The Church's Sacraments Today
The Church is not defined by numbers
In 1801, during the spiritual chaos following the French Revolution, many Catholics refused to avail themselves of the ministry of apostate priests who had taken the oath to the revolutionary regime. Finding themselves bereft of Mass and the Sacraments, a group of them wrote for spiritual direction to a priest who was a missionary of St. Joseph and a professor of theology in Lyons who had remained faithful to his ordination. His reply has come down to us and is even more pertinent today than when it was first written. He tells his correspondents:
"The Holy Eucharist had for you many joys and advantages when you were able to participate in this Sacrament of love, but now you are deprived of it for being defenders of truth and justice."
He says they must not despair however, because,
"We are obedient in going to Communion, but in holding ourselves from the Sacrifice we are immolating ourselves... We sacrifice our own life as much as it is in us to do" and the sacrifice is continuous, "renewing itself every day, every time that we adore with submission the hand of God that drives us away from His altars... It is to be advantageously deprived of the Eucharist, to raise the standard of the Cross for the cause of Christ and the glory of the Church... Yes, I have no fear in saying it. When the storm of the malice of men roars against truth and justice, it is more advantageous to the faithful to suffer for Christ than to participate in His Body by Communion. I seem to hear the Savior saying to us, 'Repair by this humiliating deprivation that glorifies Me, all the Communions which dishonor Me.'"
Regarding the loss of sacramental Confession, the priest wrote, "Removed from the resources of the sanctuary and deprived of all exercise of the Priesthood, there remains no mediator for us save Jesus Christ. It is to Him we must go for our needs. Before His supreme Majesty we must bluntly tear the veil off our consciences and in search of the good and bad we have done, thank Him for His graces, confess our sins and ask pardon and to show us the direction of His Holy Will, having in our hearts the sincere desire to confess to His minister whenever we are able to do so. There, my children, is what I call confessing to God! In such a confession well made, God himself will absolve us.... Anything which attaches to God is holy. When we suffer for the truth, our sufferings are those of Jesus Christ, who honors us then with a special character of resemblance to Him with His Cross. This grace is the greatest happiness that could possibly happen to a mortal in this life.
"It is thus in all painful situations that deprive us of the Sacraments. The carrying of the Cross like a Christian is the source of the remission of our sins, just as it was for the sins of the whole human race when it was once carried by Jesus Christ.... What the world does to drive us away from God only brings us closer... We are able now to repair those faults which came from too great a trust in absolution and not examining one's weaknesses thoroughly enough. Obliged to wail now before God, the faithful soul considers all its deformities... Let this confession to God be for you a short daily practice, but fervent... The first fruit that you will draw from it apart from the remission of your sins, will be to learn to know yourself and to know God, and the second will be to be ever ready to present yourself to a priest if you are able, enriched in character by the mercy of the Lord."
As for being deprived of the Last Sacraments at the moment of death, he wrote, "Console yourselves, my children, in the trust you have in God. This tender Father will pour on you His graces, His blessings and His mercies in these awful moments that you fear, in more abundance than if you were being assisted by His ministers, of whom you have been deprived only because you wouldn't abandon Him. The abandonment and forsakenness that we fear for ourselves resembles that of the Savior on the Cross when He said to His Father, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' ... Your pains and abandonment lead you to your glorious destiny in ending your life like Jesus ended His!"
Bearing all this in mind, there are many Catholic practices left to the laity which cannot be taken away from us:
+ First and foremost there is the daily recitation of the Rosary, the "layman's breviary," which is essentially a compendium of the Divine Office, the official prayer of the Church and on which, together with the Angelus we can structure our day.
+ There is an abundance of sacramentals to be used with faith. Beginning with the Scapular of Mt. Carmel, the holy habit by which the fervent Catholic is universally identified, there are the Miraculous Medal and the Saint Benedict Medal, besides many other scapulars and medals, not to mention relics of the saints.
+ Besides the Bible, in which for centuries God was pre-incarnate and in which He still resides in His Word, there are countless good Catholic books and lives of the saints. Collect them, read them, study them, lend them to others!
+ And let's not forget the dogged, daily practice of virtue, forgiving all offenses real or imagined, trying always to overcome evil with good, loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us. There are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy to be performed, especially counseling the doubtful and teaching the ignorant of all ages in these dark days, helping one another both materially and spiritually, "teaching and admonishing one another" as St. Paul advised the early Christians (Col. 3:16).
+ We can always make spiritual Communions.
Whatever means we make use of, we must pray without ceasing, whether saying the approved prayers of the Church, making the Stations of the Cross or meditating on the Gospels. Above all other practices we should cultivate the awareness of the divine Indwelling in our own souls as we would in church before a sanctuary lamp. St. Paul asks, "Know you not that you are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwells in you? ... For the temple of God is holy, which you are" (1 Cor. 3;16-17). Only unrepented mortal sin can remove God's presence from the souls of the baptized.
Fr. Edward Leen pointed out that, "The material temple of God does not worship the God in whose honor it is built," but "the spiritual temple can and does. It is its prerogative to do so.... It is to be noted that there is no question here of a merely metaphorical or figurative presence. It is one which is real and substantial." And then he goes on to say something which many of us may find surprising: "The Holy Ghost is present in the soul in grace in a manner which bears an analogy to, but is much superior to, that in which the Incarnate God is present under the sacred species.... It was to make this wonder possible for us that Jesus lived, labored, suffered and died... If the soul in grace cultivates a close attention to God within it and labors to draw ever closer to Him by perfecting its worship of love and service, it gradually undergoes a transforming process. It becomes more and more like to the God it loves, and becoming like Him, begins to have a foretaste of that bliss enjoyed by God himself and those to whom He stands revealed in the Beatific Vision." In other words, loss of the sacraments need not stand in the way of our becoming saints.
Nothing happens without the will of God, whose divine Son told us, "The very hairs of your head are all numbered" (Matt. 10:30), but the priest nevertheless warned his charges, "Don't be surprised at the great number who quit! Truth wins, no matter how small the number of those who love and remain attached to God."
So I'll close with the same words with which he ended his long letter: "God watches over us, our hope is justified. It tells us that either the persecution stops or the persecution will be our crown. In the alternative of one or the other, I see the accomplishment of our destiny. Let God's will be done, since in whatever manner He delivers us, His eternal mercies pour into us."