Ask a Franciscan: Sacraments 101

Posted by Pat McCloskey, OFM on 8/2/19 7:00 AM


I receive many questions from curious, confused, or concerned Catholics about everything from the Mass to divorce to the saints. Sacraments are also of interest to people—as they should be! God lovingly touches all of the stages of life through the seven sacraments. They are, in fact, drawn from the love that Jesus had for all of us by becoming human. Each is designed to draw us closer to God.

Here are a few recent questions regarding sacraments.

Confirmation and Grace

Q. I am concerned that a relative of mine may not have been in the state of grace when he recently received Confirmation. If so, does he need to receive that sacrament again? Is that true of every sacrament? 

A. First of all, you are not sure whether he was in a state of grace or not. Is it really a good use of your limited time and energy to worry about his situation?Of the seven sacraments, a person obviously does not have to be in the state of grace to receive Baptism, Reconciliation, or the Anointing of the Sick. Even an unconscious person can be anointed if it is reasonable to presume that he or she would have wanted to receive this sacrament.

Regarding the Sacrament of Confirmation, as long as the minister and the person being confirmed intend to do what the Church does in this sacrament, the prescribed anointing took place, and the prescribed words were said, the sacrament was received validly. A person should be in the state of grace (not having deliberately unconfessed mortal sins) to receive the Eucharist.


True Confessions

Q: I am a 79-year-old Catholic who doesn’t believe in Penance. I notice that most people don’t go to Confession these days, and yet the great majority of Catholics receive holy Communion whenever they attend Mass. To me, that is a mortal sin. Why do they do that?

A. The Catholic Church teaches that a person conscious of having committed a mortal sin must confess it before he or she receives Holy Communion (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1457). How can you be sure that most Catholics who receive Holy Communion regularly are guilty of mortal sins that they have not confessed?

The Catechism also teaches: “Without being strictly necessary, confession of everyday faults (venial sins) is nevertheless strongly recommended by the Church. Indeed the regular confession of our venial sins helps us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ, and progress in the life of the Spirit” (1458).

According to Mark Twain, there is nothing quite so enjoyable as examining the consciences of other people. But there is also nothing more futile than that. Jesus’ command to recognize the beam in one’s own eye before worrying about the splinter in someone else’s is addressed to each of us (Mt 7:3).


Catholic Baptism

Q. In the Nicene Creed, we say, “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Does this “one Baptism” mean a Catholic baptism? If yes, then would I be correct in concluding that other baptisms are not effective in having a person’s sins forgiven—and therefore, that person would not be welcome into the kingdom of heaven.

A. Because people are baptized into the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, there are no Catholic baptisms as distinct from Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist baptisms. It is the same paschal mystery. The Catholic Church accepts as valid any baptism that uses water and is given in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.


Marriage Matters

Q. Can a practicing Catholic marry a Protestant in that person’s church, before his or her minister? Regarding the Baptism and education of children from that marriage, may the Catholic party accept either Catholic or Protestant Baptism?

A. The marriage of a Catholic to a Protestant in a Protestant church and before that minister is considered a valid, sacramental marriage if the Catholic party has requested and received from the local Catholic bishop a dispensation “from canonical form” (the requirement that a Catholic marry before a Catholic priest or deacon).

In fact, in the situation that you described, a Catholic priest or deacon could be present as a witness. The person leading the service, however, would be considered the minister and would be responsible for filing the necessary paperwork with the local government office.

The couple will be encouraged to meet several times with a Catholic priest or deacon before requesting from the local bishop a dispensation from canonical form. 

Regarding the Baptism and religious education of children born in a mixed marriage, the Catholic party is asked beforehand by the Catholic Church if he or she will try to raise any children as Catholics. The Protestant spouse is informed of that request but is not required to make any promise about this—as was previously the case.


Is the Eucharist for All? 

Q. Last year I attended a funeral Mass for a friend. A visiting priest announced that the deceased person wanted everyone present to receive holy Communion. There were Christians, non-Christians, and probably some atheists. Is that allowed? Also, can a priest give general absolution at any Mass?

A. The answer to both questions is no. The preference of a deceased person does not overrule the Catholic Church’s directives about holy Communion.

The “Guidelines for the reception of Communion” have appeared in every Catholic worship aid published in the United States for over 20 years. These are usually found on the inside front or inside back cover of these publications. General absolution is governed by the Rite of Penance approved by the Holy See in 1973. Use of the “Rite of Reconciliation of Several Penitents with General Confession and Absolution” (Form III in the Rite) has been restricted in more recent years.

It is normally reserved for emergency situations (a plane about to crash or a ship about to sink). Some Catholic military chaplains have given general absolution to troops about to go into battle.


Sacramental Oil

Q. Someone gave me a bottle of St. Anthony’s oil. What is it for? How does a person use it? What is the story behind its origin?

A. First of all, let’s talk about oil. It is used in Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. It is also used as a sacramental—in the blessing of chalices, altars and people. In this, it resembles holy water as a sacramental.

The Conventual Franciscans of St. Anthony Province (Ellicott City, Maryland) explain: “The custom of anointing with oil is part of the devotional tradition of St. Anthony of Padua. Special Anthonian oil incorporates blessed lilies into olive oil. It is believed that St. Anthony’s oil wards off the attacks of evil spirits, gives strength to withstand temptations against purity, heals the body, and brings the peace and grace of the Spirit of God.”

The friars go on to recall the ministry of anointing practiced by Father Matthew Swizdor, their deceased confrere. Similarly, St. André Bessette, CSC, often used oil to bless people who visited the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal, Quebec. Holy people make no sense apart from God. Similarly, their devotional practices are best understood as pointing us to God.

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