Far too often people approach receiving the Sacraments as though they are some kind of magic. They believe that upon reception of a sacrament, they are somehow going to be more virtuous, loving, kind, a better disciple, etc. I hear this all the time: "Brother, I am always confessing the same sin(s). Why hasn't God changed me?" The problem with questions like this is that there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between our understanding of what the sacraments actually do for us and what is required for that to happen.
At the heart of the matter is how we understand grace and specifically sanctifying grace. You will remember from your Catechism class that grace is "a supernatural gift of God bestowed on us through the merits of Jesus Christ for our salvation" (Baltimore Catechism # 109). One of the primary ways in which we receive sanctifying grace is through our reception of the sacraments - they help us to grow in holiness, to become children of God , to become "temples of the Holy Spirit," and to grow in relationship with God so that someday we may meet Him in heaven.
Yet while God freely gives us His grace in the sacraments, He also respects our free will. If we are not properly disposed to receiving the sacraments -- perhaps because of our lack of personal faith, lack of understanding, lack of desire to live a Christian life, lack of repentance, etc -- then the fruitfulness in us of the sacraments are going to be limited. What does this mean for you? God freely gives you the gift of His sanctifying grace, but He also gives you the right to say "Yes" or "No" to that gift.
Saint Thomas Aquinas discusses this in the Summa Theologiae, I-II, q 113, a 3 in his discussion on the effects of grace:
Now God moves everything in its own manner, just as we see that in natural things, what is heavy and what is light are moved differently, on account of their diverse natures. Hence He moves man to justice according to the condition of his human nature. But it is man's proper nature to have free-will. Hence in him who has the use of reason, God's motion to justice does not take place without a movement of the free-will; but He so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time He moves the free-will to accept the gift of grace, in such as are capable of being moved thus.
In short, if a person is not properly disposed to receiving the sacraments, God is not going to magically change that person. The Catechism sums it up nicely in its discussion on preparing to receive Eucharist:
The assembly should prepare itself to encounter its Lord and to become “a people well disposed.” The preparation of hearts is the joint work of the Holy Spirit and the assembly, especially of its ministers. The grace of the Holy Spirit seeks to awaken faith, conversion of heart, and adherence to the Father’s will. These dispositions are the precondition both for the reception of other graces conferred in the celebration itself and the fruits of new life which the celebration is intended to produce afterward (CCC #1098).
A few questions to ponder as we continue our Lenten Journey:
1) In my life, what is keeping me from being able to freely open myself up to God's sanctifying grace?
2) Have I been away from the sacraments (especially Eucharist, and Reconciliation) for some time? Could I consider coming back?
3) What kind of fruit does God want me to produce as a result of living in a relationship with Him through the Church?
Have a Blessed Lent!