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‘Ex opere operato’ as applied to the Eucharist

Fr. Jerome R. Secillano, MPA

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GONE are the days when the faithful strictly attend Mass or receive the sacraments in the parish where they belong. We now have in the church a phenomenon called “transparochial”. It implies that those who are called parishioners before are now simply identified as church-goers. This is because they are not strictly under the territorial jurisdiction of the churches they go to.


While this is true especially with regard to weddings and baptisms, this phenomenon is more evident in Masse attendance. People today choose the churches they would like to go to. Most likely the church should be beautiful, preferably air-conditioned, with a fully functioning sound system, and must of course, be clean. Some would regularly opt for a “famous” church or one whose patron is known for being miraculous. Others follow their favorite priests. The priests are supposed to be good homilists, with captivating charisma, and for others, simply good-looking.


People also offer more compelling reasons for leaving their parish for another church. It may be that the parish priest is a lousy pastor or one who is involved in scandalous situations. They just simply don’t trust their priest anymore hence, instead of abandoning their faith they’d rather abandon the parish and re-strengthen their faith elsewhere.


Often, the decision to look for other churches is always at the expense of their parish and to the detriment of the community’s unity. The parish is supposed to be a stable community of faithful united in faith and strengthened by the celebration of the Eucharist. The impossibility though of becoming like it is turning out to be more difficult owing to the diaspora of parishioners.


The Church, of course, recognizes and respects this prerogative of the faithful. If this is not true, bishops would not have allowed the proliferation of chapels in malls or parish priests would not have permitted their parishioners from either serving or receiving the sacraments in other churches.


While this “transparochial movement” may be a growing phenomenon with its underlying reasons and circumstances, it is good to emphasize that all sacraments whether celebrated in a magnificent or dilapidated church either by a lousy or holy priest confer the same quality of grace with equal benefits to the recipients. A theological principle called “ex opere operato” assures the faithful that the sacraments they are receiving from priests who may not be apt to the required standards of moral probity, intellectual capacity, and holiness of life are valid and are no less effective regardless of the beauty and conduciveness of the church..


The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says, “This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God. From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. (CCC 1128)


The key to understanding the Catechism is the recognition that the sacraments flow from the saving work of Christ. It is still Christ acting through the agency of priests. “They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies” (CCC 1127).


The same document also clearly teaches that the effects of the sacraments are not dependent on the righteousness and personal holiness of the ministers. This is perhaps a reassurance too that God’s mercy and goodness are more than all our sins combined. That no amount of shortcomings can impede his love that penetrates even the barriers of sins.


“Ex opere operato” as a theological principle is not a cover-up for the imperfections and shortcomings of the ministers of the church. Through it, the church merely wishes to guarantee that the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, when celebrated always and at all times produce the salvific effects they intend to give. When one, therefore, attends Mass in a church that is not equipped with good acoustics and is presided-over by a priest who gives a terrible homily, be assured that it is still Christ who offers his Body and Blood at the altar of sacrifice and that He is doing it so that you may have life and have it to the full.

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