The three broad kinds of leadership exercised by bishops in the Church are the ministries of teaching, of sanctifying, and of governing. Over the past few months, we’ve looked at the first – the leadership of teaching, known as the Church’s magisterium – and now we’ve begun examining the second, the leadership of sanctifying.
I mentioned last time that the sanctifying work of bishops – and of priests, their coworkers – is most visible in the celebration of the sacred liturgy. This includes the Mass and other Sacraments, of course, but also the Church’s official daily prayer known as the Liturgy of the Hours, at funerals, and when they inspire and challenge us all to greater holiness in virtually every aspect of their other prayer and work.
How do bishops and priests sanctify the faithful? (And, for that matter, themselves!) It can be done with words, of course. Within the celebration of any Sacrament there is preaching – and much of it can be motivational (classically called “hortatory preaching”), that is, preaching not meant so much as to teach as simply to encourage holiness in those who hear the message. This kind of advice and urging towards a deeper spirituality and more holy life actually does accomplish a lot!
Yet this is not the principal means of sanctification. It’s not the words, it’s the deeds. You see, the Sacraments and other rituals of the Church are holy in and of themselves. Merely conducting the ceremonies of the Church properly produces their blessings (the more “Catholic” word is “graces”). The fact that the Sacraments confer grace in this natural, one could say automatic, way is known by the Latin phrase ex opere operato (literally, “by the work worked”).
Thus, “grace happens” even when the preaching is not the best. “Grace happens” even when nonessential things go wrong, when people don’t pay close attention, when people read the wrong reading, when babies cry too loudly, and so forth. Bishops and priests first of all try to provide these grace-giving prayer and services, knowing full well that the Church will be a holier place no matter what!