Dead Faith and Life-giving Sacraments

Here is a question that I get asked from time to time: If people do not have a living faith in God or are not disciples of Jesus Christ, would you give them the Sacraments if they wanted it?

This is a complicated question, so I want to answer this in two ways. First, there is a cultural assumption that if we just jump through the parish hoops then we have earned the right to the sacraments. Now let me be clear, the faithful do have a right to the sacraments; however, when people who have no intention of living the Church’s life and faith and they come for them solely out of family and cultural demands, this frustrates the very nature and purpose of the Sacraments themselves.

Our first move is to break the assumption that just because I paid for the books and have good enough attendance in class, then this is what I am owed. Rather, we need to shift them to a formation perspective: is my faith formed in such a way to receive the sacraments with a worthy disposition? Or in a more human way, am I ready to receive this gift?

Second, the short answer is “No.” I make it clear repeatedly in the beginning of Adult Confirmation or the RCIA classes I teach that anyone who does not demonstrate a clear personal faith in Christ and His Church will receive a sacrament in our parish. I assert this because, quite realistically, if there is no personal faith in the first place, then the recipient will not receive the sacramental graces anyway!

Subjective disposition matters when it comes to the sacraments. Sherry Weddell, in her book Forming Intentional Disciples, quoted Mark Shea as saying, “Grace is grace, it’s not magic.” If a mustard-seed of faith is present, then go for it, but if not, then do not. We profit no one by lowering our standards. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church in Paragraph #1123 says

The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it. That is why they are called ‘sacraments of faith’.
— Catechism #1123

Reread that paragraph and notice the centrality of living faith- presupposed, nourished, strengthened and expressed. But what if those who come to our parishes have no living faith? This quote should help us see the crucial necessity of preaching the kerygma in sacramental preparation. We should assume no faith and so avail ourselves of preaching the kerygma to all who come for the sacraments. 

The sacraments presuppose faith because it is Jesus Christ that is communicated in and through them. If people have no attachment to Christ, what use are the sacraments? Thus we need to discard the old way of sacramental catechesis and engage in sacramental evangelism in order to properly prepare their hearts for God’s grace to break in. Paragraph #1098 tells us that this preparation is nothing other than an encounter with the Risen Lord:

The assembly should prepare itself to encounter its Lord and to become “a people well disposed.” The preparation of hearts is the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the assembly, especially of its ministers. The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father’s will. These dispositions are the precondition both for the reception of other graces conferred in the celebration itself and the fruits of new life which the celebration is intended to produce afterward.
— Catechism #1098

God love you!