Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Sacraments that are Only Valid; Sacraments that are Valid and Fruitful

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on May 17, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Psalm 66:1-20; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21.) 

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday of  Easter 2020]

Religiously speaking, what do Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin have in common with St. John Paul II, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Pius X?

You may be tempted to say, “Nothing,” but that would be incorrect.

Believe it or not, religiously speaking the three scoundrels in the first group share at least one thing in common with the three holy men in the second group: Baptism!  Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were all born again of water and the Holy Spirit as infants!  They were all set free from original sin; they all received sanctifying grace into their souls, and they all became members of God’s family, the Church.  Of course, in one way or another they all repudiated the Faith later in life, but that’s another story.  Their later wickedness doesn’t negate their baptisms; it doesn’t change the fact that they once received the same sacramental graces that St. John Paul II, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Pius X received on the days they were baptized.

Which brings up the obvious question: How is it possible for an Adolph Hitler and a John Paul II to experience God’s grace in the same way through Baptism, and then become exact opposites in their earthly lives?

The only way to answer that question is to make reference to a very important distinction of sacramental theology:  it’s the distinction between a sacrament that’s valid, and a sacrament that’s valid and fruitful. 

For a sacrament to be valid, you need the proper minister (for Baptism—in ordinary circumstances—that means a bishop, priest or deacon); you need the proper matter and form (in Baptism, that means water, and the words of the Trinitarian formula: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”); and the one administering the sacrament must have the right intention (in Baptism, that means the intention to do what the Church does when she baptizes).  If all those prerequisites are satisfied, then the person in question—be it Adolph Hitler or Francis of Assisi—truly receives the sacrament.

But obviously that’s not supposed to be the end of the story!  Jesus has given us the seven sacraments for a specific purpose: so that they will bear fruit—good fruit—in our earthly lives, and thus assist us on our pilgrim journey to Heaven.  But whether or not this happens depends largely on us: we decide whether the sacrament we receive will be only valid, or valid and fruitful.  We do that by either rejecting the grace given in the sacrament, or cooperating with it.  This, of course, explains the difference between the three scoundrels and the three holy men I mentioned a few moments ago: the three holy men nurtured their baptismal grace and it bore good fruit in their lives; the three scoundrels did not.

This important truth about the sacraments is illustrated right in our midst (and in every Catholic church) each and every Sunday.  For example, one man receives the Eucharist at a Sunday Mass, walks right out of church, swears at people in the parking lot, and yells at his wife and kids when he gets home for no good reason.  Another man at the same Mass receives, goes back to his pew and sincerely prays that he can put into practice the Gospel message he’s heard that day.  Then he goes out and puts forth his best effort in that regard. 

Did both men receive a valid sacrament?  You bet.  But only one allowed it to bear good fruit in his life.

I thought of all this in preparation for this homily, because our three Scripture readings this weekend deal (either explicitly or implicitly) with the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. 

In today’s Gospel text from John 15 Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [i.e., the Holy Spirit] to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows him.  But you know him because he remains with you and will be in you.”  The Spirit is given to us first at Baptism; then another outpouring of the Spirit is given to us at Confirmation.  In today’s first reading from Acts 8 we’re told that the apostles went to Samaria, and there they found some new Christians.  Nothing strange about that.  But what was unusual was the fact that these new Christians had only been baptized!  For some reason, they hadn’t received the second outpouring of the Spirit which comes at Confirmation.  And so the apostles immediately laid hands on them to confirm them and remedy the situation. 

The second reading from 1 Peter 3 fits into this by giving us an important insight as to why this second outpouring is necessary.  Ask most young people why they want to receive the sacrament of Confirmation, and they’ll usually tell you one of two things.  Either they’ll say, “Because I want to get married someday in the Church”—which, by the way, is a horrible reason to want to be confirmed.  And besides, canon law does not say you must be confirmed to be married in the Church; it indicates that you should be confirmed.  Let me warn you, teenagers: if that’s the only reason you’re being confirmed (so that you can be married in the Church someday), then this sacrament will probably not bear much fruit in your life.  It will be valid, but that’s about it. 

The second reason young people will commonly give for wanting to be confirmed is this one: “I want to be an adult in the Church.”  To which I always want to respond, “What does that mean?”  If you’re over 18 and you’re a baptized Catholic, then you’re an adult in the Church!—whether you are confirmed or not!

The purpose of this second sacramental outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation is WITNESS!  That’s what Peter is talking about in today’s second reading.  When Jesus told his apostles that he would send them the Holy Spirit he said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you, and [then] you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Confirmation is given to make us bold, strong, loving, committed Catholics who aren’t afraid to be different; who aren’t afraid to stand up for the truth and be counted.”

“But Fr. Ray, that’s hard.”

Yes!!!! And that’s precisely the point!  If it weren’t hard we wouldn’t need this sacrament!  Listen now to what Peter says in that second reading: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.  Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear. . . . for it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.”

That’s the kind of witness we are called to give through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Why is this so important?  Well, aside from our own salvation being at stake, if we fail to allow our baptism to bear good fruit in our life, we will cause harm to others—even to those we love.  Take the three scoundrels I mentioned at the beginning of my homily.  They clearly squandered the grace that God had graciously given to them at their baptisms.  It bore almost no good fruit in their lives, and millions—literally millions—of innocent people suffered because of it.

You know the history.

By the way, the same thing is true today of baptized civil leaders who reject the grace of their baptisms by supporting evils like abortion.  Think of that fact relative to the suffering that’s going on in the world and in our country right now.  Thankfully our current president is pro-life—but not all our civil leaders are.

How many people have suffered because of that?

Life, my brothers and sisters, is all about choices.  Among the most important choices we make, are the ones that concern the sacraments we receive.  Will I, or will I not, allow my baptism, my confirmation—and the Holy Eucharist—to bear good fruit in my life?  Will these sacraments be only valid for me, or will they be valid and fruitful? 

Dear Lord, may we always choose the second option in our lives.