Source: Catholic Answers podcast on catholic.com
Reprinted with permission
Do the sacraments do what they claim to do? Msgr. Eugene Morris defends their efficacy in a world that mostly fails to see them for what they are. Msgr. Morris is a sacramental theologian and a priest of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. He is a popular speaker, retreat leader, and radio guest and host.
Cy Kellett: Do the Sacraments do what they say they’re gonna do? Let’s find out.
Cy: Welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and this time, we talk about Sacraments with a Sacramental theologian. Monsignor Eugene Morse is our guest, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, a professor, in fact, of Sacramental Theology, and, unless I am mistaken, a former member of the Papal household. Is that correct?
Msgr. Morris: Still a member of the Papal household.
Cy: Oh, okay.
Msgr. Morris: I didn’t lose that…
Cy: That’s the monsignor?
Msgr. Morris: That’s the monsignor, that’s correct.
Cy: I gotcha, alright.
Msgr. Morris: So, it’s good to be here, thank you.
Cy: Well, thank you for being with us. Just so the listener knows, you gave a brief retreat to us this morning here at Catholic Answers, and you said something that I would like to discuss with you. You said the Sacraments do what they say they’re going to do. First of all, I’m supposed to still believe that? I didn’t know we still believed that.
Msgr. Morris: It’s funny you say that. When I was newly ordained, there were a number of older parishioners who I assumed believed everything the Church taught, and every now and then I’d come out with something, and they’d always say to me, “Do we still believe that? We still teach that?” And I’d go, “Yes, we do.”
Msgr. Morris: The one specifically was always Purgatory, “We don’t believe in Purgatory anymore.” “Yeah, we kinda do, as a matter of fact, you need to hold onto the reality of Purgatory, because that may be the best that you get.” So that’s a side point, we can come back and talk about that later.
Msgr. Morris: So yes, we do believe that the Sacraments actually do what they’re supposed to do. So, my training is as a Sacramental Theologian at Sant’Anselmo in Rome. There are different schools of thought or approaches to the Sacraments. There is one school, I’m not sure it’s completely associated with the average Dominicans, but it’s the school of Sacramental Realism, that in one sense maybe even gives an over-emphasis on the reality of the Sacraments accomplishing what they’re supposed to accomplish. So there’d be a lot of conversation about the matter and form of the Sacrament, what words, what things must be done in order to not just licitly, legally, but validly impart the Grace of the Sacrament.
Msgr. Morris: The significance for me, especially, is because we’re not engaged in ritual merely for the affective or the emotional. It can be emotional, it can be affective, but the truth is, they, the Sacraments, and depending on which one we’re talking about, they do something very particular. Each Sacrament has something intentional that it’s going to achieve in the life of the soul, in the vocation of the individual who receives the Sacrament. I’m not sure people actually know this, and if they do know it, I’m not sure they actually understand it.
Cy: Yeah, I wonder, now, I have ascribed this fact that people maybe don’t have an understanding of the power of the Sacrament to the fact that we are a very Protestantized Catholicism here in America.
Msgr. Morris: Yes.
Cy: But it does also seem to be a spreading world phenomenon. I’m not a great world traveler or anything, but you get the sense that…do people believe in the Sacraments? So, what’s your sense? First of all, how did we lose this? Because I would imagine you go back to the medieval world, the majority of Catholics in the medieval world, say in the High Middle Ages, they probably believe that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus, and it’s just real to them. They’re not like, “Well, in a symbolic…” you know, they’re not doing that kind of thing.
Msgr. Morris: You know, and I think part of that, too, so if you go to the middle ages, or really any period before the modern age, people didn’t have the luxury to kind of question these things.
Cy: Okay, yeah.
Msgr. Morris: In the sense that what the Church taught, what institutions conveyed to us, people willingly accepted. So some people would argue that they didn’t have an understanding in a sense any more in depth than what we have now. I would say that’s not really the distinction I would draw. I would say, as you did point out, they accepted it, they believed it. To the degree that they understood it or it impacted their lives, we may never be able to ascertain that. So was the average practicing Catholic in the High Middle Ages, the 12th, 13th century, really on fire for the Lord? That’s more modern language, more modern sensibility about how we approach the faith.
Msgr. Morris: But I think an answer to your other question as to how we have arrived at this point, I think there are a couple of different factors. The change of the structure of the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Sacrifice, the Mass, and really of all the liturgical, ritualistic realities associated with the Sacraments put, I understand why, but I think put an undue emphasis on one’s understanding of and participation and experience of the externals.
Cy: Ah, I see.
Msgr. Morris: So, liturgy, obviously is ritual, it involves things that are sights, sounds, smells, all those things that human beings need to mediate to the world itself, but we put an overemphasis on those, to the exclusion of the reality that these things are communicating, doing something. Coupled with that kind of emotional response, if I’m not feeling it, then it really doesn’t do anything to me. Or the degree to which it does anything is mostly predicated on my disposition, how I am present there, what I am getting out of it, as opposed to something that is objectively happening to you. Couple that, also, with a general loss of the transcendent.
Cy: Oh, yeah.
Msgr. Morris: One of the things I am constantly hearing from people is, “I don’t go to Church in part because I simply don’t believe God’s going to condemn me to Hell.” That could be either they don’t believe in Hell at all, everybody gets to go to Heaven. Which would be nice, but we know that’s not necessarily true, not because God does not will or want that, but because individuals don’t live accordingly. Or they simply believe that, while there might be a Hell, certainly, no one actually gets there because God will forgive everything that I am guilty of. And again, God is capable, certainly, of forgiving everything you’re guilty of.
Msgr. Morris: But then both of those realities, however you might approach them, then kind of beg the question, “If that’s the case, if I’m going to Heaven without [inaudible 00:06:03] real work on my part, why do I need Grace? And then, why do I need the means that communicate Grace to me?”
Cy: Right, yeah.
Msgr. Morris: “And then they don’t really communicate anything at all because I don’t really need that.”
Cy: Ah, yes, so the lost of the felt need for God’s Grace precedes the idea that there’s not really Grace happening here anyway. I got it, okay.
Cy: What do we mean then, when we say that the Sacraments do what they say they’re going to do? Let’s maybe just start with Baptism, of course. I have to confess, I didn’t feel anything at my baptism. I was 8 days old, it wasn’t a very emotional experience for me.
Msgr. Morris: In which case, I have to wonder, are you really baptized?
Cy: Yeah, well…
Msgr. Morris: And therein lies what people would actually say. They would ask the question. And we know from our separated brethren, the Baptist tradition, actually would tell you that you shouldn’t baptize precisely for that reason, because you were only 8 days old, you weren’t actually able to cooperate, you didn’t feel anything, you didn’t ascent to this, all those are reasons not to actually baptize you.
Msgr. Morris: We would say, quite the opposite, which is what we do, and that is, it doesn’t matter if you felt it, remembered it, had an emotional experience attached to it, when you were baptized at 8 years old, or whether you were baptized as an adult, or somewhere in between, original and all sins were remitted, in your case, original sin, and then you were configured, grafted under the life of Christ, and you became a sharer in divine life, a sharer in the fullness of the mystery of our Lord. Again, I use that term, “grafted onto God, grafted onto Christ.” You think about that.
Msgr. Morris: So we talk about a royal priesthood, a holy nation of people set apart. That’s beautiful language, but it’s the expression of a reality that is true. That’s what happened to us at our baptisms.
Cy: So, um…the thing…yea, okay, so, but there is a point at which, right, baptism…I’m going to have to do something, right? I have to, like…
Msgr. Morris: Right…
Cy: Cause Hitler was baptized, and I don’t wanna pick on Hitler, but like, lots of people like Hitler were baptized…
Msgr. Morris: Correct. And countless ones we don’t know who were just as guilty of egregious sins, if you will. So yes, the reality of the Grace given in baptism doesn’t mean that you’re going to almost immediately, in a sense, cooperate with that Grace. There’s the expectation that Grace received in the act of reception then will be Grace that will be, for lack of a better way of describing it, Grace that will be actualized, Grace that will be used.
Msgr. Morris: So one of the insights from Saint Augustine in regards to “do we need to baptize people who have abjured the faith?” And of course, there were some who were saying, Yes, we need to rebaptize them, because if they denied the faith, that failure, that sin would seem to suggest that their baptisms didn’t…
Cy: Didn’t work…
Msgr. Morris: Didn’t actually take, exactly. That is a legitimately logical conclusion to arrive at, especially in the life of the early Church. Saint Augustine says no, the Sacraments are things that are administered and received, and in the act of administration, there is imparted, in the case of baptism, this Grace, that once given, can never be taken away. One can lose it through sin, one can allow it to atrophy through a lack of spiritual growth, but once you are baptized, you are always baptized. Even if you decide yourself to publicly declare that I no longer believe in Christ and to write a testimony and sign it and some other public declaration, it would be clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that you believe about yourself that you no longer are a Christian, it wouldn’t matter. Because the nature of what happens at baptism is that you are, again, sin forgiven, configured to Christ.
Cy: So it would almost be like me writing a letter saying, “I’m not a human, I don’t identify as a human anymore…”
Msgr. Morris: That is correct.
Cy: I don’t have any say, it’s done.
Msgr. Morris: Correct, exactly.
Cy: It’s, it’s…okay.
Msgr. Morris: But then, even as you say, look at the world in which we find ourselves now, and so all the manipulation people are doing with their bodies, all the way people are describing themselves, men becoming women, women becoming men, all those things. When you factor a world that has decided to take reality and allow it to be self-determined, then again, the understanding of Grace impacting me as an objective reality, that these things do things to me, it becomes just another idea that I can either accept or reject.
Msgr. Morris: And if I want to reject it, there’s no implications to that whatsoever. And…please, sorry.
Cy: No, no, that’s okay, I was just thinking that, then, if I’m gonna accept your view of the Sacraments, these things working and doing what they say they’re gonna do. And I’m looking at all the struggles we’re having with young people, and you know, they turn on the computer when they’re 8, some of these kids, or even younger, and they’re seeing things that you shouldn’t be looking at as an adult and they’re so damaged by it. And it’s such a kind of societal failure to children, why are we waiting until they’re, say, 15 to confirm them? Why not just, like, if it does what it’s supposed to do, give it to them early, before they get hit with the internet.
Msgr. Morris: I agree with you wholeheartedly.
Cy: Oh, you do?
Msgr. Morris: Oh, were you surprised by that?
Cy: A little, I mean, okay…
Msgr. Morris: And I mean, I understand, kind of, your surprise, because most…the conventional wisdom, since the separation of confirmation from baptism, and the insertion of first holy communion, which then required the insertion of the Sacrament of confession, there has been this greater wedge between baptism and confirmation. Confirmation now is seen as, and I quote Thomas, who says it’s an adult Sacrament. But Saint Thomas also immediately says that the adult nature of the Sacrament is not a chronological reality. It’s a spiritual adulthood meaning, the Grace received in confirmation is giving you the strength to take responsibility for who you are as a Catholic.
Msgr. Morris: So I have often said to parents, who have been reluctant to force their kids to receive it, I said, force them to receive it. Because even though, by forcing them, it could be argued, they may not be in the best disposition to receive, as long as they’re not saying, “I refuse to accept Grace,” they will receive that Grace that they will need, it might help them actually, as you’re describing, stand against the temptations that come from being overly exposed to all this kind of soul-destroying information that’s on the internet.
Cy: Another point about not accepting the Sacraments doing what they say they’re gonna do is that, in the modern world, I don’t know about you, but if my computer buffers for 15 seconds, I’m mad at my computer and I’m mad at all the engineers at Microsoft, and it’s 15 seconds. So working means working with a kind of immediate, obvious efficacy, you know?
Msgr. Morris: That’s correct.
Cy: And so, I go to Communion, at Mass, and I don’t…what’s the immediate, obvious efficacy? It doesn’t happen. So what does it mean, it’s working?
Msgr. Morris: And the answer would be, God has a lot…you have, hopefully, prepared yourself well…
Msgr. Morris: …to be a worthy receptacle for the Lord, to be a worthy Tabernacle, because He rests inside of you, obviously then He’s animating you, He hopefully is directing you as you allow yourself to be led by Him and by the Spirit. He’s dwelling literally, you’ve taken God inside of you. But again, as you’re saying, we’re working against a world that expects the instantaneous and the immediate, and the clearly demonstrable and tangible. And if any or one or all of those are absent, then there’s no meaning to it, there’s no value to it. So you’re right, for people who are expecting some type of immediate change, or if, indeed, they do give Grace, why am I still struggling with the same sins?
Cy: Right, right.
Msgr. Morris: Why am I having the same problems over again? Why isn’t God’s Grace powerful enough to change and transform me? This in part was the question that Martin Luther was struggling with when he began the revolt, was, I’m going all the time…
Cy: And I’m still Martin Luther.
Msgr. Morris: Exactly. Shouldn’t I be different? To which I often say, when the question is posed to me, what would you be like if you weren’t going at all? So maybe the difference is…and again, if you’re thinking of something immediate and profound, then the subtle differences that happen in the spiritual life are gonna be just that, they’re gonna be missed. They’re subtle. I always think of it in terms of Elijah waiting for the voice of the Lord in the mountain, and the Scripture says it came to him in the whispering of the wind. Sometimes, the movements of God in the spiritual life are so subtle that if we’re not spiritually attuned to them, we will miss them. That can happen. All the more reason to stay close to the Sacramental life of the Church and to engage it on all the levels where we possibly can so that you begin to train your interior ear, if you will, to hear and experience those subtle movements and shifts that God leads us through in our spiritual journeys.
Cy: So as you do, you might develop a greater confidence in the Sacraments?
Msgr. Morris: Without a doubt. The more you experience them, the more you will experience what it is they actually have to do for you, and I think in light of what we were addressing in the talk today, that reality of what’s been happening to me personally. I’m extremely cognizant of how these realities are transforming me, and now I’m getting affirmation from my friends who are describing me as more peaceful, less anxious…
Cy: Right, right…
Msgr. Morris: …more calm…
Msgr. Morris: And it isn’t just a question of, I’ve decided to take a chill pill and just kind of forget about the world. There’s still busyness, there’s still a lot of things happening, but the reality of what the Lord does for us, for me, when I celebrate the holy sacrifice for the Mass, is manifesting in every aspect of my life.
Cy: Here’s my fear, if I may share my fear with you, that with the instantaneous, with the computer, with the screens everywhere, I think we’re raising a generation, maybe we’re even onto our second generation now, who don’t actually have much experience of the interior life at all.
Msgr. Morris: Correct.
Cy: They, everything is exterior to them. And that’s why I say to parents, boredom is a very important gift you give your children. Let them be bored, because there’s no other way they’re going to ever come into contact with the interior self. So if we have generations of people who everything’s out here, they don’t have the interior life that comes from reading quietly or being in nature or those things that build that up, how are we going to communicate to them what the Sacraments are? Because if the primary effect of the Sacraments is an interior effect, and I’m not familiar with the interior world…
Msgr. Morris: You’re correct.
Cy: So what do we do?
Msgr. Morris: I think we continue as a Church to continue to be faithful to that which has been given to us and do it well, in such a way that for those who are aware, whatever their ages, they are receiving that which God wants them to receive. And again, for those who are receiving it, to live in such a way that we’re communicating that the Grace we’re receiving actually is changing our lives. I think the Church has to be realistic that the biggest thing we’re confronting is not a rejection or even a hatred of God, an indifference. Because if I were dealing with a rejection or hatred, there still would be some type of emotional connectedness that I could maybe change or transform. But indifference is just that, I don’t care. I’m not interested. And so, we are raising, I think we’re actually several generations into people, young and maybe not so young, who’ve become incapable of that type of interiority, not only impacting the spiritual life, but it also impacts things like art and music…
Msgr. Morris: …and poetry that require a certain degree of individuation. But also the ability to transcend, to move beyond, to be still and listen interiorly. We’ve lost that in society in general, and I think the Church also has contributed to that for her people. A lack of silence in Church. Young people not really familiar, some not familiar with Adoration. Why should I spend time in front of a piece of bread in a metal container? Well, you’re wrong on a couple different reasons, but…
Msgr. Morris: …again, we’ve not done an adequate job of Catechizing that leads to that heart on fire that would help them understand it’s okay to sit and be still and be quiet.
Cy: Yeah, it’s not just…it’s really required at some point, isn’t it…
Msgr. Morris: Very much so.
Cy: …to be a full human being. The lack of silence is an assault on your own humanity.
Msgr. Morris: Yes, it is. And the, I forget where, in the last couple of days, someone was conveying to me that there is a movement, apparently, of people that are unplugging now, and trying to unplug on a regular basis. And this is kind of becoming a greater thing, if you will. I’m not quite sure what that’s gonna look like, cause it’s almost becoming impossible, actually, to completely and totally unplug. Phones are everything for us. I am, and I’m sure you’re the same way, I’m unfortunately wedded to my phone.
Msgr. Morris: But I have to leave it in the sacristy when I go into the Church. I have to leave it when I go into the confessional.
Msgr. Morris: When I go into counseling. And it’s actually kind of nice. I’m anxious a little bit…
Msgr. Morris: …but then, I’m finding out, too, the more I leave it, the easier it is to have it left behind. And then 2 or 3 hours go by, and I go, oh, I wasn’t checking my phone all the time, I wasn’t looking at Facebook, or I wasn’t wondering why I wasn’t getting text messages, or whatever it might be. All the anxiety associated with that…
Cy: Well maybe there’s a good in that, in that a quiet and beautiful Church is actually startling to a person. Like, now it has a power, that maybe they can appreciate it in a way, cause it hasn’t been there.
Msgr. Morris: And really, it has not been there.
Cy: If I may close with this…
Msgr. Morris: Sure..
Cy: How, in your mind, does…cause we’ve talked about liturgy wars and liturgy this and liturgy that…how, in your mind does a full embrace of the Sacraments as actual powerful conveyors of Grace, I believe in them, I believe that they do what they say they’re gonna do, what effect does that have on liturgy? Like, it seems to me, the short thing is, we wouldn’t do liturgy the way we’re doing it if we really believed that.
Msgr. Morris: That is the exact, that is true.
Msgr. Morris: Yes. The only expansion I would add to that is, there would be a seriousness and a…I find a lot of the things that the Church does today, unfortunately, frivolous. They lack gravitas.
Msgr. Morris: Yes.
Cy: You’re shocking me.
Msgr. Morris: They’re emotionally interesting and engaging, but they’re not gonna last. They’re faddish. Because it does take work to commit oneself to something serious and somber, something that over and over again is going to actually engage. And so, yes, if we actually truly believed that the Mass, for example, especially, which is the liturgy with which most people are familiar and experience, if we believe, that the Sacrament of the Eucharist is the Lord is truly present, body, blood, soul, and divinity, under the appearance of bread and wine, that’s classic Tridentine language, if we actually believed that, then how we behave in Church, how we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice to the Mass, how we depart from Church, all of that would have to radically change. You couldn’t come in and just be talking at full voice…
Cy: About trivial things.
Msgr. Morris: About trivial things, correct. The sign of peace wouldn’t turn into a hootenanny, where I’m talking about where I’m going to dinner the next day. The general intercessions wouldn’t become editorials of things of that nature.
Msgr. Morris: People wouldn’t be traipsing around the sanctuary without an awareness of who’s in the Tabernacle.
Msgr. Morris: Things would radically change.
Cy: Well, we can pray and hope for the day.
Msgr. Morris: We can pray, and hope for the day, and I think it’s coming sooner than later.
Cy: Father Eugene Morris, thank you very, very much.
Msgr. Morris: Cy, thank you very much.
Cy: May we have your blessing before we go.
Msgr. Morris: Sure. The Lord be with you. May the Blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit descend upon you and remain with you forever. Amen.
Cy: Amen. God bless you.
Msgr. Morris: Thank you.
Cy: Thank you. And thank you to all our listeners, this is Catholic Answers Focus. If you like it, tell your friends about it, and they can find out all about it by going to CatholicAnswersLive.com
Header image: Baptism of the Neophytes by Masaccio (public domain) on wikipedia.org