Dear Father John, in The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision by the council of Major Superiors of Women Religious I came across something I was hoping someone could possibly shed a bit more light on. I’m aware that this is a conversation that may not have yet taken place in any official form. On pages 32-33 in speaking on the public vows of consecrated religious it is stated: “Perpetual profession creates a definitive bond between Christ and the person who is consecrated as a religious, manifesting in the Church a wonderful marriage brought about by God. This bond reaches to the soul of the person; the characteristic of perpetuity implies that there is a lasting effect upon the soul of the religious.” What would be the difference in this case of a “lasting effect on the soul” and an indelible mark? What is the teaching around the effects on the soul of religious profession in comparison to other vocations (priesthood and marriage)?
Let’s begin with the last two questions, and then move back up to the first one. But first, a warning. These are all concepts that touch on deep mysteries regarding the working of God’s grace. We cannot fully comprehend these mysteries. We can accept them as true in faith, and then, with the help of the Holy Spirit’s gifts of understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, we can gradually deepen our appreciation and grasp of them. So I don’t think I will be able to give a fully satisfying answer. I hope to point to some explanations that can stimulate your further reflection and prayer.
What Is “Sacramental Character”?
The “indelible mark” is a phrase that refers to a sacramental character. The sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Orders actually alter, or re-shape, in a certain way, the human soul. In the case of Baptism, this is how our human nature is elevated to participate in the divine nature, to become true children of God through the spiritual adoption of grace. In the case of Confirmation, this is how we are enabled to act in a divine way, most especially in regards to bearing witness to Christ here in this fallen world. In the case of Orders, this is how a priest is capacitated to act in persona Christi (in the person of Christ) when administering the sacraments. If our human nature was not enhanced, or elevated in some way, we simply would not be capable of these things (divine adoption, supernatural testimony, acting in persona Christi). So, in order to make us capable, God intervenes directly with his sacramental grace to give us the sacramental character that we need to live according to our calling in Christ.
A crude comparison may help. Imagine if you wanted to make a duck able to talk and engage in an intelligent conversation. The duck’s natural capacities would have to be enhanced. Natural duck-intelligence would have to be elevated to human intelligence. Duck auricular and oratorical functions would have to be elevated to the point where they could perceive and utter articulated language. Similarly (although I admit that this is a very crude analogy), in order for us to be able to relate to God with the intimacy that he wants for us, our human nature has to be elevated. Some theologians and spiritual writers, especially in the eastern tradition, even speak of the human person being, in a certain sense, deified by grace.
Here’s how the Catechism Describes This:
1304 Like Baptism which it completes, Confirmation is given only once, for it too imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual mark, the “character,” which is the sign that Jesus Christ has marked a Christian with the seal of his Spirit by clothing him with power from on high so that he may be his witness.
1305 This “character” perfects the common priesthood of the faithful, received in Baptism, and “the confirmed person receives the power to profess faith in Christ publicly and as it were officially (quasi Ex officio).”
1581 This sacrament [Holy Orders] configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit, so that he may serve as Christ’s instrument for his Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church, in his triple office of priest, prophet, and king.
1582 As in the case of Baptism and Confirmation this share in Christ’s office is granted once for all. The sacrament of Holy Orders, like the other two, confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily.
Other Sacramental Graces
As regards the other sacraments, marriage included, God sends grace through them, but the grace doesn’t elevate our nature. The grace of forgiveness, healing, and strength comes through reconciliation and anointing. The grace of the Eucharist is too rich and multifaceted to summarize here. The grace of marriage involves a sacramental consecration that helps a married couple live the implications of the marriage bond to the full; it perfects that natural bond of marriage and links it to each spouse’s calling to holiness. But this grace of marriage, unlike the sacramental character mentioned earlier, doesn’t actually imprint a sacramental character. This is because marriage is already a natural reality, a reality that human begins are by nature capable of entering into. Here is how the Catechism describes it:
1641… This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.”
The marriage bond is real, and it is created by the consent of the spouses, by their intention to give themselves to each other fully – exclusively and for life. The bond is invisible, but real; it is a spiritual bond. It impacts the soul of each spouse because of that free choice, that commitment. But the bond itself springs from their own human natures, from their free act of self-giving. In the case of sacramental character (in Baptism, Confirmation, and Orders), the real change that occurs in the soul is not the result of the person’s free decision, but rather it flows from the direct action and intervention of God.
In part II, we will look at the effect of religious profession on the soul.
Art for this post on the lasting effects of a soul: Maternity, Edmund Blair Leighton, 1917, Restored Traditions, used with permission. The baptistry in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, 30 June 2013, own work, Farragutful, CC; Ordination sacerdotale d’un prêtre (chrismation des mains) [Chrismation of Hands, Sacramental Ordination of a Priest), 15 August 2007, own work, English nol, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported; Das Ehesakrament, circa 1755, Pietro Longhi, PD-Worldwide; all Wikimedia Commons.