In sacramental theology class, students learn about “sacramental revivification.” Outside the classroom, the topic receives little or no attention, at least under this name. Still, parents might wonder why their teenage daughter (for example) isn’t any more like St. Thérèse of Lisieux (for example) after the reception of the sacrament of confirmation than before, or why the graces of the sacrament of matrimony seem to have so little impact in the marriages of their children, friends, or even themselves. These real-life questions find their answers in sacramental revivification.
Three of the Church’s seven sacraments are unrepeatable: baptism, confirmation, and holy orders. The sacrament of matrimony is practically unrepeatable, only becoming a possibility upon the death of a spouse. The sacrament of anointing of the sick, while it may be received multiple times when serious illness or danger of death arrives, is for most Catholics received rarely, if at all. At the same time, baptism, confirmation, and holy orders impart “sacramental character,” an indelible spiritual mark that conforms the recipient to Christ and his priesthood and orders him or her in the Mystical Body. Marriage does not strictly speaking impart sacramental character, but something very much like it—let’s call it a “quasi-character”— that conforms man to Christ the Bridegroom and woman to the Church, the Bride of Christ.
With these basics of sacramental theology in place, we can begin to understand the meaning of “sacramental revivification.” When one of these five sacraments—baptism, confirmation, holy orders, marriage, or anointing—is celebrated by a valid minister with proper intention, along with the necessary matter and form, Christ the High Priest offers the grace of his Paschal Mystery through sacramental signs. But this does not mean that each recipient obtains the full dose of saving sacramental grace: for this to be so, he or she needs to be properly disposed.
Imagine, for example, a candidate for baptism whose sole motivation is to appease his fiancé, or an adolescent who can’t wait to take mom up on her promise that he can quit CCD after confirmation. Or, similarly, a candidate for ordination or a couple about to be married who are not in a state of grace at the time these sacraments are conferred. In each case, Jesus does his part through the Church; but also in each case, the recipients have erected obstacles, barriers, and walls to divert the grace poured forth by the sacraments.
These sacraments are, in other words, validly conferred and efficacious, but they are not fruitfully received—at least until such time as the recipients become properly disposed by purifying their motives or obtaining a state of grace. When such disposition becomes a reality, the latent grace of these five sacraments comes to life in the recipient. And this coming-to-life again is called “sacramental revivification.”
This understanding of sacramental revivification came to my mind at the beginning of the USCCB’s three-year time of “Eucharistic Revival.” Launched on the Solemnity or Corpus Christi and concluding after a National Eucharistic Congress in June 2024, this Revival provides Catholics in the United States with an opportunity to study and celebrate the Church’s teachings on the Eucharist, and, inspired by that love which impels us (2 Corinthians 5:14), serve his people for the sake of that same Eucharist. The reason? At bottom, we Catholics do not know the truth of the Eucharist as fully as we might, do not celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy as beautifully as we could, and, consequently, we are not inspired to the degree we ought to love others as Christ himself has commanded. We need, in other words, the Eucharist to come to life again in our individual lives, our families, our parishes, our world. We need Eucharistic revivification.
But can the Eucharistic “revivify” as theologians describe baptism, confirmation, ordination, marriage, and anointing? No. Here’s why.
Unlike the sacraments that bestow sacramental character and therefore cannot be repeated (or, in the case of matrimony or anointing that are rarely repeated), the remaining sacraments of penance and the Eucharist can and ought to be received more than once. In other words, if I validly marry in a state of mortal sin, it’s not possible for me to receive absolution and re-marry—I can’t marry the same woman twice. On the other hand, if I go to confession without sorrow for my sin or receive the Blessed Sacrament with no desire to be transformed—then it is not simply a matter of coming good to actualize latent graces, but a matter of doing better and receiving more perfectly the next time I confess or communicate. In other words, we are allowed a “do-over” with these sacraments in a way that we are not with the unrepeatable sacraments. For these reasons, the tradition of the Church holds that penance and the Eucharist do not “revivify”—at least not in the same way. The Eucharist does not give us the initial grace that orders our souls to Christ, but all the same, it does help us grow in our faith, strengthen our hope on the journey to heaven, and—perhaps most importantly—deepen our love for God along the way.
So, we embark on a period not of “Eucharistic Revivification” but of “Eucharistic Revival,” not to look back and remove errors, sins, and vices—although such an exercise is not without merit—but to look forward to the new life offered in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus. We desire to know Christ more clearly, to celebrate his victory more convincingly, and to imitate him more faithfully.
Will it work? Will there be a revival of Eucharistic faith in the dioceses of the United States? That depends less on bishops’ plans and more on each of us. What’s your plan for the next three years to revive the Eucharist in your life? In the months ahead, I pray that you will find our work at Adoremus an aid to bringing the Eucharist to life for you.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.
Cover Image Source: AB/St. Joseph on Flickr