Live the sacraments

Question: I recently read that Pope Francis has said many Catholics are sacramentalized but unevangelized. What does this mean? It seems to me it denigrates the sacraments.

Thomas Keene, Miami

Answer: I am unaware that Pope Francis has used this phrase. However, it is a rather common expression today among priests and theologians. It describes the unfortunately common reality of many Catholics in the pews who have received all their sacraments, and may even faithfully attend Mass each Sunday and go to confession at least once a year, but who have never really met Jesus Christ or encountered his presence powerfully.

Sadly, many Catholics, often because of poor catechesis, reduce the sacraments to rituals, rather than to living and real encounters with the Lord Jesus, who himself is the true celebrant of every sacrament.

But the all-too-common experience of many Catholics is that sacraments are only vaguely appreciated in this way. Many see them as tedious rituals rather than transformative realities. Too many seek the shortest Mass, almost as if it were more like a flu shot, a kind of “necessary evil” to be dispensed with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Confession, too, is avoided.

Very few Catholics come to Mass expecting to be transformed. In a way, people put more faith in Tylenol than the Eucharist because, when they take Tylenol, they expect something to happen; they expect the pain to go away and healing to be induced. But too many Catholics do not expect anything like this from the holy Communion with Jesus.

This is what it means to be sacramentalized but unevangelized. It is to be faithful to the pew and to the sacraments but to lack the evangelical zeal, joy and transformation one would expect from a more fruitful reception of the sacraments. Pastors, parents and catechists need to work to overcome a lack of deep faith in — and experience of — Jesus. Far from denigrating the sacraments, the phrase seeks to underscore the truer and fuller reality of the sacraments, which are not mere rituals, but powerful realities if received fruitfully.

Bible interpretation

Question: My husband, who is not Catholic, tells me the Church used to discourage reading the Bible. Is this true and why?

Name withheld, Detroit

Answer: Reading the Bible is of course to be encouraged. The problem is not reading, it is interpreting. If in the past priests once encouraged the faithful to be cautious in reading the Bible, it was only to protect them from the Protestant tendency of private interpretation, which leads to a lot of divisions. That priests ever did discourage the faithful from reading the Bible is exaggerated in terms of its extent and severity. However, any such warnings ought to be seen in the light of what private interpretation has wrought: namely some 30,000 different denominations of Protestants all claiming biblical authority for their differing views.

Today, Catholics are strongly encouraged to read and pray with their Bible, but to strive and conform their understanding of the text to Church teaching and norms of Catholic biblical interpretation articulated in the catechism.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.