“There is nothing new under the sun,” asserted the eternal optimist of the Old Testament, Qoheleth. Even the disciple of Jesus—regenerated in the waters of baptism, strengthened for witness by confirmation and united to the Risen Christ through holy Communion—must live the life of grace in the midst of a world that seems sometimes less than graceful.
The utter newness of the Christian claim seems sometimes undermined by the ever-present litany of worldly brokenness: violence, terror, division, suffering, sickness, distress, etc. The supposition that a vibrantly lived faith removes all suffering or conquers definitively over every sin is quickly proven wrong by experience. Is there anything new under the sun, even for the believer?
“Salvation,” a term bandied about rather casually since the Protestant Reformation, is for the Catholic a dynamic appropriation of Christ’s saving passion, death and resurrection in the daily here-and-now of the life of the believer. It is not a once-for-all determined category, a static classification. The gift of eternal life once given may be lost. And the strength of spirit that comes with putting on the new self (Ephesians 4:24) sometimes fades. Christ has thus equipped the church with the sacraments of healing—penance and anointing of the sick—to restore and revitalize her members.
While baptism cleanses its recipient of original sin and bestows the identity of God’s adopted children, it does not eradicate our inclination to sin. It is the sacrament of the saved, yet the its saving effects may be lost through mortal sin. Penance, the great sacrament of conversion, restores the grace of baptism and heals the relationship of the sinner with the Body of Christ. Even those who are not guilty of mortal sin benefit from penance by an increase in grace which strengthens their resolve to avoid sin in the future.
The first Epistle of St. John advises that we deceive ourselves if we claim we are without sin. The disciple of Jesus is invited to a constant conversion, one which seeks an ever-deepening closeness to the Lord and the gradual eradication of all impediments to that intimacy. Conversion is not a single determination, but a daily confrontation with whatever draws us away from Christ and his friendship. The grace of penance equips us for that task with God’s supernatural help.
Penance requires sincere sorrow for the sins committed on the part of the recipient, spoken confession of one’s sins to a priest, and the completion of the act of penance imposed by the confessor. This dynamic reveals what is most human about the drama of reconciliation: we recognize the wrong we have done and regret it, resolving to avoid it in the future; we “go out” of ourselves and in humility name the wrong we have done, taking responsibility for it; and we do our best to make up for it in some way.
Only God can forgive sin, but as we have seen, the sacraments and their ministers are used as necessary instruments in the bestowal of grace. It is a distinctly priestly power to reconcile, to lead man back to God and restore friendship with him.
The power of this sacrament belongs principally then to Christ the Priest, which he in turn shared with the apostles, their successors and all priests. While deacons are recipients of holy orders, they receive the laying on of hands unto service—not unto priesthood—and therefore cannot serve as ministers of this sacrament.
Just as penance exists to help believers address the ongoing struggle with sin, anointing of the sick was instituted by Christ to strengthen believers in the face of bodily suffering.
The church teaches that anyone who begins to be in danger of death, either from sickness or old age, has attained the fitting time for the reception of this sacrament.
The principal effect of the anointing of the sick is not bodily healing, but an interior strengthening to overcome the difficulties that accompany grave illness. God may certainly will to heal a person through this sacrament, but its principal effect is spiritual, not corporal. Through this sacrament, a person is able to unite their suffering more closely to the Passion of Jesus himself. Because of its intrinsic connection to the forgiveness of sin, this sacrament can only be celebrated by a bishop or priest (see James 5:15).
Is there anything new under the sun? Sin and suffering continue their unfortunate appearances in the course of history, and sometimes their effects seem overwhelming. But Christ has equipped the church with the means to heal and restore her members, offering them hope and consolation in difficulty. Because of the sacraments and their remarkable effects of grace, newness can always be found here below, perhaps especially in the midst of darkness.
Father Joseph Upton is the assistant pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Parish and chaplain at The Prout School, both in Wakefield. This column is part of a yearlong biweekly series on the Year of Faith by Father Upton and Father Ryan Connors.