August 9, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Penance and anointing of the sick

John F. FinkThe sacrament of penance and reconciliation and the sacrament of anointing of the sick are the Catholic Church’s two sacraments of healing. We believe that Jesus wanted his Church to continue, with the power of the Holy Spirit, the work of healing and salvation that he did when he forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health (see Mk 2:1-12).

Jesus instituted the sacrament of penance and reconciliation during his appearance to the Apostles after his Resurrection, when he said, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:23).

This sacrament requires contrition on the part of the sinner, confession to a priest, absolution by the priest in the name of Jesus, and an act of penance as a way to make satisfaction for the sins confessed.

The worst thing that can happen to a person is that he or she die with mortal sins unconfessed. Therefore, one of the Church’s commandments is, in the words of the Council of Trent, “After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1457).

Confession of everyday faults, known as venial sins, isn’t necessary, but is encouraged to help us form our consciences, fight against evil tendencies, and progress in the life of the Spirit. Many Catholics make it a practice to receive the sacrament every month as part of their devotional life.

During the first centuries of the Church, reconciliation often required public penance, sometimes for years. It was Irish missionaries, during the seventh century, who spread the practice of “private” confession, only between the penitent and the priest.

But why confess to a priest? It’s God, after all, who forgives. Why can’t we just tell God we’re sorry? Because Jesus, who is God, gave this power to men to exercise in his name.

The second sacrament of healing is the anointing of the sick. The Gospels tell us about many occasions when Jesus healed the sick, and the Church continues his ministry of healing through this sacrament.

When this sacrament is administered, it is Jesus himself, through the priest, who touches the sick to heal them from their sins and perhaps also from a physical ailment. The primary effect is spiritual healing. The sick person’s sins are forgiven if he or she is unable to confess his or her sins in the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.

This sacrament is not only for those who are at the point of death, but for anyone who begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age. It is recommended for those about to undergo a serious operation.

This sacrament was once called extreme unction, or the last rites, and was administered to someone who was dying. That is no longer the case. Today, the Church’s last rites include three sacraments: penance, anointing of the sick, and the Eucharist as viaticum, or food for the journey. †

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