Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

12 April 2015

Sacraments of Healing, Sacraments of Mercy

The Church's Catechism tells us (CCC 1420-1421) that there are two "Sacraments of Healing": Penance/Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. If we were to consult Sacred Scripture for the roots of these sacred grace-meetings (and we should), I would first consider Jas 5:14-15, which the anointing priest or bishop is supposed to say as part of the rite:
Are there any who are sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church, and let the priests pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick persons, and the Lord will raise them up. If they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them.
Incidentally (I exaggerate), Jesus Himself indicated:
These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages, they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mk 16:17-18)
In Mk 6:12-13, we read that the Twelve Apostles, in connection with a dominical* commissioning, "preached repentance[,] drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them."

Jesus described the curative successes of "those who believe," while James and Mark elaborate upon the repentance and forgiveness that accompany the priestly encounter. These data would not be in the Bible if Jesus and the early Church did not engage in such healing moments faithfully.

Regarding the foundations for the Sacrament of Penance: James says, "Confess your sins to one another" (5:16). Certainly any relationship beyond that of bowling buddies (though even there, where indicated) would entail the occasional disclosure of faults, through both commission and repentance of faults. James would not have said this, except for the presumed command and expectation to forgive confessed sins.

James, of course, was not necessarily referring to the sacramental transaction, but it makes sense alongside Jesus' post-Resurrection appearance in the Upper Room (John 20:19ff). "Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' And when He had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.'"
Recall how, at the diocesan Mass of the Oils, the Bishop breathes upon the Sacred Chrism while consecrating it. Thus he confers the Holy Spirit upon it for its sealing, consecratory purposes (most notably Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination to Presbyterate and Episcopate). Where there is a sealing, there is a sending.
We're not supposed to wait until the last minute to seek physical healing. Often the physicians receive the patient when it is too late to do anything helpful. All the more does this pertain to one's spiritual condition. People will wait to "send for the priests" until the person is "actively dying," scarcely able to communicate for themselves.

I wonder whether my generation (X) and younger will have the presence of mind to request the sacraments of penance, anointing, and Eucharist for their dying loved ones, much less obtain these sacraments for themselves as often as befits a son or daughter of God. Provision of spiritual care and religious education are not simply a courtesy, but a responsibility. This is generally considered true for parents vis-à-vis children, and it should also be true for adults regarding their parents--when they no longer can operate for themselves.

While we have our wits, one way we take responsibility for our own spiritual and religious disciplines is frequent and honest Confession. People of all ages will contest, "I'm not a big sinner. I never killed anyone, stole [much]..."

That may be true. The Church commands us to confess only our serious sins, at the minimum of once a year. But that is a minimum. We would change our toothbrush more often, or the oil in (older) vehicles, so why not prevent sin buildup in like manner?

As an apostle of mercy I consider myself obliged to make the suggestion, especially upon an initial visit to a hospitalized person. I certainly don't accuse anyone of being a "big sinner," but I often remind them that there are ten commandments, and various ways to break them.

Most important is the priest's mission (as opposed to "agenda," a word fraught with unsavory connotations) to "draw everyone" to Christ (cf. Jn 12:32). To refuse or defer that invitation is no personal slight, nor is it necessarily a self-condemning action; but "the offer still stands," at least for the patient's length of stay, and they can always seek another priest. The time may not be right, they may want to examine their conscience first--and I can provide material for that!

In any case, it's all about whittling away at excuses, and renewing our commitment to our relationship with Jesus and all we encounter. Can you "confess to God directly"? Sure, but confess also to a priest. It costs nothing but our egos. The priest is as much a sinner as you, perhaps (God forbid) more. But as priest, he is an other Christ, and so he was commissioned by Christ and the Church "to reconcile the world to Himself" one person at a time.

Moreover, the healing is in the relationship. Relationships involve the continuous exchange of loving words and actions that heal. Every human exertion in some way creates micro-tears in our spiritual fiber, just like exercise does for our muscles. These tears are properly repaired through prayer, both communal and personal. Confession is fundamentally a prayer that acknowledges and praises God's goodness and sovereignty over our lives; in that context it is a recognition of our sins and weaknesses, which are the precise occasion for God to act in support of our relationship with Him.

I don't advocate putting off any sacramental attention (Anointing or Penance) because I don't advocate putting off any relationship attention. That's what sacraments are: not things to collect or use, not "Get Out of Hell Free!" passes. Rather, they are demonstrations of God's concern for our union with Him and with our fellow human persons, which is most fully evident in the sacraments' very Source: The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Incarnate Son.

*dominical: of, or pertaining to, the Lord [Jesus]; from L. dominicus, from dominus "lord, master."