Being Receptive to God through Word and Sacrament
November 5, 2003

The Word of God is Jesus Christ—“the way, the truth, and the life.” (Jn 14:6) The Apostles—the first-hand witnesses to His life, death, and resurrection—handed on to their followers what they themselves had received. Their teaching and preaching, inspired by the Holy Spirit, continues in the Church through sacred tradition and sacred Scripture. This is how the Second Vatican Council put it in Dei verbum (the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation):

“ Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort…. It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”

The Word of God
The Word of God is efficacious and it is true. Faithful Catholics recognize that they do not stand in judgment of the Word of God, but rather must judge all things in light of the truth found in God’s word.

Some interpreters of God’s word (sadly even some Catholic priests and scholars) believe that God’s words can be viewed with “scientific neutrality.” This neutrality is, in fact, not really possible. Authentic interpreters of sacred Scripture always read the text within the living tradition and faith of the Church. As Father J.P. O’Donnell, past-president of the Catholic Biblical Association wrote in 1950, “Certainly then it would never be consonant with the Catholic spirit or tradition to approach the study of Scripture with an attitude of scientific neutrality detached from theological faith…. This further attitude does not mean we can contemplate the sacred text in an attitude of faith and be absolved from the duty of continued application to the problems of text, language, history, and archaeology.” This approach is what is called for in Dei verbum.

As faithful Catholics, our lives must be rooted in the Word of God. When we live our lives in accordance with the Word of God, we entrust our very selves to God, whose Word is always faithful. “The Lord has sworn: and will not wave.” (Ps 110:4) We give ourselves to a power far greater than ourselves. We cannot underestimate the power of the Word of God. In Isaiah we read: “For just as from the heavens the rain and the snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him that sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” (Is 55: 10-11)

The Word of God has its own power. In its proclamation, it touches us and it can transform us. When we welcome it, it enables us to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ and to enter more deeply into communion with the Church. With its power comes great responsibility. In the Rite of Ordination of Deacons, at the moment when the Gospels are entrusted into the hands of the deacon, the bishop says, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

Read, believe, teach, and practice. This is the privilege and challenge facing us today.

The loss of Catholic faith in the sacraments is perhaps the most urgent sign that belief in God’s efficacious power has waned in recent time. How else to interpret the dismal record of Catholic attendance at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (less than 1/3 attend Sunday Mass); belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (less than 1/3 accept and can express this teaching); and the acceptance of the necessity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (the number of people seeking sacramental confession is noticeably low).

I am old enough to remember when almost every Catholic I knew or met regularly attended Sunday Mass, when all Catholic youngsters made their First Communion and continued to receive the Eucharist on a regular basis. I remember a time as a young priest when it was a rare occasion that a couple came for marriage preparation, and one or both told me that they had not been confirmed.

The sacramental life is integral to a truly Catholic life. Yet the situation today is vastly different. Mass attendance has dropped significantly. A recent study tells us that around 40 percent of Catholics in their 20’s and 30’s have never received the sacrament of Confirmation. The study also shows that confirmed Catholics are more inclined to remain in and grow in the Church.

Authentic Catholics have experienced the power of the sacraments. They are committed to their baptismal promises and live in the power and grace of the new life in Christ. They have been strengthened and empowered by the gifts of the Holy Spirit through Confirmation. They know of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. They come to each celebration of the Mass to offer themselves in union with Jesus’ self-sacrifice. They receive Jesus in the Eucharist in the intimacy of love uniting themselves mind, body, soul and spirit with their Risen Lord.

Power of sacraments
They live out their sacrament of vocation—marriage and/or holy orders—in accordance with God’s plan for their lives. They avail themselves of the sacraments of healing when appropriate, especially the sacrament of Reconciliation. Through frequent confession, they not only experience God’s healing and forgiving love, but they also grow in grace to continue the good fight of faith in their daily life. For them, all the sacraments provide a sure and certain way to encounter the Risen Lord and His power.

We recognize an essential theological truth common to both Word and Sacrament: we must receive them as gratuitous gifts from a gracious God. This priority of receptivity runs counter to the American Spirit. We are an activist people. Give us a concrete task and we will accomplish it. But what is needed is not activity but receptivity. However, receptivity is not passivity. It is very much like receiving a guest into our homes, into our hearts, for indeed in Word and Sacrament we do receive a guest—Jesus Christ Our Lord.

But, of course, this is what a good host does: “Behold I stand at the door of your house and knock. Whoever hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him and he with me.” (Rev 3:21)

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