convert after marriage.

    And also, it’s my understanding that in Catholic sacramental teaching, a priest is not needed for a marriage, but the bride and groom themselves are the ministers of the sacrament. (Catholic apologist and layman Jimmy Akin recently witnessed a Catholic marriage like this and talked about it on his blog).

    But your concerns about sacraments and who has the authority to minister them is still a valid one…

  5. stirenaeus says:

    “your concerns about sacraments and who has the authority to minister them is still a valid one…”

    Pun intended?

  6. Chad Toney says:

    ha, I wish!

  7. Chad Toney says:

    Not even good grammar!

  8. Stacey says:

    Well, Chad,

    You’ve deflated my whole understanding of the Catholic Church and the sacraments… I guess I’ll just have to cancel my conversion appointment 😉

    I’d forgotten that the spouses were taught to be the ones to confer grace in the marriage sacrament. My post is misleading in that, isn’t it? That makes sense for what is going on, and still isn’t reliant on our own righteousness. Baptism, also, in extreme circumstances (concern for the baby’s life) can be performed by any baptized Catholic with the right intentions and using the Trinitarian formula. All of the other sacraments, like the Eucharist, need a priest, right?

    The catechism says that a priest has to assist in the Catholic marriage ceremony for it to be sacramentally valid, though. I guess that puts our situation in confusion since it wasn’t a Catholic marriage. It seems to me, that it still stands. Our convalidation isn’t required (so says Father Chuck), we’re not living in sin and our marriage is valid, but I think the Church’s blessing is necessary to make it sacramental. All very confusing for a person who’s just grasped that whole “What’s a sacrament?” Any insights?

  9. Chad Toney says:

    Stacey,

    Yep, baptism can be performed by anyone and be valid. I think it is valid in any circumstance. But if performed by a layman it is illicit unless in extreme circumstances. So if, a layman, went around baptizing other peoples’ babies here at the hospital where I work, those would be valid but illicit.

    Catholic(s) getting married are bound by canonical form, and can be assisted by the ordained or a lay person…lots of stipulations though:

    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P40.HTM

    Yep, everything else needs a priest.

    I’m trying to find proof, but no, two baptized non-Catholics getting married is both valid and sacramental (though if either of the non-Catholics were previous Catholic, that’s where it gets messy).

  10. Stacey says:

    Hrm… to convalidate or not to convalidate? It’s something I can ask my priest or the instructor if/when I go through RCIA.

  11. james g says:

    Stacey,

    Great post!

    Hope I can clear a little of the confusion. Chad is right in that since you were both baptized Christians (and your husband was not yet Catholic, so not bound by canonical form) then your marriage is indeed valid and sacramental.

    Building on Chad’s comments about lay-baptism: yes, a baptism performed by a layman is valid. Yet even though such a baptism is valid, babies who are baptized under exigent circumstances will often later be conditionally baptized by a priest in church. Because baptism is so important, if not done in a regular manner a conditional baptism is performed because it absolutely guarantees validity; it ensures that all the “i”s are dotted and “t”s are crossed, so to speak.

    This practice of seeking convalidation for all non-Catholic marriages during the RCIA process is something new to me. Given that your husband was still able to be received into the Church without it would indicate that it is not a requirement but more of a suggestion. Without knowing the directives that Fr “Chuck” was following I cannot give the reason for him bringing it up but I have a suspicion.

    With marriage, like all Sacraments, there are certain requirements for validity such as proper intent and consent. Per Canon 1096:
    Ҥ1. For matrimonial consent to exist, the contracting parties must be at least not ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation.
    §2. This ignorance is not presumed after puberty.” [emphasis mine]

    Given how bad the state of marriage is in America I don’t think it is any longer safe to presume proper consent for even Catholic weddings let alone non-Catholic ones given the near universal abandonment of even teaching the permanence of marriage amongst Protestants. For reasons similar to those that conditional baptisms are performed, a shift towards encouraging convalidations might be happening just to remove all doubt that the weddings are valid.

    Just my thoughts on the matter.

    James G

  12. Stacey says:

    Thanks, James. I’m still uncertain enough to bring it up with my priest/instructor. I wonder if Father Chuck wasn’t sure himself on the matter? Or perhaps there is a new trend of encouraging convalidations, like you say, to remove doubt of validity.

    Of course, as with all new insights, I’m rather excitable in relation to sacraments, and want to apply this new truth to everything. That may be why it’s hard for me to see how the marriage can be sacramental outside of the Catholic Church, even if it’s not a Catholic marriage (initially). If I figure it out, I’m sure that will be a wonderful new revelation that I’ll be all excited to blog about 😉

    Once I do discuss this with my priest, I’ll be sure to update everyone, although it may be some time from now.

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