Our priest’s homily for this Sunday did not go according to the script that detractors may have expected. From one perspective this is completely unsurprising because Father extemporizes pretty regularly: he has notes but he rarely reads from them and often seems to go off on tangents. So when he preaches, you can be fairly certain he isn’t reading from something he is required to read, nor self-consciously following a party line he is expected to follow. Basically we hear him at his unscripted, spontaneous best, so we know that what he is saying is what he really thinks. It is transparently obvious. Our priest is no dissembler.
Okay, so why am I making such a big deal about this? Well, I think it is noteworthy because it sets the background for demolishing a couple old wives’ tales about what the Catholic Church teaches.
Fable número uno: some people say that the Church teaches we can earn grace. Ding! No. Thank you for playing! As our pastor said in his homily, “if grace is earned it isn’t grace.” Contrary to what those unfortunate geriatric wives think, the Church has always taught that we are saved by grace alone.
Fable número dos: some people propose that the Church teaches some weird thing where the sacraments are effective without reference to the heart of the recipients. In other words, this fable tells us (for example) that I could get my sins forgiven in Confession while intending to sin again. Sorry, but Ding! again! As Father said, quoting from the Catechism: “To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition” (§2111; emphasis added). In short: I have to mean it when I pray or receive the sacraments.
Okay, so Father wasn’t actually speaking extemporaneously when he quoted from the Catechism. The point works out the same, though, regarding the mistake so many people make about this. The sacraments are not magic. If I don’t mean it when I receive them then they do nothing for me. If I intend to sin later while receiving them, I am actually making my sin worse. My heart must be right before God first. Then and only then may I receive the grace of the sacraments, and even having my heart right is the work of grace.
The Catholic Faith is no do-it-yourself religion despite what those old wives say. It is a religion of grace, of mercy, of love for God finding expression in my way of life.