Wednesday, September 19, 2018 - Updated: 1:00 pm
QUESTION: Several friends have told me that they have encountered priests who have refused them sacraments. Why would they do that? Sacraments are for the people, not the priests, right?
ANSWER: Sacraments should not be seen as “things” to be “given out” by anyone, nor are they to be denied to anyone indiscriminately. Sacraments are celebrations of the faith of the church by which Christ is present among his people for a specific purpose (cleansing, feeding, forgiving, healing, uniting, etc.). They are the most significant means by which we encounter God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The author of the question is correct in stating that it is an ancient tradition of the church that the sacraments are “for the people.” But it is also an ancient teaching of the church that there are appropriate prerequisites for reception (celebration) of the sacraments.
The church’s teaching on the reception of sacraments grew from the general experience of the Christian community. Each one of us has expectations of how people should deal with us. Who would purchase a car or a home from someone who was obviously inebriated? Who would loan money to a person who made no effort at promising a return? Who would permit children to ride with neighbors with irresponsible driving habits?
In the same way, the matter of disposition and intention has always been a concern to the Christian community when it came to the celebration of sacraments. Among such dispositions, the presence of faith is an extremely important factor.
The priest as the presider of the church’s liturgy has a responsibility to uphold those traditions regarding sacraments. The presence of faith, disposition, intention and commitment must be considered. However, it can never be a matter of subjective judgment or whim by which a priest makes decisions regarding sacraments.
Priests I know affirm the ancient teaching of the church that the sacraments are for the people. Most, however, have experienced painful encounters with those who demand sacraments while lacking appropriate faith, disposition, intention or commitment.
Priests and deacons have met Catholic couples who want a wedding “in church” solely because of the length of an aisle. There are others who demand a church wedding, but have not been to the Eucharist for years and have no intention of beginning an active practice of the Catholic faith. There are also those who demand sacraments solely because of “pressure from my parents” or because “all my family has done this.” Sacraments cannot be celebrated simply as a “nice backdrop for our wedding” or “because my grandparents want the baby baptized.”
Priests are not placing demands upon others. It is the sacraments themselves that demand faith, proper disposition and commitment. If one is unable to meet these demands, priests may ask that people think (and pray) about what they are requesting. Priests and deacons always hold out hope that the incredible grace of the sacraments will be life-changing in the person who receives it. But that hope has to be balanced by openness to that grace.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.