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The validity of Sacraments (1)
June 23, 2011, 11:51 am
Filed under: Opinion | Tags: , ,

I intend to offer a series of posts on this general theme, in the hope of showing a way to approach this vexed issue in the case of certain Sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

What is a Sacrament? First and foremost it is an act of Christ in his Church, whereby he associates us with his own self-offering to the Father, and shares with us its fruits. It is an act of Christ, because he is always the principal minister of the Sacrament; but he exercises this ministry in the Church through his authorised representatives. In discussing the validity of Sacraments, then, we have to ask, (1) Who is an authorised minister for the Sacrament in question? and (2) How precisely do they exercise this ministry?

The answers to these questions differ according to the particular Sacrament being considered, which entails a preliminary question regarding the nature and purpose of that Sacrament. For instance, in Baptism Christ effects the initial association of a person with himself in the Church. This is the “gateway” to the other Sacraments. It is Catholic teaching that anyone may be an “authorised person” to administer this Sacrament. It is sufficient that they perform the action (including the appropriate words) with the serious intention of “doing what the Church does”. It will be seen that the Church sets the conditions for valid Baptism very simply.

Setting aside marriage, for the moment, which is a special case, it may be said that the rest of the Sacraments require much more for a person to be an “authorised minister”. This takes us immediately to the question, how is such authorisation given? Logically, such authorisation can only be given by those who themselves have authority to do so, and historically that takes us back to those who were first given it by the Lord himself. Christ chose his Apostles, and the Gospels witness to the fact that he gave them authority to act in his name. They were the first “authorised persons”, and all authentic sacramental ministry derives from Christ through them.

The “authorisation” of ministers is termed Ordination, and it is easy to see that it has two “levels”, as it were. There is the fundamental authorisation to act in persona Christi (above all in the Eucharist), and there is the further authority to pass on this authorisation to others. The first does not necessarily entail the second. While the term “priesthood” includes both levels, the second level is termed properly “episcopate”. The Bishop is the principal minister of the Sacraments in the local Church, assisted by his college of priests (as well as by other ministers of various kinds). It is not necessary to go into all the details of the Episcopal ministry here.

(to be continued)

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