Give Me the Works, Father

By: James McCarthy; ©2001
A dying Catholic’s last request is for the sacraments. But why? Why do Catholics consider these rituals so powerful? Can a priest really help a person get into heaven simply by performing them?

“Give Me the Works, Father”

From a pew near the front of Saint Julia’s Catholic Church, I watched the pallbearers roll Marie’s casket slowly down the center isle. It was a sad occasion. I had known Marie for many years and had tried to share the good news of Jesus Christ with her. I had given her a Bible and encouraged her to read the Gospel of John.

Marie said that she believed in Christ, but I had my doubts. Not that she didn’t believe in Jesus in a historical sense. All Catholics do. What I questioned was whether or not she was trusting Christ to save her in a personal sense. Whenever I asked Marie about her hope of salvation, she would always respond with a confused mixture of Christ and self, faith and works, grace and merit. She never opened the Bible that I gave her. She never seemed to want to talk about the Lord. Nevertheless, when a person is dying, one hopes for the best, knowing God to be gracious and merciful.

“Marie wasn’t afraid to die,” said Father Harry, the parish priest during her eulogy. “I remember how on my last visit to see Marie, she greeted me as I entered her room. Then, looking me straight in the eye, she said, ‘I know I’m dying. I have only a short time to live. Give me the works, Father.’”

Marie, in Father Harry’s opinion, was a model of how a Christian should face death. I thought the opposite, what little confidence I had that she might personally know Christ vanishing with the eulogy. Marie’s dying hope, it appeared, rested in three rituals: confes­sion, communion, and the anointing of the sick; the trilogy of sacraments known as the Last Rites; “the works,” as she put it.

Why would a dying Catholic’s last request be for a series of rituals? Because Rome has taught its people to approach God not directly, but through the sacraments of the Church.

Grace Dispensers

Roman Catholicism teaches that Christ established seven sacraments: baptism, pen­ance, Eucharist, confirmation, matrimony, holy orders, and anointing of the sick. Each is a channel of a supernatural gift from God called grace. Available because of the merits of Christ, grace is the indispensable and necessary means of salvation and sanctification.

According to the Church, the sacraments dispense two kinds of grace, sanctifying grace and actual grace. Sanctifying grace gives a person a participation in the divine life of God. Initially poured into a person’s soul through the sacrament of baptism, sanctifying grace makes an individual holy and acceptable to God, pleasing in His sight. It remains with the person as long as the individual does not commit a mortal sin.

Actual grace is a helping hand from God to do good and avoid evil. It helps a person to perform a specific good deed or act. Because this grace passes with its using, the Church teaches that Catholics must continually obtain additional actual grace by regularly receiving the sacraments.

In order for a sacrament to effectively dispense grace, the minister conducting it must follow a precisely defined ceremony called a rite. Established by the Church, each rite describes the words and actions of both the minister and the participants.

According to Catholic theology, the sacraments dispense grace by the ritual being conducted. This means that the words and actions of the minister of the sacrament do not merely symbolize or commemorate blessings that the people have already received or are about to receive from God. Rather, the sacrament dispenses grace as the ritual is con­ducted “by the very fact of the action’s being performed.”[1]

This supernatural effect occurs, says the Church, whenever the rite is properly executed regardless of the spiritual condition of the deacon, priest, or bishop conducting the ritual. In other words, even if the minister is far from God and deep in sin himself, the sacramental rite still produces its intended effect.

How is this doctrine applied in everyday Catholicism? Consider, for example, the case of the pastor of one of the largest Catholic parishes in San Francisco. Eleven men accused him of having sexually molested them when they were boys. In March of 1994, following an investigation, the bishop of San Francisco relieved the priest of his duties. The following year the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office brought criminal charges against the same priest, charging him with having embezzled $251,000 from Catholic parishioners and from the Church.[2]

If these offenses did in fact occur, would the debauched condition of the priest invali­date the thousands of sacraments performed by him during the two decades that the crimes spanned? Did parishioners whose children had been baptized by him begin inquir­ing whether their children should be rebaptized? Did those who had given money for Masses to be said for their deceased relatives in purgatory start asking for refunds? Did Catholics who had confessed their sins to the priest begin to wonder if their transgressions had really been absolved?

Not at all. As we have seen, Roman Catholicism teaches that sacramental grace is dispensed from the work performed. The ability of a rite to confer grace is independent of the spiritual condition of the minister who performs it. Consequently, the sacraments this priest administered are valid. In fact, despite over 400 allegations of pedophilia against priests in the United States over the last decade, no one has questioned the validity of any of the sacraments that the accused performed.

One of the most shameless applications of this Roman Catholic doctrine rocked Ireland in November of 1994. A 68-year-old Roman Catholic priest had a heart attack while visiting the Incognito, a gay bathhouse in Dublin that advertises itself as “Ireland’s most famous male-only sauna club.” Responding to calls for help, two other Catholic priests emerged from private rooms in the club to give the dying man the Last Rites.[3]

One must ask, Is this Christianity? Would the Church have us believe that two men, interrupted in their homosexual activities, can benefit a third man dying on the tiled floor of a gay bathhouse by performing rituals over him? At question is not whether God would be willing to forgive a repentant sinner who cries out with his last breath for Jesus to save him. Rather, the question is, Are Catholic rites so powerful that they can channel God’s grace to people even when the priest administering the rite is living an outright lie? And even more to the point, Is Christian salvation and sanctification to be found in rites at all?

The Bible answers no to both of these questions. God is holy. He hates religious hypocrisy. When the people of Israel defiled themselves with the sins of the Canaanites, God told them,

Bring your worthless offerings no longer,
Incense is an abomination to Me,
New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly.
I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts,
They have become a burden to Me. I am weary of bearing them.
—Isaiah 1:13-14

When the Jews, God’s people of the Old Testament, continued in their religious hypoc­risy, the Lord proclaimed: “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the gates, that you might not uselessly kindle fire on My altar!” (Malachi 1:10). Likewise God requires His New Testament people to worship Him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). He demands integrity. He desires spiritual worship from the hearts of obedient people. The salvation that He offers is not found in rituals but in a relationship: “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). God’s adopted children stand in His grace (Romans 5:2); they have no need of sacraments to channel grace to them. Their access to the Father is not through a priest but through the Son and in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:18).

Adapted from Conversations with Catholics by James G. McCarthy (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1997)

NOTES

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1128.
  2. Don Lattin, “Priest Pleads Not Guilty to Molestations,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 26, 1995, A 15.
  3. Reported by the Scripps Howard News Service and carried in the Oakland Tribune, November 19, 1994, p. A 16, in an article titled “Catholic Priest Dies from Heart Attack in Gay Bathhouse.”

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