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New document on the validity of sacraments

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Pope Francis baptizes a baby as he celebrates Mass on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Jan. 12, 2020. PHOTO: CNS/Vatican Media

I understand that the Holy See has issued a new document in Italian on the validity of the sacraments. Is there anything new in it that we priests should be aware of in our pastoral ministry?

The document, Gestis verbisque, or Gestures and Words, was issued by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in the form of a note on 2 February 2024. It was approved unanimously by the cardinals and bishops, members of the dicastery, who were present at the plenary assembly. Pope Francis approved the text of the note and ordered it to be published.

The note does not go into specifics as regards any of the sacraments, but it does give helpful criterion on the celebration of the sacraments in general. In his presentation at the beginning of the document, Cardinal Victor Fernández, prefect of the dicastery, explains that there has been an increase in the number of situations in which it was necessary to declare the invalidity of some celebrated sacraments, due to modifications by the minister, which then led to the need for some recipients to have their baptism or confirmation repeated.

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This was especially the case for modifications of the formula of baptism, of which I have written in this column and is in my book Question Time 6. The cardinal explains that some of these modifications affected the validity of the baptism even of some priests, who consequently discovered the invalidity of their ordination and of other sacraments they had celebrated up to that moment.

One of the general principles on which the note insists is that the sacraments belong to the church, indeed to Christ himself, not to the individual priest. In his presentation, Cardinal Fernández writes: “We ministers are therefore required to have the strength to overcome the temptation to feel that we are the owners of the Church. On the contrary, we must become very receptive to a gift that precedes us: not only the gift of life or of grace, but also the treasures of the sacraments that have been entrusted to us by our Mother the Church. They are not ours! And the faithful have the right, in turn, to receive them as the Church disposes; it is in this way that their celebration corresponds to Jesus’ intention and makes relevant and effective the event of Easter.”

Even the church herself is bound by what Christ established in the sacraments. The note says that the church is a minister of the sacraments, not their mistress, just as she is a minister of Sacred Scripture, which she listens to, safeguards and expounds faithfully (cf. n. 11).

The minister of the sacraments must be especially faithful to what Christ and the church have established as regards their matter and form. Christ acts through the matter, which may be a material element such as water, bread, wine or oil, or it may be a gesture, such as a sign of the cross, the laying on of hands or an anointing. The form is constituted by the words, which confer a transcendent meaning to the matter. The form draws inspiration from Scripture and Tradition, and it has been authoritatively defined by the church. The matter and form do not depend on the will of the individual minister or the community, and they must be carefully observed (cf. nn. 13-15).

For all the sacraments, the observance of the matter and the form, without adding, removing or changing anything, has always been required for the validity of the celebration (n. 17). Linked to the matter and the form is the intention of the minister, which must always be to do at least what the church does, and which is also what Christ does. The intention becomes the unifying principle of the matter and form, making them a sacred sign through which grace is conferred (cf. n. 18).

In summary, the note says that “modifying on one’s own initiative the form of the celebration of a sacrament does not constitute simply a liturgical abuse, like the transgression of a positive norm, but a wound inflicted upon the ecclesial communion and the identifiability of Christ’s action, and in the most serious cases rendering invalid the sacrament itself” (n. 22).

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