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

27 October 2018

Anointing of the Sick: Send for Me

The experience of illness is that of a privation (lack) of a good that ought to be present but is not, viz., wellness, integrity of body and soul. In particular areas, or even in general, we know that ”something’s not right!” Every illness is a prelude to death, the total and final dissolution of the body (CCC 1500).

What happens in the body has its inevitable effects on the soul, and vice versa. An unusually high level of attention to bodily ailments can translate into self-absorption, despair, or revolt against God, or it can promote a more mature appreciation of life’s essentials (1501). Suffering can make us bitter, or better! 

At any point on life’s journey, while we still have our faculties, we can decide in what we call “redemptive suffering” to unite our physical, emotional, and spiritual hardships with Christ’s own—which included ours and everyone else’s anyhow. It is good to make a point of connecting those hardships repeatedly and prayerfully, even when tears and shouts accompany our prayers. We can pray that someone, somewhere, somehow might be assisted by our offering, though we may never get to learn of it on earth.

One of the most noteworthy developments since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) occurred in the practice of the Anointing of the Sick. No longer is this sacrament intended solely for the deathbed: when a person is beset by serious illness or the frailty of old age, the time is ripe for anointing. It is also generally indicated before any serious surgery that requires general anesthesia.

Everyone used to call the Sacrament “Last Rites,” and many still do. The pedant in me sometimes gently corrects the misnomer, because I think of opportunities for instruction like a drunk drinks: never pass one up. I often hear talk of having people’s Last Rites “read to” them, as if we were police officers reading Miranda Rights to someone we’ve just arrested. It’s a curious confusion. Since the Sacrament can be repeated when illness returns or intensifies, I say it’s their “Last” Rites only when it’s the actual last time they’ve received it.

But then there’s CCC 1525, which makes a poignant comparison:

Thus, just as the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist form a unity called “the sacraments of Christian initiation,” so too it can be said that Penance, the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist as viaticum constitute at the end of Christian life “the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland” or the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimage.

Since the Church’s coup de grace (literally, “blow of mercy,” used here in that gentle sense) is said here with convincing pedigree to include Anointing, the precedent for retaining the term “Last Rites” is not bad after all.

In the case of the terminally and gravely ill, Anointing of the Sick ideally takes place alongside Confession and Viaticum (the final reception of Holy Communion). The unfortunate trend has been to wait until the patient/family member is “actively dying,” at which point he or she is often unable to make even a general Confession or ingest the Eucharistic species. While I say the sooner, the better, there is no better time than the present.

I do very much appreciate that families, especially those personally opposed or indifferent to religion, respect the religious and spiritual practices of their elders enough to request Anointing for their loved ones. It’s a spiritual work of justice, and who knows what good it will effect.

As for the Anointing of the Actively Dying, we proceed with the faith that the God Who knows and loves us better than we ever could know or love ourselves can sort out their interior state. The Communion of Saints is on high alert whenever someone “sends for the priests of the Church” (Anointing ritual; cf. James 5:14); it’s like the airing of the bat symbol that moves the Caped Crusader to a dude or damsel in distress. Yes, even at 2:17 AM.

Although the topic of death can be difficult to broach with anyone, let alone a gravely ill person, it can lead to valuable self-reflection (presuming that hasn’t been going on already) and, when necessary, interpersonal healing and reconciliation. Don’t allow fear to unduly delay this graceful activity.

“Their sins will be forgiven” (James 5:15): Anointing of the Sick does forgive venial sins when the recipient is properly disposed to that forgiveness (i.e., sorry). In this life, the forgiveness of mortal sins is reserved to the Sacrament of Penance; amid the need of that forgiveness, Confession is an appropriate complement to Anointing. Be not afraid to do the work of self-examination and to be open to the grace of repentance that Confession requires!

22 October 2018

Confession: I'm Not A Good Person

How does one go to Confession in this day and age? Before ever entering the room or booth, it is necessary to take some time to examine one’s conscience—to reflect on the time since the last Confession, however long it has been, and consider the ways one has seriously violated the Commandments. 

Think of the actual words of the commandments, but think also of the deeper meaning behind them. Sure, you may not have killed anyone (#5), but you may have desired serious harm to another by thought or attempted that harm in direct or indirect conversation. You may not have committed literal adultery (#6), but maybe you have had sex with yourself or another in fantasy or reality. You may not have fashioned an idol out of your jewelry, but you may have given some good but lesser activity such importance in your life that you thereby made it “impossible” to give God due worship by attending Mass. These are some of the things to think about and mention in Confession.

In St. Michael’s and most other confessionals, you still have the opportunity to go to Confession anonymously or face-to-face. Our room has a kneeler with a screen, and a seat directly in front of Father. I’ve been a priest for 15 years and a human being for 42 years, so positively nothing you say will give me a bad impression of you. I won’t judgmentally “take it with me” into our regular interactions, except to say I will love and respect you more for your honesty and willingness to change. Plus, I am mindful enough of my own sins and weaknesses that I have no basis to condemn anyone for anything. If you dare to present yourself to the Lord’s priest, you are already showing tremendous cooperation with Grace. 

People often greet me by sheepishly saying, “I’m not sure how to do this,” but then they end up doing just fine! It remains appropriate to begin by making the Sign of the Cross and saying, “Bless/Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been [this long] since my last Confession. These are my sins.” Then you tell me your sins. Then (hopefully!) a little encouragement and/or challenge from the priest, maybe a little conversation, your Act of Contrition, the Church’s Prayer of Absolution, and then freedom!

Don’t sugarcoat yourself by saying, “I’m not a bad person” or “I try to be a good person.” For whatever reason, people might do that because they’re nervous, or ashamed. But could there be a little pride, too? Sit with yourself long enough and you will find evidence of badness. 

For all you used to hear about Catholics, we don’t enjoy guilt, but we do find it helpful because it shows us where we need to grow in love of God and neighbor. We use it only long enough to draw us to Confession and to try to do better in the future. Guilt isn’t meant to become a handy billy club for punishing ourselves or for walking around with a sense of continuous oppression. It never was meant for that!

The more often you go to Confession, the easier it will be. The more you will find to confess. The more the devil will try to convince you that either you are so awful that you’re not worth the space you occupy, or that Confession isn’t necessary because you’re such a saint and everyone else is so wretched. Truth is, we’re all in this life, in this Church, together.

20 October 2018

Confirmation: A Lump Sum and an Annuity

Following the Catechism’s treatment of the Sacraments, which itself mirrors the ancient order of receiving them, I speak now of Confirmation. The Western Church by and large has reversed the order of the Sacraments of Initiation for historical reasons, postponing Confirmation to a time when children are “more ready”—more ready to stop going to Mass, that is, if ever they did go with any regularity.

I spot a condemnatory sarcasm in my words and tone, through which I nevertheless shall proceed in writing. At least I am conscious of it; the Holy Spirit’s gifts of wisdom and counsel are prompting a gentle self-policing with the virtue of prudence. But exercising prudence doesn’t mean excusing the obligation to speak the truth in Jesus’ Name, whether it is the truths of Christ and the Church teaching, or the reasoned reflection on my own feelings and experience.

Through the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Holy Spirit completes and perfects the baptized Christian’s identification with Jesus and His Church. Whereas Baptism makes the down payment of the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts, Confirmation instills those gifts in fullness.

If a child profits from the care and direction of baptismal sponsors (Godparents) in the earliest years—even if "care and direction" are entrusted more concretely to the parents—all the more can a Confirmation sponsor’s efforts help the neophyte to live Jesus. Without necessarily hovering, the sponsor should initiate some degree of regular, Christ-centered communication. How the sponsor lives Jesus as a Catholic, publicly and “privately,” is just as important. 

I use quotation marks with "privately" because (1) nothing seems fully private in this technological time except for the seal of Confession and (2) Jesus ominously declared, “Whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops” (Lk 12:3).

In that section of Luke 12 Jesus is exhorting courage in the face of persecution from the Enemy of Salvation. Jesus reminds His followers that He “has our back,” we used to say fifteen minutes ago. “Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows” (12:7). 

Now that's an understatement, because the human person is on a different plane from birds and puppies and every other creature. That difference entrusts to us a certain stewardship (care and direction) over the other creatures, but also invests a certain humble pride: “Wow: God thought enough of me to create me as a human person, for whose salvation God the Son Himself became man.” 

Now God thought no less of the sparrow to create it a sparrow (for each creation has its contributions to the Kingdom), but “to which of the sparrows did God ever say, ‘You are my Son; this day I have begotten you?” (Heb 1:5, except the original text reads “angels” in place of “sparrows”).

I just wish these thoughts might seize the heart of a person, sufficient to enflame him with love for the fullness of truth, goodness, and beauty found in the Catholic Church, so that the Confirmation administered sooner or later might “take.” It doesn’t have to happen according to my personal expectations, preoccupied with outcomes as I am; it just has to happen before the person dies.