THE SEVEN SACRAMENTS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
We're going to be focusing on two more sacraments in particular. We're going to be focusing on the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation and the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick or Extreme Unction as it has been historically called. I'd like to reverse that order though. I'd like to spend our first few minutes on the Anointing of the Sick, and I'd like to restrict myself somewhat so that I can focus a little more time and attention on a sacrament that I suspect will probably relate to more of us at least in the next few years, that is the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick
First, the Anointing of the Sick. What is the Sacrament of Extreme Unction or the Anointing of the Sick? It's essentially a help granted to the whole person to enable him to live intensely his supernatural life in spite of the special burden of sickness. The sacrament is conferred validly through the anointing with blessed oil by the priest, along with prayer. It imparts health and strength to the soul and sometimes to the body for all Catholics who have the use of reason, who are experiencing serious illness, or who have experienced an accident, or who may simply be close to death due to old age. It's especially important in the cases where people are in danger of dying.
Now where do we find the roots of the sacrament? Well, we find them in Christ's own ministry as it is recorded in the gospel. Christ was devoted to the healing of the sick. He didn't just restrict that power of healing to himself. He also gave it to the Apostles. In Mark chapter 6, verse 13, we're told that he gave this healing power to his Apostles to "cure many sick persons by anointing them with oil."
Now, if God is omnipotent, then why use Apostles? If God is omnipotent, then why use oil? Because God is the creator of all creation and of all matter and of all persons. Again, he does not feel left out. He does not feel pushed to the side. His glory is not detracted from when he uses or employs secondary means. In fact, God's omnipotent love, as we have seen, is displayed when he uses ordinary means and ordinary people like us so that when supernatural works are accomplished through natural means, we know that God is in our midst, and it's the assurance that we have that we are in fact his covenant family and that he is the Lord of the covenant in the midst of his people.
There is also another important passage found in the New Testament Book of James. If you have a Bible, turn with me to James, chapter 5, where we will read verses 14 and 15. Let's back up to chapter 5, verse 13: "Is anyone among you suffering, let him pray. Is anyone cheerful, let him sing praise. Is any among you sick, let him call for the Elders of the Church." The word is presbyter, that's the root for our word "priest." We get the word priest from this term presbyter or presbuteras. "Let him call for the Elders of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord and the prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed, for the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects."
Now we're going to come back to this particular passage again when we look at the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation because it serves double duty, as you can probably sense right now. But it talks about various effects, various sacramental effects. What are the effects of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick? Well, basically it's a four-fold effect. First, the Church teaches that Extreme Unction strengthens and aids and heals the soul. The second effect: it comforts us in sickness and it strengthens us in the face of temptation. The third effect is that it prepares us for entrance into heaven by remitting all venial sins and it also has the power to remove the remains of sin, the weakened will, the darkened intellect, etc. The fourth effect is that it may restore the health of the body, as well. Now, that restoration may not occur in this life. It might be the anointing of Jesus, we see, that prepares him for the ultimate healing in the resurrection.
Some theologians add a fifth effect, that Extreme Unction takes away mortal sin when the individual is unconscious, so long that if he regains consciousness, he is bound to confess his sins. But generally speaking, we speak of the four-fold effect of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick or Extreme Unction.
Common Objection: Aren't we Endorsing a Superstitious Approach to Healing
Now we have to ask and answer a question that really is common today because of a kind of secular, scientific outlook; that is, doesn't all this reflect a somewhat primitive outlook on disease and illness? In other words, aren't we really endorsing a superstitious approach to healing? I mean do we want to engage in all kinds of faith healing adventures where we are really doing things that are primitive, unscientific and outmoded?
Well no, I don't think so. I don't think this implies any rejection of modern science. It certainly does not imply any rejection of modern medicine or the need or the propriety to go see medical specialists. It assumes the propriety of all that, but it builds on the gospel teachings and how they relate to Christ's own ministry. In other words, again we see how the Church lives its life through the Body of Christ. Christ infuses the Holy Spirit into the Church so that the Church's ministry can be an extension of Christ's incarnation. What he did in his personal body on earth, the Church does in its corporate ministry through those that Christ has appointed and their successors.
Now I want to stop here for a second because this is very easily misunderstood. Why is that? Because we tend to judge the Church and assess its nature on the basis of sense experience, that is, what we pick up simply through our five senses and through our human reason. I would suggest, I would urge you to see that the Body of Christ is something much more than human reason and experience can tell you.
The Church in the Book of Ephesians is referred to as being "the mystery of Christ." Now how is that so? To understand the true, supernatural character of the Church takes supernatural faith. We say in the Creed, "I believe in God, the Father Almighty." Apart from faith and apart from grace and apart from God's revelation, we would not know our Creator as Father. It's only by grace that we become his children. If we speak of God being the Father of all humans, that's metaphorical. If we speak of God's Fatherhood with regard to Christians, that's sacramental and that's metaphysical. That has a validity that goes far beyond God as Father because God is creator.
The Creed goes on, "I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son," and it goes on to talk about the things that Jesus Christ did and who he is. Now, if Jesus Christ walked into the room right now and somebody were to look at him, would they say, "Wow, check it out, the God-man. Look at those biceps. He has to be God! Look at the eyebrows and the way the hair just kind of goes, and look at those shoulders. I can just tell that he is one of a kind. He's the God-man." Of course not. If he were to walk into this room and sit down and he hadn't showered in a few days, you'd know it. He had his human body, fully, completely and truly human. He might have to get up and excuse himself to relieve himself because he had bodily functions, if you don't mind. I don't think that's irreverent at all.
If we were to sit there and stare and study, we would say, "This person is a human." And if someone were to whisper in your ear, "No, no. That person is the eternal Logos, the second Person of the eternal Godhead, the Creator of the vast, unchartered universe." You would look and say, "You didn't get enough sleep last night or you've been drinking something besides hot chocolate. I mean the guy's about thirty, maybe thirty-three, why do you say he's God? God's eternal. I mean just to fit the job description, he's got to be eternal, right?"
Then suppose a skeptic pushed you and said, "Now you think that this guy really is divine? Well, look here. Let's put him out on the table and let's do a little disective surgery. I mean, let's check out his kidney. Does that look divine to you? I mean, is this an eternal liver? No, purely human. So get off it. What's this divine stuff?" But God has revealed and we have believed by grace, through revelation, that Jesus Christ is more than meets the eye because, through the eyes of faith, we see God made man.
Now, it takes faith and revelation and the aid of grace to accept all of that, and I would suggest that the early Church put into its creed, "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church," because they recognized the fact that we could not properly understand the true nature of the Church apart from the same kind of supernatural faith, apart from the same divine grace to help us, so that we would look and see what seems to be merely a human bureaucracy, a human hierarchy, a human society, a religious organization with lots of internal problems. Just like Christ's skin cells were dying and then regenerating and being replaced, so the Church has all of these human elements. So how can we say that the Church has this divine character to continue Christ's incarnate ministry? Because Christ taught it and because Christ did it and because Jesus Christ still does it and will do it until the close of the age.
He is with us through the sacramental oaths that he himself swore, by which he unites us to himself in his living, organic, Mystical Body to continue this healing and to continue this wonderful, life-giving ministry that he started 2000 years ago. That is the theological foundation for the Anointing of the Sick and, as we will see, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as well. So, is this a primitive outlook? Is this a superstition? Is this just an obsolete, antiquated, prescientific outlook that really modern medicine contradicts?
No, of course not. Jesus Christ gives to us an outlook on illness that surpasses what science can tell us without undermining it. We can embrace the true accomplishments of science at the same time we can embrace the true teachings and practices of Our Lord and his Apostles. Christ's teachings on illness and how the spiritual and sometimes even the demonic powers relate to illness can be found throughout the gospels. For instance, in Luke 13 we see a person who has the spirit of infirmity for 18 years. It isn't just physical, it's a spirit of infirmity, as well. So through prayer this disease is removed.
In Matthew 12, verse 22, somebody is blind and dumb because of demonic power. Now, scientists could not have ever detected that which is spiritual because science is restricted to the five senses. Science is restricted to the empirical. It would have had sensible manifestations, but those supersensible spiritual elements faith alone can see, and the sacraments alone can heal. So, in Matthew 12: 22, Christ again heals somebody in a spiritual and supernatural mode because that's the origin of the disease. Likewise in Luke 8, verse 2, Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast out of her, seven evil spirits.
So we have to affirm somehow, even in this modern age, the existence of evil forces that go beyond the biological factors of physical life, pure spirits, as the Church has always taught, that are hostile to God and powerfully active to subvert and pervert creation to themselves. One of the greatest German scholars of the 20th Century, a convert, Heinrich Schleer, who was a widely respected Protestant Biblical scholar for decades until his study of the Book of Ephesians after many, many years, led him into the Catholic Church. Heinrich Schleer said this, "No matter what physical or psychic causes it may have, illness is also due, at least sometimes, to a superior evil power. The incidence of illness may seem fortuitous to man, but it is sometimes due to the calculated action of superior wicked powers. This superior power has its being not only in the impairment of the body, but also in the confusion and ruin of the spirit."
In other words, we are engaged in spiritual warfare, as St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6, and so our battle has to be fought with spiritual and supernatural weapons, and none of our weapons are as powerful as those sacraments that we are speaking of. Pope Pius XI in 1923 said, "We are particularly anxious." He's talking about how people have kind of pushed aside the Sacrament of Anointing. "We are particularly anxious to dispel in every possible way the deadly error which to the detriment of souls has given rise to the practice of not anointing the sick with holy oil until death is imminent and they have all but lost, or lost altogether, their faculties; for it is not necessary either for the validity or the licity of the sacrament that death be feared as something proximate. Rather, it is enough that there should be a prudent or probable judgment of danger."
Let me explain what Pope Pius XI was saying. A lot of people reduce the Sacrament of Anointing to the death bed: that is, it's just simply something that you do to get them ready to die. It certainly is that, but it's much more than that. It's something which touches upon this human life in other moments as well. If there's just prudent or probable judgment of danger, this sacrament may be validly administered. This is a healing sacrament, and it touches the body as well as the soul because the body is redeemed as well as the soul.
Some people want unmediated access to Christ apart from material, apart from any creaturely mediation, but that's not the way Christ created things. He created us with bodies. He created us with five senses. He created us so that we would experience his love and his power and his wisdom through all kinds of creaturely things and creaturely means. That's how he redeems us as well, because all of this doesn't detract from his glory. Rather it refracts his glory, like the prism of the church refracts the pure light of God's love in Christ.
So we should take advantage of this sacrament whenever there is such a prudent or probable judgment of danger because it heals the soul and strengthens the soul to overcome sin and also often heals the body. This is something that Protestants have been experiencing outside the Church. We have seen all kinds of ways in which God is working outside the ordinary means of the Catholic Church to kind of wake us up so that we can experience the far superior power of the sacrament itself. This sacrament is powerful to heal. Let's get that into our heads and hearts and spread the word.
Now does this mean that we should become basically a worldwide faith healing cult and stop visiting the doctors? After all, what's going on with all the rising health costs? No, of course not. That would be wrong and wrong-headed. Therapy should be sought. We should consult specialists. We should not despise true scientific knowledge. We should also depend upon the Lord and we should pray and we should depend upon the sacraments. Throughout the gospels we have this balance.
Anointing is Meant for the Healing of the Whole Person, Body and the Soul
So what we should see is that the sacrament is meant for the healing of the whole person, body and soul. The object is not necessarily or specifically or exclusively a medical cure, but rather a recovery and strengthening of supernatural life to bear up under the burden of sickness and weakness. Why? Because what does sickness do to us in our spiritual life with Christ? Think about your own experience. How do you feel and how do you respond to people and how do you relate to God when you're really sick? What happens? Why would Christ institute a sacrament relative to our sickness, relative to human danger of body? Because there are three effects of sickness that radically affect our relationship with Christ and those who are in his Body.
First, it's easy to lapse into self-absorption where you become so preoccupied with your weakness, it's hard to even get out of yourself to see other people and their needs. Second, we also have what theologians call "spiritual lethargy" where the body is taking so much attention and energy away from the soul that spiritually we become very weak, tired and lethargic. The third effect of illness is frequent proneness to discouragement. Do you know that despair is a mortal sin, where you simply say, "Even with the help of God's grace, I can't make it?" That's a mortal sin because it is seriously calling into question God's love and power. And illness can frequently lead people to that kind of discouragement which then takes them to the boundaries of despair.
So Christ knows our infirmity. He took it upon himself and through it he healed us, and so through our infirmities he heals our souls and also our bodies. Way back in the 16th Century, in the famous Catechism of the Council of Trent, we were told this, a very interesting statement relative to the healing power of the sacrament. Why is it that the sacrament is frequently administered without any healing effect? Is it because really the sacrament is to be spiritualized away so that God really isn't concerned about using the sacrament for healing the body but just simply the soul? No, back in the 16th Century, the Catechism of the Council of Trent said the following, "And if in our days the sick obtain this effect," that is of healing, "less frequently, this is to be attributed not to any defect in the sacrament, but rather to the weaker faith of a great number of those who are anointed with the sacred oil or by whom it is administered."
In other words, the sacrament is valid when it is performed according to the Church's teachings built upon Christ's teaching, but the sacrament is powerful dependent upon the dispositions of the minister and the recipient. If we have little faith, we will see little effect. It's the same way it was in the gospels. So the Catechism of the Council of Trent says back in the 16th Century that if this sacrament is not healing many people, physically as well as spiritually, it's not due to any weakness or defect in the sacrament. No, the weakness or the defect needs to be properly located in our faith. I think that's true today even more so.
Anointing is Intended to Transform our Life and our Understanding of Sickness, Weakness, Suffering and Death
The bottom line for the sacrament, I believe, is that the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is intended to transform our life, and I would suggest, our understanding of sickness and of weakness, of suffering and of death. Why? Because Christ took death, that gloomy, despairing subject that we all fear and we all avoid; he took that and made it the door of heaven. He took away the sting of death. He actually made death into a holy sacrifice, practically a means of grace. He made suffering a tool for sanctification. So it transforms your understanding of suffering and death. Why? Because we are now called by these sacraments, these oaths, to unite ourselves and our sufferings to Christ. We are to mystically insert our sufferings into Christ's living Body, the Church. Our suffering and death are united with his in redemptive value and in healing power.
I believe that the kingdom of Satan is dealt a death blow every time Satan's great weapons, suffering and death, are reversed in their effects by people who offer them up in union with Christ's sacrifice so that through Christ, suffering becomes a powerful tool of victorious sanctity. That is what this sacrament is meant to lead us to, to see and to live. It increases our own faith in Christ's healing power. It causes us to rethink our attitude toward suffering and toward sickness and death, and it's to encourage ourselves and others to a greater openness to receiving God's healing power through his sacrament.
I recently came across a homily that the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, gave just this year where he is calling 20th Century Catholic disciples to a radical commitment to Christ. He says in effect, "This is not for the elite. This is for all of us." If Christ is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all. We can't pick and choose that which he can control in our lives. Who then is Lord? We are. He becomes lackey. He becomes "go-fer." He becomes our little household servant. He is Lord of Lord and King of Kings, and he calls forth a radical commitment of total service to himself because he has died for us. So John Paul told parishioners of the Roman Parish of Jesus of the Divine Agony, "Either God and his kingdom or wealth, power and success." He told the parishioners that, "when wealth, power or success are considered these days as absolute goods, they are inevitably transformed into idols." And people who think of wealth, power and success as absolute goods will refuse to accept illness, suffering and death as tools for wholeness, as the means by which we are actually made stronger and fulfilled as humans.
So he goes on, "Today we live in an atmosphere of secularism which prefers having things to being a person under God. In many people this creates an insatiable thirst for possessions and an unbridled race for riches which society thinks are the only things that count. These are the new forms," he tells us, "of the sins of idolatry which, while they wipe God off the horizon of life, also create dramatic situations of injustice in society." So he says, "Compromise is a serious danger for many Christians who live in such a pluralistic, secular society." Compromise is a serious danger for us. Pope John Paul II goes on, "God does not tolerate living with idols around him. He does not tolerate any facile compromise between good and evil. He cannot stand divided hearts and communities. 'Either God or money,' our Lord says. Either the justice which makes us children of God, or the injustice which produces sin and division. Either the kingdom of God or the kingdom of man. A witness of fidelity and consistency, of detachment and service is asked of all Christians," he says, "but particularly of those who have public responsibilities in social and political life."
He calls forth moral strength which does not tolerate compromise and for generous involvement. In short, he's calling for sacrifice -- total commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and to the Church as his family, to the Church as his kingdom, to the Church as his army and to the Church as our hospital.
Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation)
Let's move now to the second sacrament under consideration, that is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or as it is sometimes called, the Sacrament of Confession, Penance or Repentance. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the sacrament by which post-baptismal sins are forgiven through priestly absolution. It isn't just me and Jesus. It is me and Jesus, but it isn't just that! Jesus Christ has instituted the priesthood, and it's through priestly absolution that we receive the grace of this sacrament because it's through them that the oath is sworn and the grace is given.
What do we need to do as recipients, as penitents? The first thing is we need to come to the sacrament with contrition, that is sorrow for sin. But the sacrament is an oath that is powerful and it's designed to make up for what we lack. We pledge ourselves in the oath, but we also plea for help in an oath. Sometimes attrition is sufficient. The Church teaches that if a person approaches the sacrament without perfect contrition, that is, without a total sorrow for sin but they merely have what is known as attrition, that is, a fear of punishment, fearing the loss of heaven and dreading the pains of hell -- if that's all you come to the sacrament with, it isn't enough; but the sacrament will aid you. It will complete what is lacking and defective in your resolution and disposition.
So we come with contrition. We come with that Godly sorrow for sin. We also come for confession, that is, telling the priest sincerely and humbly and entirely our sins in number and kind. Then, after receiving absolution from the priest, we do penance. We not only do penance to give restitution, to provide restitution and repair the damages done by sin, but we also do penance to restore and strengthen our bond of love with Christ and the people of God.
Let's keep all of this in mind. This is sort of the basic, simple, catechetical summary. Scripture records Christ giving power to the Apostles to forgive sins, but this is sometimes misunderstood. Some people think, "Well, as long as Catholics tell their sins to the priests, they can go on committing sins, whenever they want, whenever they choose." That's a total distortion. The truth is, unless that sinner is truly sorry, unless that sinner approaches the sacrament with contrition or at least attrition and confesses all known serious sins sincerely, humbly and completely, the sacrament not only does not confer the absolution, but then it becomes sacrilege.
To go to confession and deliberately withhold confessing a mortal sin is a mortal sin. You have perjured yourselves, you have committed sacrilege. So we have to approach this like we approach fire. Fire can be a very, very powerful tool for good. It can also be a very deadly tool for evil and for harm.
Effects of the Sacrament
The sacrament is designed for spiritual healing and for the restoration of our relationship with Christ. It, too, has a four-fold effect. It restores sanctifying grace in the case of mortal sin. It increases our sanctifying grace, the grace of divine Sonship, if all we confess are venial sins. Second thing is that the sins are forgiven. They are covered over. They are washed away. The third effect is that eternal punishment is remitted and temporal punishment, at least in part, is remitted as well. Then, fourthly, the sacrament gives us supernatural power to help us avoid sin and the occasions of sin in the future.
It's important to realize that when we make the act of contrition, that we are resolving not just to do penance and to avoid sin, but to avoid those near occasions which we know will lead us into sin -- whatever her name may be, whatever the place may be. We resolve to avoid those things that lead us to sin.
Now we've got to get out of the mind this idea that it doesn't really matter if you're sorry or not. You just confess your sins and, you know, automatically this stuff is given. It reminds me of a Charles Schultz cartoon. You've seen Peanuts. One of my favorite comic strips is Peanuts, and there's one in particular that really stands out in my memory. It's where Linus is packing a snowball, getting ready to pelt Lucy. All of a sudden she turns around and says, "If you hit me with that snowball, so help me you'll be sorry!" She turns around and walks away and sure enough, Linus heaves the thing, whack, splat on the back of her head. She comes back with her fists ready to pound him, and he says, "You are so right. I am sorry."
It doesn't work that way. You know a famous Harvard philosopher, William James, once said, "I would sin like David, if only I could repent like David!" Well you know, you can gauge and manipulate your contrition and your sorrow for sin. You've got to strike while the iron is hot, while God's grace is working in your heart, you've got to express in true sorrow for sin and receive the grace to help in time of need. The truth is, unless the sinner is sincerely sorry and confesses entirely, the grace is not helpful. The sacrament is not fruitful.
Now this is not a novelty. The Old Testament provides many antecedents for confession, but you would have to say that the confessional system in the Old Testament was much, much more complicated. Think of the sacrificial system and how people had to offer up sin sacrifices whenever they did something that was deliberately wrong. Whenever they did something that was seriously evil, they had to provide a trespass offering or a sacrifice for sin.
Now what did they have to do? They might have to bring cattle. They might have to bring a goat. They might have to bring sheep. And I've got to tell you, the more you study the Old Testament, the more you realize that the priests weren't the ones who did the dirty work. You all, if you lived in the Old Testament, would bring your animal sacrifice for sin up to the altar. A knife would be given to you. You would do the cutting and the ripping. You would do the separating of the parts. You would also be doing the singing and then the priest would basically just take care of all of the ritual parts that relate directly to the altar.
In other words, when you acted sacrificially in the case of sins back in the Old Testament, it was personal. It was public, and it was costly. You had to sacrifice cattle, and back then in an agrarian culture, that's capital. That's economic power. God called forth from his people Godly sorrow for sin and true personal sacrifice. It was costly. It was public and, I've got to tell you, it was humbling! And it's still a duty for us.
Back then it was a duty that was annual, and so it is for Catholics today. We are obliged as one of the precepts of the Church. Do you know the precepts of the Church? You should. One of the precepts is that we've got to receive the Eucharist at least every year -- the Easter Duty -- and we have to have our sins confessed at least once a year as well. So also, Old Testament Israel -- the lay people had their sins confessed and the sacrifices for sin in Passover and the priests on the Day of Atonement. But the sacrificial system is what Christ transformed into a much cleaner and easier system. Why? Because God is concerned for the health of our soul and the effects that sin has upon it.
The priests of our Church are to be trained as doctors of the soul, ministers for our spiritual health. We need to realize our duty and obligation toward ongoing conversion. Every day we've got to convert again and return to Christ anew. We need to practice contrition on a daily basis. Every night before you go to bed you ought to have at least a brief examination of conscience. Just like bookkeepers, when they close the books and when they close the shop at the end of the day, they balance the books, so we ought to balance the books at the end of the day and express Godly sorrow for our sins. If we have found a serious sin that we have committed, then make a resolution to go to confession as soon as possible.
We don't go to the priest instead of going to Christ. We're going to deal with that in a minute or two. We don't go to the confessional instead of going to the Lord of Mercy. We go to the Lord of Mercy and we hear him telling us to go to the confessional. When we go to the priest, we hear Christ and we meet Christ. This is not some bypass, some alternate route. Christ has instituted these creaturely means for the health of our soul. Sin is like an infection. We need to go to the doctor for the right prescription, for the right dosage; and then we follow that if we trust him.
Grace is like an antibiotic, the antibiotic that takes away the infection and the fever in the body of Christ. Sin is like a broken bone in the Body of Christ. The doctors need to X-ray. We need to give them a clear picture by telling them sincerely and accurately what we've done. And they can set that bone. If they're doctors or physicians of the soul, they are empowered with the grace that goes beyond their educational background. They are empowered with sacramental power, so that's Christ himself. As Archbishop Sheen used to say, "Whenever you see the hand of absolution of the priest, the priest raises his hand for absolution, picture Christ. He is the Priest behind the priest and his hand is dripping with the blood that was shed for the forgiveness of our sins and it washes us pure and clean."
That is the assurance that we have in the Sacrament of Confession. We are meeting the true high Priest through the human priests for the health and for the healing and the strengthening of our soul. How many of us would go to the doctor if it was free? A free monthly checkup? Whatever drugs, whatever prescriptions we needed, we'd get free. Whatever X-rays, whatever surgical procedures were necessary were all paid for? Can you imagine hospital overcrowding, if that were the case? Why are the confessional lines so short these days? I suspect it's because we emphasize the goods of the body to the neglect of the goods of the soul and the health of our spirit. If we properly prioritized spiritual health, we would see this sacrament grow in popularity. We would see people flocking to it in fact.
Here's a problem that many people face practically, "But I keep on committing the same sin." In other words, my problem is not some theological question, my problem is a personal crisis: that I keep going back and confessing the same darn sin over and over and over again. Either I must be out of grace or else the sacrament might not be all it's cracked up to be." Well, how do you respond to that kind of dilemma? I would suggest the following: first of all, an examination of conscience, true and sincere self-examination. Am I sincere in my desire to avoid sin? Am I humble and sincere in confessing all of my sins? If I say "yes" to that question, then I ask, "Is there any improvement?"
I mean, maybe it's ten steps forward and nine-and-a-half steps back, but is there ANY gradual, slight improvement? We have to be tending toward perfection, but in some cases that might be slow, but we have to continue growing in the Lord. If you are not growing, you're not standing still: you're shrinking. You're going backwards because in the spiritual life there is an inner dynamism. It's either moving forward or it's going backwards. We're either growing in our spiritual life or we're dying in our spiritual life. So we have to ask ourselves, "Is there any real sorrow for sin?" Sometimes the victory is simply in the struggle, the ongoing battle to overcome temptations.
You know, sometimes it takes a lot longer to overcome certain sins because God wants to use those sins to humble us and to show us how dependent we are upon him -- how weak we are in ourselves and how discipleship is nothing but a long obedience in the same direction. We have to trust Christ from beginning to end.
Isn't the Priest Taking Away the Prerogatives of God
Somebody could go back to the old theological objection, "But isn't the priest taking away the prerogatives of God? Isn't he claiming for himself that which belongs exclusively to God?"
I would urge that that's not the case. God alone possesses supernatural power to work miracles, but does he appoint miracle workers when he calls certain ministers who, like Moses, does things that no human could do? Moses did divine miracles or at least God did them through Moses, through the prophets and through the Apostles. God uses creaturely means because that's how he is glorified, by raising us up. Because in a family what do the parents do? They love to give it all away at the right time, in the right way, when we're ready. But the Father wants to share all his glory with us, just as he has eternally shared it with his eternal Son. As we are his children, he wants to raise us up and fill us up with all of his wisdom and power. So, if we see priests doing things that God alone can do, that isn't proof that the priest is taking it away from God. It's proof that God is fathering us, just as he promised.
We have to take a look at a few passages. First of all, Matthew 18. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells us how to deal with sin in the Church. He says, "If a brother sins against you, go to him privately and show him his fault, and if he repents, you've gained him back; but if he doesn't listen, take one or two others along with you that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. It he refuses to listen to them, then tell it to the Church. If he refuses to listen even to the Church," you could hear Christ's emphasis, "EVEN to the CHURCH." Can you imagine somebody not listening even to the Church -- to an individual, sure. To two or three individuals, sure; but if he won't listen even to the Church, Jesus says, "Let him be to you as a gentile and a tax collector."
Why? Because Christ institutes, in the 20th chapter of John, the sacrament that we are speaking of. Let's take a look at that. If you have a Bible, turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 21 through 23. This is Christ in one of his resurrection appearances: "Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you'." He says this to the eleven Apostles, not to all of us indiscriminately, "'As the Father has sent me, even so I send you,' and when he has said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained. As the Father sent me, so I send you'."
In other words, we have in the priests the very authority of Christ. The priest is an alter-Christus, another Christ. Christ is the Priest behind the priest. He is the Priest within the priest and he is the Priest acting through the priest. He is the tool and the instrument that God has chosen to use for our help and for our salvation. He is the judge. He is the physician. He is the counselor. He is a friend. Why? Because the priest is a father and a good father is all of those things.
The penitent is at once a criminal, a patient, a client and a child with a broken heart; because what Christ is interested in doing is restoring the friendship and the family bonds of the New Covenant.
Let's take a look, once again, at James, Chapter 5, and we can see what we saw earlier when we were looking at the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. James, Chapter 5, verse 16 tells us, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another that you may be healed." Now, that verse is frequently quoted by non-Catholics to insist that we don't need to go to priests to confess our sins.
I would say two things: First, why is it that if we can go to Christ, we need to bother to confess our sins to anybody? In other words, why does Ephesians 5:16 say, "Therefore, confess your sins to one another?" That's an imperative. We have to confess our sins to one another. Why? Why isn't confessing my sin to Christ alone good enough? It isn't; that's clear. But, why? Because it's a family and that's not a way the family works. If we back up, we see in particular how this refers to priests. James 5, verses 14 and 15, "Is any among you sick, let him call for the priests or the presbyters of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith, which presumably they pray, will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven through the priestly ministry of these presbyters. Therefore, confess your sins to one another."
Now whenever you see that word, "therefore" in scripture, you always have to ask yourself what it's there for. It's built upon the priest's healing context. It's because we can go to the presbyters and receive healing and forgiving power that we confess our sins to one another. That is obviously reference to the priests. It doesn't rule out the possibility of confessing our sins to fellow lay people, but it certainly has contextual reference to the priests in particular.
This is something that the early Church saw clearly. For instance, in the 4th Century, St. Ambrose said, "Christ granted this power to the Apostles, and from the Apostles it has been transmitted to the office of the priests alone." St. John Chrysostom in the 5th Century, actually he lived in the 4th Century and died in the 5th. He said, "As often as you sin, come to me and I shall hear you. Be not ashamed to approach the priest because you have sinned. No one says, 'Because I have an ulcer, I shall not go near a physician or take medicine. We priests know well how to pardon, because we ourselves sin." St. Augustine said, "Let us not listen to those who say that the Church and the priests have not power to forgive sins." St. Athanasius said, "He who in penance confesses his sins receives, through the priest, forgiveness in virtue of the grace of Christ." And St. Cyprian said, "It's only through the priests."
This Sacrament was Just Instituted by a Power Hungry Clergy
Well, that raises another objection. Then, perhaps, this sacrament was just instituted by a power-hungry clergy! No, I think if you think about it, you realize that's not likely. First of all, any priest will tell you that this is the hardest and most draining part of the priestly ministry -- Long, boring, stifling in those dark confessionals, listening to the same old sins over and over again. Secondly, the priest is not allowed to use the knowledge he gets from the confessional because, as soon as the priest breaks the seal of the confessional, he breaks his priesthood and he can't practice it any more. So it's not just gaining knowledge for power as priests because they can't use the knowledge for their own personal advantage or gain. In addition, the priests themselves must also confess. The Pope confesses more than once a week and priests are also obligated to confess their sins. So I don't think that this was something just instituted by a power-hungry clergy.
Well, maybe then it was just called forth by a guilt-ridden laity who didn't appreciate the work of Christ? No, I think even less thought will suffice to do away with that objection. Very few things in human life are more humiliating and difficult and sometimes just downright terrifying than laying your soul out for a priest. You're making yourself vulnerable. Lay people wouldn't invent this, but Christ would for the health and for the salvation of his family.
Let's remember, though, that we're not confessing our sins to God because he doesn't already know them. He knows them better than we know them. Well, if he knows them, then why bother to confess them? Well, why do we pray? Do we pray because God doesn't know what we need or do we pray because we know what we need better, or do we pray perhaps to change God's mind?
I would suggest that if you were praying to change God's mind, then you could do us all a big favor and stop praying. What is your mind compared to his mind? If you're praying to change his mind, then stop praying. And only restart when you realize that the primary purpose of prayer is that God uses it to change our minds and our hearts and our intentions and resolutions to conform them to Christ. We're not manipulating God. We're not trying to get him strapped over a barrel to do our will. Our prayer is to do his will on earth as it is done in heaven. We pray to know his will and to gain the grace to do that will, even when it's difficult. We offer up all of our concerns and anxieties to him through the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ, and he hears us and he says, "You have not because you ask not."
But we don't ask to change his mind. His mind is infinitely knowledgeable of all our needs and of all the ways to meet them. He has us pray to change our hearts and minds and lives. That's why we confess our sins as well. We confess our sins not to alert him as to what we have been doing. We confess our sins so that we can take a look at our souls and see them through the eyes of Christ. We can take a look at the medicine that he gives us and realize how he will suffice to save us and not we ourselves.
It is the sacrament that restores total confidence that we can't trust ourselves, but we can entrust ourselves to the one we can trust more than ourselves. And that's what Penance is for, and if we follow this, I believe that we will understand the nature of Christ's intention. Sin is a very, very dirty business. It's very confusing. It really messes up our minds. Sin is something that we cannot really get a handle on. Sin makes a cesspool of human life. Sin gets out of control very easily. It becomes a tangled mess, a snarled heap, a smelling pile of garbage and human refuse.
We need to see that God alone can really heal that kind of radical evil. Sometimes we don't even know what we are doing. Often we don't know how much we are sinning. We sin in ways we can barely imagine. We look at the saints and we read of them in their writings that they regarded themselves as sinful wretches. If they regarded themselves as sinful wretches, why don't we? Because we're holier or blinder?
Sin Gets out of Control so Easily
Sin just causes massive devastation in human lives. We don't even see it all. Reminds me. A lot of you are in 11th grade preparing for Confirmation. Reminds me of an 11th grade experience in my Chemistry Class. I had missed the previous lab the week before and so I had to make it up while my two buddies were back in a corner of the lab doing the two experiments that were scheduled for the day. We don't normally have two experiments in our labs in high school, but he was making up for lost time because of Easter vacation. I remember Tom and Joe were bothering me. They were saying, "Come on, Scott. We need you. You're the one who always sets up these experiments and we've got two of them, you know?"
So, after 45 minutes of doing all my work to make up for the previous week, I go back there and the place is just a mess! There's a beaker here and a Bunsen burner there; all these test tubes and chemicals and I said, "What's going on?" "Well, you know," Joe looked at Tom, "Well, there was one experiment that involved sugar and then there was another one that involved potassium. I think we've mixed them up." "Oh, I see. Okay, great." I remember this day. You'll find out why. You know if you add a mole of sugar to water, you raise the boiling temperature point .52 degrees and you lower the freezing point 1.86. Traumas have a way of sort of fixing certain things in your memory and a trauma was about to occur.
"Well, why don't we just pour it all into one beaker, put it over the Bunsen burner and evaporate it out in the next 15 minutes until the lab period is over. No one will know what we're doing." So we did it. We poured all the chemicals in the one beaker, put it over the Bunsen burner and just kind of watched it as it sort of turned yellow. We were having fun, "Hey, look at this. Wonder what it is, you know?" And we started lighting matches off the red hot wire gauze. We just flicked these matches. You know we used to play football and you kick it away so that you wouldn't burn up, you know?
We were doing all sorts of things for about five minutes or ten minutes; playing around while this thing is sort of turning light brown. Wow, wonder what it is? Dark brown, light black, if there be such a color, dark, bubbly black, like syrup. Wow, and I mean it was a big beaker full. We were watching it and then, I don't know why, but at that moment we all bent down. I bent down to open up a drawer to put some test tubes back. Tom and Joe both leaned down to put some things in the cupboard below, and in that two second period, an ear-piercing explosion burst through the room! We looked up and we saw Hiroshima, this mushroom cloud filling the room and the room was enormous and the entire ceiling was covered with about a foot-and-a-half of thick smoke. Whoa, and our ears were ringing and my arm was bleeding. We were bent down but there was glass in our hair, the windows were shattered, these glass doors were broken. This explosion just knocked the whole thing out. If it had happened three seconds before, it would have blown our heads off.
Dr. Kline came running back with a fire blanket in his arms and he was white as a ghost. He said, "Is anybody on fire?" We said, "No, no, we're not on fire." We were dazed and confused and quite stunned. "Well, go down to the nurse's office." So we went down to the nurse's office, combing glass out of our scalp, looking at our ripped shirts. All of a sudden, about ten feet from the nurse's office, we looked at each other and we all said in unison -- all three of us at the same time -- "We could have died!" And we were all white as ghosts.
We all started going to church quite regularly from that point on. You can understand why. But as I look back on that, I realize that oftentimes we mix up bad habits in our behavior. We don't really search out the sayings that mess up our lives and hurt the other people in our lives. And frequently an explosion will rip through our lives and we say, "Why did that happen? I don't understand." Because we haven't followed the instructions carefully. We haven't listened to the Teacher, the Master Instructor, and we often create an awful, awful mess.
I remember when I was growing up and I've got to tie this together with an experience that still shakes me down to my very roots to this day. When I was a high school kid, one of the most popular kids in class decided that I would be his best friend -- in 8th grade, it was actually before high school. We'll call him Dave. Dave decided that we would just do everything together. So we played together. We ran around together. We got into a lot of trouble together with the law -- lots of trouble! The St. Clair police could tell you in detail how much trouble. But we were best friends, and we did lots of wild and crazy things. I used to ask him, because he was a Catholic, "What do you do when you go to Confession?" He said, "Well, I confess certain things." "Do you confess like, you know, everything?" I was concerned for my freedom, you understand? I didn't realize that there was this seal of confession.
He said, "Well, you know, I do sometimes. This is kind of a game, you know. We don't really confess everything. We just sort of go, you know." Every year his mother would just sort of drive him to confession. I heard about this two or three years in a row. By the third time, it was obvious that this guy was just having contempt for Confession. It was just a charade, a game. He was a typical guy. He wasn't the epitome of demonic evil; he was just a typical guy.
Well, we got into so much trouble that we almost ended up with a year-and-a-half sentence in Youth Detention Center. We lied our way out of a very bad sentence and we were granted freedom by the skin of our teeth. I remember coming out of the Juvenile Court thinking, "God, if you're up there, I want out of this mess." And I got out of it. I stopped doing the things that got us into so much trouble. They kept doing it and they ostracized me from the group. I didn't see Dave for almost three years. I didn't even see him once in the high school. You know there were almost 2000 kids in our high school.
The last week of my senior year, the very final semester, as I'm preparing to leave town and go out into the world and make it big, I was walking to high school one night because our band had a rehearsal. And, for the first time in my life I think, I was early for a rehearsal and I noticed that the light was on in his bedroom window, and I could see his shadow moving. And I thought I hadn't seen this guy in three years, and we used to be best friends. We used to do everything together.
In the meantime I had become a Christian. I had experienced Christ's radical and transforming power in my life, and I had heard through the grapevine that things for him had gone from bad to worse. And so in my situation I said, "Well, I've got twenty minutes. I'll just go up. I'll say, 'Hi.' I may never see him again. I'll just go in and say, 'Hey, Dave, have a nice life. I've got to get going'." So I went up to the front door, knocked on the door. His Mom opened it up. She was glad to see me. She had heard that I had found religion. "Come on in, come on in. Dave's upstairs." "Fix his soul," she must have been thinking.
So I went upstairs and as I was going up the stairs, I noticed that he was coming down the stairs, getting his coat on. And I said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to stop you from doing something." And he said, "Oh, no." He just kind of stopped there, staring at me and said, "Come on up into my room." He couldn't believe I was there. I couldn't believe he was there. We went into his room. In about two minutes, it was like old times again.
We were talking about our favorite groups and songs and wild experiences, and we were just having a grand old time. We talked like this for an hour, for two hours. I think it almost went three hours. And then, all of a sudden I remembered. I was supposed to go to a rehearsal. I had completely blown it off. He looked at me and he said, "Well, thanks. But why did you stop by?" And I said, "Well, I don't know. I was just walking by your room and thinking, "I'm going off to college and going out into the world, and I might never see you again. At least I want to say good-bye, we did so much together."
All of a sudden I began to see his whole demeanor change. I'd heard that he had gone through hard times, but I didn't know how hard they were. I saw his hand beginning to shake, really convulsive shakes, and his face began to really look down. He reached across the bed and said, "Why did you come tonight?" I said, "I don't know. Did I interrupt something? You were leaving. Did I cause you to miss something important?" He said, "No, not really, but...." He reached across the bed and he pulled off his jacket and he reached into his pocket and he pulled out this long, 10-foot piece of rope at the end of which was tied a noose. And he said, "When you came, I was getting ready to leave, to go out into the night, to go out to the apple orchard behind our house to hang myself."
I just kind of stared at him. I said, "You're kidding!" He said, "No." And in my mind I was thinking, "Dave? Not you!" He was the funniest guy. When I was his friend in 8th and 9th grade, he was the guy everybody loved to be around because he was always the funniest. Great athlete, good student, all-American-type guy. And in three or four years I saw a life ruined. And by the skin of his teeth, he was spared an awful way to go. He started crying, and he didn't cry. I started crying, and I didn't cry. He said, "Would you -- you have God -- could you pray?"
So I tried to pray. We prayed for a couple minutes and at the end we embraced. We didn't exchange another word. We just kind of looked at each other. And I went out into the night and I thanked God. And as I looked up, I realized what can happen to a person when they are granted great graces that they spurn. And I thought back to the times when he used to describe to me how he didn't take his sins and he didn't take confession seriously.
Today, I look back on that and I realize how many lives have been laid waste because these awesome spiritual weapons known as sacraments have been spurned, especially the Confessional. The Sacrament of Reconciliation has greater power than we could possibly imagine. If we could see it through the eyes of the angels, we would go at least once a week and we would prepare not for just one or two or five or ten minutes, but much more. We would ask our Lady, "Help me, your little child, to confess my sins to our Lord." We would ask the Holy Spirit, "Search my heart and show me if there be any evil way that displeases you." We would tap into infinite power to cleanse our lives and to make them pleasing and delightful to God Almighty.
Sure, we only have one mediator and that's Jesus Christ. Christ alone is our only mediator. Our mediator redeemed us. Our redemption is accomplished. It is finished. The priest does not redeem us. He is only an instrument used by Christ, but brothers and sisters, he is used by Christ in a way that far exceeds his own sensibilities. If we could only take Christ at his word and believe that Christ is the one who established this family system of priestly and fatherly mediation and he wants to take his redemption, which is fully and finally accomplished and make application of that redemption. Redemption is accomplished and now redemption is being applied to all of us through the sacraments and other means. We've got to learn how to take Christ at his word.
Christ gave the supernatural power of his own to the Apostles and to their successors to bind and to loose, to forgive and to retain. How can the Apostles know what sins to forgive or retain unless they are specifically told number and kind? If forgiveness is all or nothing through Christ alone, then why didn't
Jesus say to the Apostles, "Just go and proclaim that all sins are forgiven through faith alone?" Why did he give to them specifically certain powers that would heal our souls and give to the early Church and to the Church for 2000 years all around the world this clear sense that the priests have been given the power of absolution for the healing and for the saving of our souls?
We need to do it, not because we can't go to Christ. We need to go to Christ and to Christ alone to start it all off. Don't go to the priest in the confessional instead of going to Christ. Go to Christ first and as soon as you get there, guess what he is going to tell you? "If you love me, you will obey my commandments." And what has he commanded? To confess our sin to one another, especially the presbyters and the priests. Why? Well, the individual benefits are great. We need humility. We need health.
The inner personal benefits of the Church are great. We can have inner personal healing. We can have relationships restored in parishes. And I've got to tell you, after four years of being a Catholic, our parishes need reconciliation because there are divisions and there are strifes in every parish I have seen. And the sacrament is not being tapped for all of its power. We need the sacrament for the benefit of our families, especially our marriages and the relationships between parents and children. We need it for our society, to re-establish justice and mercy in our world.
Let's renew our commitment now to make life miserable for Father Marx and for our other priests, to go and bother them. What father is bothered when the children come and say, "Would you help me overcome these bad habits, these sinful tendencies?" "Oh no, kid, that's not important." A father's heart takes delight in that kind of concern within his growing kids.
So, exhaust him. Wear him out. He'd love it! That's why he took the priesthood, and that's why God called him. I know his heart and I know the hearts of many priests, they're fatherly hearts filled with a supernatural grace that goes beyond their own natural capacities. Go to them and renew your commitment. In effect we say, "Lord, we swear to tell the truth and to live the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." And in this sacrament we say, "So, help me God." Help us, God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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