The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (No. 1131). 

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While not every individual is bound to receive any or all of the sacraments, “the Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation” (no. 1129) in that they convey the grace of the Holy Spirit and make fruitful the Spirit of adoption uniting the faithful in a living union with the Savior, Christ Jesus. Through each of these signs, Christ bestows the grace proper to each sacrament from rebirth into the new life of grace, the forgiveness of sins, spiritual as well as physical healing, even the sanctification of one’s state in life. 

When celebrated properly, the sacraments confer the grace they signify because “in them Christ himself is at work” (no. 1127). This means, as St. Thomas Aquinas affirms in his Summa Theologiae (see III, 68,8), that the sacraments act ex opere operato — that is, by virtue of the sign itself being performed. Accordingly, from the moment that the sacramental sign is celebrated in accord with the intention of the Church, Christ and the Holy Spirit act, conferring the fruits of the sacraments on those rightfully disposed to receive them (see Catechism, no. 1128). 

The notion of the valid celebration of a sacrament centers upon the question of whether the sacramental sign was celebrated properly according to the prescriptions of the supreme authority of the Church. On the other hand, the notion of the valid reception of a sacrament focuses upon the recipient’s sincere intention and proper disposition to worthily receive the graces that the sacraments confer. 

Valid Celebration

For a sacrament to be valid, it must be properly celebrated — that is, certain requirements set forth in Church law must be met. For this reason, no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated except by the supreme authority of the Church, which itself may not act arbitrarily but always “in the obedience of faith and with religious respect for the mystery” of the sacramental liturgy (see no. 1125). Thus it belongs to the Holy See alone to set forth in law what constitutes the proper and valid celebration of the sacraments. 

It should be remembered always that it is Christ who acts through the sacraments, their effectiveness not depending upon the worthiness of the minister. Therefore, when the sacramental rite is performed in accord with the lawful prescriptions of supreme authority, the Church teaches that Christ and the Spirit act “independently of the personal holiness of the minister” (no. 1128). Yet, the Holy See has prescribed that there exist various causes that may render a sacrament invalid. 

A sacrament may be invalid if there is a defect in either, or both, the “matter” or the “form” of the sacrament. The matter is the tangible material sign which is proper to each sacrament: for baptism, water; for confirmation, consecrated chrism; for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the expression of contrition and the confession of sin; for the Eucharist, unleavened bread and wine from grapes; for the anointing of the sick, the blessed oil of the sick; for matrimony, one man and one woman exchanging marital consent; for holy orders, a baptized male. The form is the verbal statement that accompanies the matter of the sacramental rite.  

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In baptism, for example, the words are: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” 

However, a sacrament may be invalid if the minister positively and absolutely excludes the intention to celebrate the sacrament. Consider, for example, a priest who might demonstrate the sacramental rite of baptism on a student for teaching purposes but has no intention of actually conferring the sacrament. 

Also, a sacrament may be invalid if the minister lacks the authority or faculty to celebrate a particular sacrament. Faculties are the instruments that confer legal authority allowing the proper minister of the sacrament to validly perform the sacramental rite. With the exception of holy matrimony, the ordinary and proper ministers of the sacraments are those in holy orders: bishops, priests and deacons.  

Faculties increase from one order to the next. Bishops have full sacramental faculties. Priests generally enjoy the faculty of bishops with the exception of confirmation and holy orders. Deacons may baptize and officially witness the exchange of marital consent. Church law determines which faculties may affect the validity of specific sacraments. 

For matrimony, the man and the woman are the ordinary and proper ministers of the sacrament. For the marriage to be a valid sacrament, the couple must meet the requirements set forth in canon law — that is, their consent must be witnessed by an ordained cleric according to the prescriptions of Church law. When consummated in the conjugal act of marital love, the sacramental bond of marriage is indissoluble. 

In extreme cases of proximity to death, anyone, even a nonbeliever, may act as an extraordinary minister of baptism and may validly confer the sacrament on those who sincerely request it. 

In some instances, canon law specifies certain impediments that may render a sacrament either invalid or illicit. Only the Holy See can declare what impediments invalidate sacraments. Likewise, only the Holy See can rightfully attest to what impediments belong to divine law as opposed to those that belong to merely ecclesiastical law. The Holy See has no authority to dispense from impediments imposed by divine law.  

Such divine-law impediments (referred to in technical language as diriment impediments) render a sacrament invalid if they are present. An impediment imposed by merely ecclesiastical law, commonly referred to as a prohibitory impediment, does not render a sacrament invalid but only unlawful. Church authority may grant a dispensation of such an impediment for the good of souls and allow the lawful or licit celebration of a sacrament. 

Valid Reception

While the sacraments act ex opere operato (by the action itself), the graces they confer are validly received ex opere operantis — that is, according to the rightful and proper intention and disposition of the recipient to worthily receive the graces that the sacraments confer. When all the conditions required by divine and ecclesiastical law are met a sacrament is received validly. In the Latin-rite Church, a determination of the valid reception of a sacrament would include several considerations. 

First, previous and valid reception of baptism constitutes an essential condition for the valid reception of any other sacrament. By baptism, the new life of grace is conferred and human beings become members of the Body of Christ, the Church. Baptism is the doorway by which the faithful enter the Church and are united to Christ who nourishes them by way of the sacraments. 

Second, in adults, the valid reception of the sacraments presumes that the recipient has the intention of receiving it. The sacraments impose obligations and confer grace. And yet, neither is possible without the free consent of the recipient. The only exception to this teaching pertains to the Eucharist because, no matter what the recipient’s intention or disposition, the body and blood of Christ is really and always present. 

Finally, by one’s intention (ex opere operantis), a person receives the grace of the sacraments which produce their effects ex opere operato. In some cases, a person who might be distracted, even voluntarily, would still validly receive the sacrament. In the case of holy matrimony, since the man and woman are the ministers as well as the recipients of the sacrament, attention to the celebration of the sacrament would be considered necessary since they themselves provide both the matter and the form of the sacrament. In the case of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, since the actions of the penitent (contrition, confession and performance of the penance for sin) constitute the matter of the sacrament, lack of proper attention could indeed affect the valid reception of sacramental forgiveness. The sacraments are effective because in and through them Christ is at work transforming into the divine life of the Spirit whomever and whatever is subjected to His grace. The sacraments are the treasure of the Church. They are God’s gifts to His faithful people. They touch all the stages and moments of our Christian life, giving birth and healing, strength and hope.  

In the proper celebration and the worthy reception of the sacraments, Christ’s redemptive work continues from generation to generation for the salvation of souls.

Father Joseph L. Parisi received his Master of Pastoral Theology degree from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome in 1974 and the Licentiate in Canon Law from the University of St. Paul in Ottawa, Canada, in 1986.