Don’t Abuse the Sacraments

Earlier this week, Mr. Matthew Plese began a discussion on “How the Sacraments Work” by explaining the principle ‘ex opere operato.’ This dogmatic teaching is crucial, especially in a defense against heresies. However, a tendency among Catholics is to over-emphasize this principle, such that it leads to acedia (spiritual apathy) or worse, superstition.

Avoid the Abuse

Because a Sacrament is valid when the rite is performed (i.e., with proper matter, form and minister’s intent), Catholics frequently fall into the error of only focusing on the rite having taken place. The error lies in that being the “only” consideration.

This perspective leads to a kind of minimalism. Catholics seek to only do the “minimum” necessary. They attend Mass on Sunday, but do so half-heartedly and absent-mindedly. They even ask questions like, “How late can I arrive at Mass but still fulfill my obligation?”

They treat confession analogously as a vending machine. As long as I put in my quarter and punch a series of buttons, I get the goods I want (paralleled by if I enter the confessional box, say certain things, and recite some prayers, I automatically get the absolution). Such a lack of intentionality and fervor leads non-Catholics to accuse us of thinking confession works as if “by magic.”

Engaged couples generally spend far more time, money, and efforts in preparing a wedding reception than they do in preparing for the actual rite of Holy Matrimony in which God will unite them till death do them part. Parents frequently place a greater emphasis on the gifts and party which will follow a Baptism than they do on preparing themselves for the actual rite of Baptism and the responsibilities which flow therefrom.

If this is my attitude, is it any wonder why the grace that God offers in the Sacraments makes little to no effectual change in my life?

Learn from the Saints

St. Teresa of Avila stated that receiving Holy Communion just once suffices to make one a perfect saint! This is because in Holy Communion we receive the Infinite, Perfect and Almighty God. Logically then, we too should become perfect as Our Heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5:48). And yet who of us becomes perfect after our First Holy Communion? Sometimes I even doubt whether I have made even the slightest advance in virtue after receiving my Lord and Savior. Why?

Blessed Imelda Lambertini intensely longed to receive Holy Communion. For years she begged and pleaded for this privileged grace. But because she was too young, she was repeatedly denied. One day, after Mass, the Sacred Host miraculously left the altar and floated to where Imelda knelt, hovering in the air just before her face. When the priest noted this, he had no doubt it was God’s Will that she receive Him. Imelda’s desire for God was so profound that, following her First Holy Communion, she went into an ecstasy and left this earth. She died and was united to God forever in Heaven.

How is it that receiving the Sacred Host could have such an effect on Blessed Imelda, while you and I receive Holy Communion so many times without any seemingly notable results? Is it that God gave Himself completely to her in Holy Communion but only gives Himself partially or half-heartedly to you and I? Of course not! Is it that her Holy Communion was valid (ex opere operato) but yours and mine are not? Of course not! So if Blessed Imelda, you and I all receive the same One God in Holy Communion, what accounts for this vast difference?

Ex Opere Operantis – Basic Principles

It is clearly not the principle ‘ex opere operato’ (which Catholics emphasize so much), so there must be another key sacramental principle. There is. It goes by the Latin term ‘ex opere operantis’ (literally translated as “from the work of the doer”). People talk about it a lot less, but I think it deserves far more attention.

This principle is simple to understand. It is quite logical. Yet, it probably takes a lifetime to fully appreciate. I believe there are two fundamental principles which underlie this teaching.

First, God gave man his free will and does not violate it. In other words, God will not impose Himself upon any human soul. (I like to quip, He is the Perfect Gentleman.) It is up to each one of us to freely choose to receive Him and love Him in return.

Second, one can’t receive what one is not disposed to receive. The lion’s body is not disposed to derive nutrition from grass, therefore grass will not sustain him. A blind man is not disposed to receive information through sight, therefore visual stimulation can’t inform him. An elementary school child learning the rudiments of addition will not be able to receive knowledge of calculus. Yet, this same principle holds true in the spiritual life. One can’t receive graces which one is not disposed to receive, even when the graces are made available in a valid Sacrament (by ex opere operato).

Ex Opere Operantis – The Subjective Factors

‘Ex opere operantis’ is the sacramental principle which upholds the individual’s free will and takes into account all the factors which influence the human subject and dispose him to receive God’s graces.

Because man consists of body and soul, our disposition will be influenced by material and spiritual factors. As we are relational creatures, interpersonal factors are also highly significant. These factors are too varied and numerous to name, but let us consider a few common to us all:

  • How aesthetically pleasing is the church in which we receive a Sacrament? Does the architecture naturally lift our mind and heart to God?
  • How glorious and reverent is the liturgy? Does it fill our soul with the sense of the sacred? Sacred language (Latin), Gregorian chant, incense, and candles all inevitably communicate greater sacred mystery than their mundane or banal counterparts.
  • How do we perceive the personal sanctity of the minister of the sacrament? Does he perform the rite with precision and devotion? Is his preaching inspiring? Is his faith apparent?
  • What are one’s past experiences of faith and sacramental efficacy?
  • Has one been greatly edified by a priest or representative of the Church? Conversely, has one suffered from injustices committed by representatives of the Church?

Above all, the most crucial factor, even more important than those listed above, is the person’s interior disposition. How much does he truly long for God? How attached is he to the vanities of the world and the desires of his flesh? How much does he pray and seek union with God? How much does he resist sin and temptation? How much effort has he made in preparing to receive God’s grace? How much time does he spend thanking God for graces received?

Ex Opere Operantis – Practical Application

Remember, in the Sacraments, God freely chooses to give us His sanctifying grace (His own divine life!). But ‘ex opere operantis’ is the principle which upholds the individual’s free will and takes into account all the factors which influence the human subject, enabling him to better (or less) receive God’s graces.

These are also the factors which individual persons can exercise control over. A layperson normally does not affect the matter, form, or intent of the minister, so ‘ex opere operato’ is beyond the layperson’s control. But ‘ex opere operantis’ lies largely within his purview, and so it is also his personal responsibility. Embrace this duty and strive for excellence!

With regard to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I urge you to find the priest who inspires you most to sanctity. Assist at the most reverent and sacred liturgy possible, even if it means driving three hours one way (God will not be outdone in generosity!).

Consider your reception of Holy Communion as well. A Catholic should spend time preparing himself well to receive Our Lord and should spend time afterwards in thanksgiving. It is common practice among Catholics to allow themselves to be distracted before and after Holy Communion. This lack of adequate preparation and thanksgiving dramatically reduces the effect of God’s grace in one’s life. Consider the example of St. Louis de Montfort. He would spend hours preparing himself for Holy Communion. At times, he even stayed up all night in a vigil of prayer. He would then spend hours kneeling in the church after he had received Holy Communion to thank Our Lord. You and I might not spend hours, but can we spend fifteen minutes?[1] How much do we love Jesus?

Many Catholics spend some time preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation, yet this preparation is woefully inadequate at most parishes. Worse, few of the confirmed concern themselves with “stirring up the graces” which the Holy Ghost bestows in this Sacrament. Thus, they often don’t see any real change in their lives following Confirmation. Make sure you help those under your charge to prepare earnestly for the Sacrament. Pray to the Holy Ghost every day to activate your confirmation graces. Frequently pray novenas to Him.


Many more examples could be given and surely you can think of many practical applications for yourself. Knowing the factors which dispose us to more effectually receive God’s sacramental grace should motivate us to seek out the Sacraments under the best possible conditions with increased preparation and thanksgiving.

Mr. Plese will discuss the historical development and theology of ‘ex opere operantis’ in a future article and provide further points of reflection.

Above all, resist sacramental apathy and strive to give God the best! All for His greater glory.


[1] In the The Catechism Explained,  Fathers  Spirago and Clarke note, “our thanksgiving ought to last at least a quarter of an hour” (pg. 603).

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