It was one of those bright spring days where there was a subtle breeze, yet still a blazing heat radiating from the sun. Pretty flowers adorned the fields and there was an aroma of lilacs as I put on the special suit that I had selected for this momentous occasion. I remember getting dressed in the basement bathroom of our old church that always had kind of a musty smell, no matter how many times they cleaned it. Thoughts raced back to the one or two classes I had attended about this significant day that didn’t even begin to prepare me for what was about to happen. The door slightly squeaked as I opened it, I walked into the dimly lit box, nervously sat down, and proceeded to fabricate sins to the patient priest intent on freeing me of these burdens that weighed me down. Yes, regrettably, this was my first, but clearly insincere experience of confession. I had no concept at the time of what the sacrament was, and I certainly didn’t know what it did.
For this reason, I begin a reflection today with some basic sacramental theology. Efficaciousness is the word I lacked knowledge of upon my first reconciliation years ago. When we say efficacious to describe the sacraments, what we mean is that they are an effective sign. Another way to articulate this would be to say that they are a sign that is so real, they literally become what they signify. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 1131 says, “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.” Think about it, the Eucharist is so much a sign of God’s love that it literally becomes the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. If I had known in second grade that reconciliation would truly erase sin from me and provide the grace to not sin anymore (or at least build up my resistance), I would have had a different, more authentic experience of the sacrament.
When I present on Theology of the Body, I often use the analogy of a stop sign as a method to explain the sacraments in the following way. If you were to saw off a stop sign and hang it on your wall, what would it be? It would of course be vandalism, but it would also just be a piece of metal with some paint on it. If you take that same piece of painted metal and put it out by the road, it actually effects a real outcome, it causes the motorists to stop.
Ok, so why all this discussion about sacraments and efficaciousness? Pope St. John Paul II made the bold claim in Theology of the Body that our bodies are, in a sense, sacramental. Think about it, a sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible reality, that of divine grace. Our bodies, therefore, are sacramental in two ways. First of all, our bodies are sacramental because they reveal who we are. They are a visible sign of the interior person, in fact, they are the person. We are our bodies. Our bodies and souls are inextricably integrated as the whole person. Secondly, our bodies are sacramental because they reveal deeper truths about God himself. Since we are made in the image and likeness of God, our bodies communicate a deeper theological reality. Our bodies reflect and reveal some of the mystery of who God is. This is why John Paul II could claim, “In some way, therefore — even if in the most general way — the body enters into the definition of sacrament, which is a visible sign of an invisible reality.”
One saint whose body even more particularly manifested sacramental signs of the spiritual reality of God, was St. Padre Pio. This month of September, we celebrate his Feast Day on the 23rd. Of course, there is much we can learn from this compelling saint who lived closer to our time than most. One of the most significant things we can learn from his witness is the fact that he allowed himself to become an effective sign of God’s love to the world. One could name a thousand things Padre Pio did to show God’s love to others, but because of his profound witness, he was also given ethereal gifts while on the earth which point to the deeper spiritual realities. Padre Pio was known to be able to read souls and could disclose to the penitent any sins they forgot or withheld in confession. It was documented that he could bilocate (being in two places at once), and he also bore the mark of the stigmata, a sign in the flesh of the physical and spiritual realities of Christ’s crucifixion. All of this to say, Padre Pio should be our example of how to live as effective signs of God’s love to the world.
By this, I am not saying we all need to receive divine knowledge or walk through walls, but we can start to live here and now more closely aligned to how we are going to live in our eternal home. When someone lives in the present and it begins to mirror our future state in heaven, we call them a mystic. It’s also what happens at every Mass. During the Mass we get a foretaste of what heaven will be like, of our future state. So, whether you already have been given the gift of bilocation or not, let’s all focus during this month on the example of Padre Pio and ask for the grace to become effective signs of God’s efficacious love to the world.
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