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“Ask a Priest: Can the Eucharist be “holier” if the priest is holier?”
Q: A while back a friend brought up a question that I have been wondering about for some time. He basically said that the Eucharist is always Christ, but that the Eucharist will be holier if the priest performing the consecration is holier. Is this true? -K.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: The short answer to your question is no. The Eucharist cannot be “holier” if the minister is holier. The Eucharist is Christ. Christ is God and thus infinitely holy. A priest cannot make Christ holier.
What your friend might have in mind is that a Mass celebrated by a holy priest, with great reverence, might inspire the congregation to greater fervor. That, in turn, might bring more graces to those who receive Communion. But that would be because the communicants are better disposed to receiving the Eucharist. It wouldn’t be because the Eucharist was “holier” in that Mass.
All this touches on a notion known as ex opere operato. The Catechism in No. 1128 explains, “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.”
Notice that phrase “independently of the personal holiness of the minister.” Ex opere operato means that, so long as the minister performs the sacrament correctly, there will be a fruit – in this case, the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ.
Even if the priest is in mortal sin, the transubstantiation will still occur; Christ will be truly present in the Eucharist. Ex opere operato drives home the point that the sacraments ultimately depend on the power of God, not on the holiness of the human minister. (For further reading click here.)
Notice, too, the closing words of No. 1128: “the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.” If someone receives the Eucharist fervently, respectfully, in a state of grace, that will affect the amount of grace conferred. If someone receives the Eucharist haphazardly, there is less grace conferred. If someone, knowing that he is in a state of mortal sin, receives the Eucharist, he won’t get any grace; in fact, he will have committed the sin of sacrilege. The Eucharist he receives is still holy (it is Christ, after all) but the communicant won’t benefit because of his own sinful state.
I hope this helps. And I pray that you have a rich Eucharistic life. God bless.