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Mary Immaculate Center in Northampton, Pennsylvania
September 21, 2006 - Northampton, Pa.


Sacraments of Healing: Reconciliation and Anointing

The theme , Sacraments of Healing”, is timely. First, all of us experience the need for healing. Each is subject to sin, suffering, disease and death. George Bernard Shaw with a sparkling quotable quote wished to have inscribed on his tombstone, “I knew if I stayed around long enough, something like this would happen”. Even after Baptism, Christians still carry this new life “in earthen vessels”. The second reason is that the practice of both sacraments has entered into crisis. Thirdly, these sacraments offer a response to the two fundamental questions raised by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2005 Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est (DCE), “What does this path of ascent and purification [of eros] entail? How might love be experienced so that it can fully realize its human and divine dimensions?” [1] . Fourthly, just as there is a unity among the Sacraments of Christian Initiation, Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, “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” [2] .

It must be kept in mind throughout that we are saved by faith and the sacraments of faith.

I. The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

The theme has been addressed frequently by postwar Popes. They noted the problems associated with the pastoral aggiornamento of the II Vatican Council. We are also acquainted with the postconciliar impetus given to the biblical, theological-moral and liturgical renewal as well as to the evangelization of families and of young people. [3] I have in mind especially the renewal of the practice of the Sacrament of Penance at the various World Youth Days, especially that of 2000 in Rome when approximately 180,000 young people approached the Sacrament at the Circus Maximus.

The 1973 Rite of Penance reflects the Sacrament’s complex development from the New Testament, from the Canonical Penance of the Patristic Church, from the Tariff Penance of the Medieval period to the16th century Council of Trent. Today, I will not be dealing with historical developments. The new Rite balances the following elements of the 2000 year-old tradition of the Church: the theological and liturgical principles of reconciliation and salvation, reconciliation and the Church, sacramental conversion and reconciliation, and finally the importance of penance.

I intend to address three themes for the renewal of the sacrament.

1. A clear, unequivocal Christological Foundation of the practice of the Sacrament of Confession is necessary for any successful renewal of the Sacrament. The life and mission of Jesus Christ can be summarized in one word: confession. According to the usage of St. Augustine, the Latin word,. “Confessiones” means not only “confessio peccati” (confession of sin), but also confessio laudis (confession of praise) and confessio fidei (confession of faith). Jesus habitually confesses, admits and reveals himself through these three confessiones before the Father to be his only begotten Son. Always and everywhere he confesses himself to be the gift of the Father. For the Father is his source and origin. The acme of Jesus’s confessional drama was reached during his passion and death. Then the sinless one voluntarily underwent an “exchange of places” with all the sinners of the world. In the Last Supper, he prayed, ”Father, the hour has come: glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee” (Jn. 17: 1). Aware of his unique relation to the Father, he accepted the unimaginable burden of all the world’s “No” to God. Every human being throughout history has loaded his or her sins upon the Innocent One whose outstretched arms embraced them all in love. The glory of Jesus’s self-manifestation attracted Andrew. Philip invited the skeptical Nathaniel to ”Come and See.” Watching and listening to Jesus, they eventually accepted his actions during his suffering and death as the original model of a disciple’s confession. Yet, while having known that God claimed to have so loved the world that he gave his only Son, Arthur Miller, the 20th century American playwright, asserted, “Maybe I could believe in God if he believed in me”.

On the other hand, one of Twelve, Peter, has become a prototype of an altogether different order, i.e., the one who make Jesus his vicarious representative for sin. By denying Jesus in the palace of Caiaphas Peter turned Jesus into his own scapegoat. How? According to René Girard, “Peter makes Jesus his victim in order to stop being the sort of lesser victim that first the servant girl and then the whole group make him. What the crowd does to Peter he would like in turn to do to them but cannot. He is not strong enough to triumph through vengeance. So he tries to conciliate his enemies by allying himself with them against Jesus, by treating Jesus as they want and in front of them, exactly as they themselves treat him” [4] . Peter’s act of making Jesus his scapegoat is being repeated throughout history. Recently, an angry Muslim cried out, “Death to the Cross!”

How and when did Jesus become conscious of his universal mission of salvation? The answer is essentially dependent upon his own awareness of a unique filial relationship with Abba. And that was right from the start. He prayed during the Last Supper, “And now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made” (Jn. 17: 5). Jesus confesses that he has been sent to make himself an offering for sin (Mk. 10: 45; Is. 53: 10). His words and actions at the Last Supper over the bread and wine interpret the meaning he gave to his suffering and death. He is accepts freely to be the vicarious representative of every human being; he took upon himself their sinful guilt before his Father. “This is my body given up for you. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.” What seems to create an impassable obstacle for many is confession to a priest. I have found helpful a Christological meditation on what St. John of the Cross calls “the nakedness of the spirit”. Just as the Son of God was crucified with the sins of the world nailed to his flesh and was exposed naked before his heavenly Father, so too in confessing sins to a priest the penitent must stand shorn and naked before the Father and confess his or her sins. The penitent’s nakedness of spirit is the imitation of Crucified Christ. This is what was meant in the beginning when I said that a recovery of the Christological foundation is essential for the renewal of the practice of the Sacrament. By confessing to a priest the penitent is undergoing a process of purification in divine love after the model of Jesus’s confession on Calvary. When the Son of God was scourged naked and nailed naked to the cross, when the thorns and nails bit into his flesh, he reassumed the nakedness of the first man - not however because of innocence, but rather because of sin, for his arms embrace all that is, was and will be [5] .

Each of those baptized into his death must do the same. Despite being unsettled by the prospect, disciples of Jesus must confess their serious sins to a priest for conversion. To do so, they should contemplate the drama of the Son of God suspended denuded upon the Cross. St. Paul reminded the rebellious Galatians, “”Before [your] eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal 3:1). On Calvary the disciple will learn what confession is, what its purpose is and how confession functions. Jesus had been intent to take upon himself the burden of the sins of every human being. Adrienne von Speyr interprets his vicarious representation through what has been for me a nearly opaque window, his words of dereliction on the Cross, “Father, why have forsaken me?” She writes, “The burden of sin has taken [Jesus’s] soul’s breath away. Thus the Son wanted to do something meaningful by turning the spearhead of sin - originally directed toward the Father - toward himself. Under the weight of the wounds, however, he no longer comprehends his own intention. He has nothing at all to do with this intention. Perhaps it is this meaninglessness that kills him. Recognition of an intention would mean his rescue from death” [6] . Sacramental Confession calls us to “a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing” [7] according to Pope Benedict XVI. . Like Jesus we stand similarly stripped before God. The penitent’s eros is cleansed by the costly grace of the cross in order “to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the divine glory.

The penitent will also learn how and why the Sacrament of Confession becomes the first gift of the Risen Lord. On the evening of the day of his Resurrection Jesus gave a command which defined his life and death, “Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven them, .....”

2. Strong catecheses on virtue-sin-conversion in light of the pluricultural ambience of today is necessary for the renewal of the Sacrament.

There has been a decline in the sense of sin. We deny our responsibility for it. Conversion begins with facing the tragic truth; such openness requires honesty with oneself, with God and with one’s fellow believers. On Fridays the Church shows forth the way to such honesty by praying the 50th psalm in the Liturgy of Hours, “O rescue me God, my helper, and my tongue shall ring out your goodness.” All the post-war Popes have spoken on the connection between conversion and confession of sin. Even though recognizing their inadequacies towards their neighbor, many Christians assert that they are capable of correcting themselves. Never or only with difficulty do they admit a sense of a guilt before God, and are far from the thought of having responsibility of reconciling themselves with God through confession to a priest.

Moreover, many Christians, especially young people, are reluctant to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation because, with repeated failures, the solution seems too easy, too hurried, too mechanical, a little like magic. They raise many questions: “Should not the return to God cost something more? Should not sacramental conversion impinge more upon daily life? Is contrition really authentic when after only a few hours after receiving sacramental absolution the same or even worse sins are committed with their attendant guilt? And since many sins are against one’s neighbor would it not be better simply to request pardon from one's neighbors and change one’s attitude towards them rather than to settle the matter with the good God?”

If, on the other hand, the confessor insists too much on guilt and sin, the penitent becomes anguished and anxious, and sees in religious faith only heaviness, insupportable difficulties, not new impulses of life, not positive aspects, not love, not personal friendship, not paternal embrace. And thus it happens that not a few will become discouraged and show signs of indifference and of rejection.

How should one respond? One way is the recovery of the nature of conscience. Many experience an examination of conscience like a Franz Kafka tribunal with a judge applying an extrinsic, oppressive, and unrecognizable law. Conscience has become a kind of intermediary between law and freedom. We need to return to the ancient understanding of conscience. It is an exercise not of a power but of a virtue like prudence, formed and perfected through practice. It is a kind of movement, a natural inclination to good which every human being has. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that, in the first instance, conscience or “synderesis is a habit”, bestowed on us by nature, which “incites to good , and to murmur at evil” [8] . The Catechism teaches that “conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC 1796).

Moreover, a Christian understanding of freedom - and not the U. S. Supreme Court’s distortions - is important for a conversion from sin to virtue. The baptized should be instructed that natural inclinations towards the good are the source of freedom and morality. Freedom and nature are not contraries. Human freedom is not totally indeterminate and dependent only upon voluntary decision.

On this issue of freedom, catechists and liturgists must be specific. They should point out that there are two kinds of freedom abroad today in secular democracies, each based on diverse understandings of human happiness. Father Servais Pinckaers, O. P. has described the one that is ascendant today, “Freedom of indifference lies at the origin of modern individualism and centers everything on the human subject, who stands over and against the world as the epitome of independent freedom. A freedom such as this is in opposition to the desire for happiness, and all others natural desires as well, yet it penetrates inward so as to shape the person to its exigencies. Thus the desire for happiness, clothed in freedom of indifference, is now as individualist and self-centered as that same freedom. “ He then goes on to describe freedom in light of the biblical, Augustinian, and Thomistic traditions, “On the other hand freedom for excellence is rooted in a desire for happiness which proceeds principally from a sense of truth and goodness together with the inclination to life in society” [9] .

Freedom of indifference, founded on external law and commandments, is the power to choose between contraries; the choice between good and evil is considered essential to freedom. It is summarized in the abortion mantra, “freedom of choice”. At best, the Ten Commandments would be the heart of an examination of conscience. Its philosophical roots would be the nominalism of William Ockham and the Kantian moral imperative.

Freedom for excellence, on the other hand, is the power to act freely with excellence and perfection. Here virtue is central to freedom. What is essential is “a sort of connaturality between man and the true good” [10] . Freedom for Excellence is a habitus which requires practice for its development, in te same way that constant application is necessary for the development of artistic proficiency at the piano or organ. Law is progressively interiorized through the practice of the virtues of justice and charity within a community of friendship. An examination of conscience would begin with the Beatitudes. Such freedom depends upon moral attraction not obligation. It is founded upon the great law of the Gospel: the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ [11] .

Honest conversion is to learn the obedience of love. It is founded upon a renewal of the Christian understanding of freedom, of virtue and of sin in the harsh light of God’s judgment on sin revealed in the broken body of his crucified Son.

Centers of education have reduced to a muttering much of what has been mentioned. Parents are lacking in a catechesis on freedom, conversion, virtue and sin in secular democracies. Parishes and schools have not devoted resources for formation of Catholic families in the theological and cardinal virtues. Many parents are deficient or completely disinterested in the education either of themselves or their children concerning the meaning of virtue, sin and God’s mercy.

Regarding formation in the virtues of purity and chastity some parents are exemplary in the catechizing their children. Others scarcely utter a word on these virtues. Pre-adolescent girls are even encouraged to be sexually ‘hot’ by some parents. Misinformation about sex is invasive in all the media of communications. From their earliest years, young people are exposed to the hypocrisy, fraud and deceit of advertizing rhetoric. Young men and women hear little about their vocation to turn to forms of life that are more human, personalist and constructive; about their vocation to place eros, during the period of nuptial engagement, on the plain of self-sacrifice, about their vocation to renunciation in favor of the person loved; or about their vocation to encourage the growth of a love more profound, more mature, more stable, more authentic, more responsible. Young men and women should be formed to strive to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12: 10). There is no catechesis on the unity between eros, a grasping, searching love, and agape, the love which is oblative, in which man and woman bestow on the other the good of self-giving.. Young people are unacquainted with the moral goodness that allows another to be grasped by another’s love and vice-versa. The Sacrament of Reconciliation should be a school in which Christians learn that when they enter into a given state of life - marriage, priesthood, religious life, single life, they entrust themselves freely to a form, an indissoluble reality, which confronts all their centrifugal forces of disintegration with an iron hand so that they may discover all fruitfulness, virtue, and freedom within and through the peculiar form proper to that state of life to which they have been called by God. 

3. The revised Formula of Absolution has been completely transformed and now has a thoroughly biblical emphasis.

It offers a unique opportunity for catechesis. It measures up to the criterion set out by the II Vatican Council, “the rite and formulas of penance are to be revised in such a way that they may more clearly express the nature and effects of this sacrament” (SC 118). The RCIA is an obvious place to begin.

The renewed 1973 form of the Sacrament of Penance has made clear the Trinitarian and ecclesial nature of the Sacrament. In fact, the 1973 Rite of Penance encourages a deeper pastoral reinterpretation of the virtue-sin-conversion polarities. The renewed formula for absolution and the entire rite of the Sacrament reflect more obviously the Church’s understanding of the historical evolution of the Sacrament. The new rite has balanced the strengths of the three great eras of penitential development: canonical Penance of the patristic Church, both East and West, the so-called Tariff Penance of the Medieval period, and the Tridentine reform.

For facilitating comparison, I first cite the formula of absolution contained in the 1614 Ordo ministrandi sacramentum poenitentiae which was in effect throughout the post-Tridentine Western Church until the 1973 rite. After two minor supplicatory absolutions, there followed sacramental absolution. “May our Lord Jesus Christ absolve you: and I by his authority absolve you from every bond of excommunication, suspension and interdict, insofar as I am able and you need it. And finally, I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” In its first part it was legal and canonical in its inspiration and wording. One notes that the priest was directed to say the concluding “Amen” of each absolution.

On the other hand, the 1973 form is more explicitly biblical, ecclesial, Christocentric, and Trinitarian: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” By directing the penitent to reply to the absolution by saying “Amen!” at the end, the new rite has a more ecclesial dimension.

I will first comment on the general historical-salvific character of the entire form. In its opening part the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity are explicitly invoked:

The Father is described as the One who has always initiated the merciful divine interventions on behalf of the salvation of humankind.

The Son of God is the One through whom and with whom and in whom the Father has reconciled to himself the world.

The Holy Spirit given by the Father is the fruit of the Paschal Mystery of Christ.

In the definitive part of the formula, “And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, the invocation of the three Divine Persons is taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew (28: 19) which is also part of the form of the Sacrament of Baptism. The invocation of the Trinitarian name underlines the continuity of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, often called the Second Baptism, with the Sacrament of Baptism.

Next I will point out in detail how the new formula is thoroughly informed with a biblical understanding of conversion, virtue and sin.

1. The initial invocation: The phrase, “God, the Father of mercies”, comes from 2 Cor. 1: 3-4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

God, the Father, the only source of consolation, embraces the penitent sinner through the crucified Jesus in union with the Holy Spirit. The consoling mercy of the Father ends the trial and torment within the penitent’s heart and opens up a new and serene era of peace and of joy. This consolation of the penitent must not be received passively: it is at the same time a new comfort, encouragement and exhortation - all concepts contained in the Greek biblical word, paraklesis. Henceforth the forgiven Christian must communicate his God-given consolation to his brothers and sisters, near and far, for their own conversion. St. Paul exhorts the Church of Thessalonika, “Comfort one another with these words” (1 Thes. 4: 18).

The words “the Father of Mercies” also remind the penitent of the richness of his love toward the sinner; his is a passionate love analogous to human eros, philìa and agape.

2. The following words of the formula “who has reconciled the world to himself through the death and resurrection of his Son”, are based upon the text of 2 Cor. 5: 14-15, 18-20 among others: “For the love of God controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised........... All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation”.

Christ, therefore, has died for all, without distinction of race, culture, sex or language; he has died in the name of all, as the Head who represents all of humanity. But what has value in the sight of God the Father in Jesus’s terrible death is the obedience of love which manifests the sacrifice of his life offered entirely, without reservations: “Just as by one man’s disobedience all were made sinners, so by the obedience of one alone all will be made righteous” (Rm 5, 19). The Christian faithful, made participants of his death through baptism (Rm 6, 3), must ratify this oblation of Christ through the element of sacramental satisfaction by living virtuous lives (Rm 6, 8-11).

3. The new formula declares, “and [the Father] has sent forth the Holy Spirit”. Here we recall the command of the Risen Lord on the evening of the first Easter Sunday to his disciples, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, even so do I send you”. When he had said this, he breathed on them, and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you will forgive, they will be forgiven; whose sins you will not forgive, they will remain unforgiven’” (Jn 20, 21-23). The Sacrament of Penance is a pathway to the clearance where the divine light illumines the penitent in the holy and divine liturgy.

4. The phrase “for the forgiveness of sins”, refers to the power that Christ gave to the Apostles the first Easter evening. Forgiveness also recalls the dialogue of Peter on the first Pentecost with the first converts who, “hearing this... were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the apostles: ‘What must we do, brothers?’ ‘You must repent,’ Peter answered, ‘and every one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’’”(Acts 2, 38).

“You must repent”: each great, evangelical speech ends with an invitation to conversion and repentance (Mt 3, 2) in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins [12] .

5. The subsequent expression “through the ministry of the Church” underlines the ecclesiological dimension as constitutive of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance. This is made more explicit in the second rite.

6. The words of the formula, “Forgiveness and peace”, are to be understood in their biblical sense as liberation from sin and as messianic salvation, the fruit of the Holy Spirit..

7. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit”. The penitent is directed to respond: “Amen”. The sacramental absolution must be imparted orally over the penitent who is personally present. Absolution should be imparted only to a penitent properly disposed. The Sacrament of Confession is then concluded with the words of the priest, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good”. The penitent replies, “His mercy endures forever.“ Then the priest dismisses the penitent with the words, “The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace.”

Consequently, in the practice of the Sacrament of Penance, four acts of the penitent are required:

  • Sorrow for sins committed

  • A resolution or firm purpose of amendment,

  • The sincere confession of sins.

  • Satisfaction or sacramental penance [13] .

An examination of conscience should precede the reception of the Sacrament. It should be done in light of the Word of God. As an aid in the examination of conscience, the Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends the Sermon on the Mount and the Apostolic teachings, e.g. those found in the 12th to 15th chapters of the Epistle to the Romans (CCC 1454).

W. H. Auden’s description of his conversion in Christ, should be the experience of every penitent emerging from the Sacrament of Penance, “And during that time the living room had changed places with the room behind the mirror over the fireplace.” By conversion from sin everything is the same except the perspective of the person who has been forgiven, “It is like the extraordinary event of stepping into the room behind the mirror: it entirely is, and entirely is not, the same room” [14]

The reformed rite has the power of becoming a source of joy; it makes possible the rich fruit of conversion from sin to sanctification in the practice of the theological and cardinal virtues. The forgiven man or woman has a new awareness; their inner consciousness is marked by “unutterable and exalted joy” (1 Pet: 1: 8).

In the Divine Commedia Dante specifies what this meant for Christians of the high Middle Ages. It contrasts sharply with the theologies of the German reform two centuries later. For the reformers, divine forgiveness was experienced as forensic justification, utterly unsolicited, a forgiveness which leaves the Christian in a sinful state. The human will was and remains in bondage. By contrast, Dante summarized the pre-Tridentine Catholic experience through an allegory. Dante, the penitent, is a new creation and has been divinized by freely participating in the act of conversion. The sinful events of his past life are transformed by God’s love and mercy. Dante illustrated the sinner’s justification and sanctification by employing a double image of forgiveness: the two waters in the Terrestrial Paradise.

In the Purgatorio the poet employs the word, Eunoe, meaning ‘good remembrance’, for the name of one of the two rivers of the Terrestrial Paradise; the other river is Lethe The word, lethe, is related to the Greek word, aletheia, a negative construction meaning unconcealment, truth. Lethe, without the negative ‘a’ prefix, is the name of the river of forgetfulness. Both streams arise from one source which is of divine, not natural, origin and is always replenished by the divine will. Dante’s image of flowing waters is traceable to John 7: 37-38; Jesus says, “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. Let him come to me, and let him who believes in me, drink as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’”.

On the threshold of Paradiso, the waters of one branch, the one named Lethe, have the power of taking away from the sinful Dante the memory of his sins, while those of the other branch, Eunoe, have the power of restoring to the repentant Dante the remembrance of his whole past but without shame or bitterness. To bring this about, the waters, whose savour is sovereign, must in each case be tasted in their proper order, first those of the river Lethe, then those of the river Eunoe. . After being drawn by Matelda through the waters of Lethe to the opposite bank, and after having swallowed some in the process, Dante is led to drink of the waters of Eunoe, after the “sweet draught” of which he is finally fit to enter into the timelessness of heaven. Like all penitents he travels through a long, obscure pathway of repentance to arrive at the clearance where now he is “pure and prepared to leap up to the stars” ( XXXIII, 145).

In this notion of double positivity we find that Christ’s atoning death is without measure or price. The penitent is simply asked to show some recompense through a sign of repentance, i.e., to drink of the waters of the twofold waters. One must be specific. The only response the penitent is asked to give in return for divine forgiveness is the non-price of acceptance manifested through fulfilling the penance. and satisfaction in faith, two of the essential elements of the Sacrament. This suggestive allegory explaining our Catholic ancestors’ understanding of the Sacrament is useful for catechesis today. I have adopted this analysis of Dante’s two rivers of forgiveness from John Milbank, an Anglican theologian of the Radical Orthodoxy school.

Because “the doctrine and practice of indulgences...... are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance”(CCC 1471), a brief description of this beautiful and significant doctrine is in order. According to the magnificent 1967 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, “an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions” (Norm I). Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.

II. The Sacrament of Anointing.

The revised rite of this sacrament should become a powerful sign of contradiction and alternative witness to the proponents of euthanasia who argue that suffering of any kind, especially the agony usually associated with the approach of death, is in itself meaningless and destructive. The twentieth century had carried the world to the edge of the abyss. The II Vatican Council was prophetic in anticipating the further decline of that murderous century into a culture of death and its mortal attack upon the sick, elderly and dying through medical and biological technology. The Council called for the revision of the old rite and extension of its availability. The Constitution Lumen gentium describes the anointing of the sick in n. 11: “By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ”. These words simply affirm that “suffering and death belong to finitude and contribute to redeeming the guilt of the world” [15]

As with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we can also speak of the biblical perspective of the renewed rite of the anointing of the sick in the framework of the history of salvation [16] .

A. Its foundations in the Economy of Salvation.

Illness and death – both consequences of sin – can lead to anguish, to withdrawal into oneself, and sometimes to desperation and rebellion against God. But they can also call the ill or dying to a greater maturity, and can help them to distinguish between what is not essential in order to turn to what is. Frequently disease causes a searching for God, a return to Him, a way of conversion. The closer a human being approaches to the tragedy of life the more intense should be his concentration on the fixed point of his faith.

In the New Testament Christ’s compassion towards the ill and his numerous healings of all kinds of illnesses were a clear sign that “God has visited his people” (Lk 7, 16). Jesus invariably required faith in the sick. Above all, by his passion and death, Christ has given new meaning to suffering: it can now conform the believer to him and invite the ill person to accompany Jesus in his immediate approach to Calvary after the long pilgrimage up to Jerusalem.

B. The Apostolic Church already knew of a specific rite for the sick; Saint James writes, “Is any one among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing 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”. (5, 14-15).

C. The 1972 Apostolic Constitution “Sacram unctionem infirmorum” elaborated a renewed Roman Rite. Its sacramental form is profoundly Trinitarian and Christological, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” The anointing with blessed oil takes place on the forehead and hands. The Tridentine form was less pneumatic with greater emphasis upon the forgiveness of sins and less upon healing, “By this holy unction, and through his great mercy may God pardon you whatever sins you have committed by sight, smell, touch, etc.” In the 1972 formula the first two lines are from the old formula and the last three are new. These three additions open up two important perspectives. “The first is that the grace bestowed is the work of the Holy Spirit, who continues to be invoked from the blessing of the oil of the sick as the God of consolation on Holy Thursday. The second is that the a remedy for soul and body” [17].

During the same illness this sacrament may be repeated if the illness worsens. It may also be administered before a non-minor surgical intervention. The same holds true for old people whose weakness is further debilitating. Thus it has been extended to a range of ‘moments’ “between serious illness and preparation for death” as Frs. Di Noia and Fox have recently pointed out.

In a note dated February 11, 2005, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed. “That only priests (bishops and presbyters) are ministers of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. This doctrine is definitive tenenda. Thus, neither deacons nor lay people can exercise this ministry and any such action would constitute simulation of the Sacrament”.

The sacrament also grants the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person is unable to obtain it through the Sacrament of Penance (CCC 1532). The new rite encourages communal celebrations.

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is also called also sacramentum exeuntium - the sacrament of those departing. Throughout one’s life there have been various sacramental anointings. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it. It completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life: that of Baptism which sealed the new life in us, and that of Confirmation which strengthened us for the combat of this life. This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house” (1523). Frs. Di Noia and Fox write, “The anointing of this sacrament seals this person in his permanent, eschatological configuration to the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, and this person thus remains configured to him......[It] is seen as the conferral of a radically personal configuration to Christ on the part of a faithful Christian in the final moments of earthly existence.” [18]

On the part of the ill person, anointing represents a deeper, priestly self-offering which joins the person intimately with the final offering of Jesus on the Cross. “By the grace of this sacrament, the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive passion” (CCC 1521). This priestly offering of the ill person offers a further understanding why the minister of the sacrament must be a priest for a priest is the public representative of the Church who offers in the person of Christ the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father.

In conclusion. The revised rites of these two sacraments have placed front and center the meaning of the Cross: it is the symbol above all symbols. In the final analysis, the Fathers of the II Vatican Council confined themselves to that single thought. Our task is to continue to think so that one day their thought will stand like a star in the sky. And all will know that whoever impugns that thought condemns the world to unintelligibility [19] .

J. Francis Cardinal Stafford
Major Penitentiary

[1] DCE 6

[2] The Catechism of the Catholic Church = CCC 1525

[3] Mention will be made only of a few documents of the Magisterium regarding this theme: the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Paenitermini, issued on February 17, 1966. The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope John Paul II , Reconciliation and Penance (12/2/84) which w as the final action of the VI General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (9/29 to 10/29,1983). This followed the Final Relation of the International Theological Commission, justly extolled as an exceptional document appearing with the title, De Reconciliationne et paenitentia (1982), under the guidance of Joseph Cardinal Razinger, at that time the newly appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Other members included the following notable theologians: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Pierre Eyt, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehman, Christophe von Schonborrn - all dstinerd to become Cardinals of the Roman Church.

I should not omit two other documents, both the fruit of precious recommendations of the II Vatican Council: Ordo unctionis informorum (12/7/1972) and Ordo paenitentiae (12/2/73). There are also notable points inthe new Code of Canon Law (1983)) in chapters under De Poenitentia (can. 950-997). Nor can I omit the texts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (in ed. Latina Typica 1997): Sacramentum Poenitentiae et Reconciliationius (nos. 1422-1498) and Anointing of the Sick (nos. 14599-1532). The same Catechism calls the two sacraments “Sacramenta sanationis” = The Sacraments of Healing (nos. 1420-1421).

[4] Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 154.

[5] Adrienne von Speyr, Confession, (San Francisco, Ignatius: Press, 1985), 50.

[6] Ibid. 52-53.

[7] DCE, (Dec. 25, 2005) 5.

[8] I ST, 79, 12.

[9] Servais Pinckaers, OP,, The Sources of Christian Ethics, (Washington, The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 466.

[10] Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, (1993), 64.

[11] Servais, 174.

[12] Acts 3, 19-26; 5, 31; 10, 43; 13, 38; cf. 17, 30; 26, 20; Lk 1, 77; 3, 8; 5, 32; 13, 3.

[13] Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1459-1460.

[14] John Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon, (London and New York, Routledge, 2003), 102.

[15] Hans Urs von Balthsar, Epilogue, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2004), 37.

[16] I follow faithfully the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1500-1532.

[17] Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1948-1975, (Collegeville, The Liturgical Press, 1990), trasns. by Matthew J. O’Connell, 690-691.

[18] J. Augustine DiNoia, OP and Joseph Fox, OP, “Priestly Dimensions of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick”, The Priest, August,2006, Vol 62, No. 8, 12.

[19] Adapted from Romano Guardini, quoted by Hans Urs von Balthazar in The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol VII: Theology: The New Covenant, San Francisco ,Ignatius Press, 1989, 7.