The Sacraments of Healing today
Scott Weeman’s trouble with alcohol began as a junior in high school. In college, this habit became destructive. He started drinking and doing drugs every day. He lost his college scholarship and was forced to return home. After treatment when he was 21, he fell in love with a girl and stayed sober for eight months with what he calls a “white-knuckle approach.” When he began drinking again, tensions rose in their relationship and eventually she left. After further isolation, he reached for help.
Weeman, who later founded the group Catholics in Recovery and authored “The Twelve Steps and the Sacraments” (Ave Maria Press, $15.95), began attending a 12-step group at the same time he got involved in the local young adult group.
“The 12-step group gave me the hope that I could find sobriety and new life, to admit my powerless and find God. At the same time, I got involved in the local Catholic Church, and it was those individuals that introduced me to Jesus, who I rely on as my higher power,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.
The convergence of the 12 steps and the sacramental life of the Church led to his healing.
“We must first declare our sickness; like Bartimaeus in the Gospel we have to ask, ‘Lord, let us see,'” he said. “Anointing of the sick is really a flesh-to-flesh encounter with Christ. It is inviting God to be my healer rather than to try to heal my wounds myself.”
Christ’s healing presence
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the work of healing is the purpose of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. It says, “The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation” (No. 1421).
The Sacrament of Reconciliation invites conversion; according to the Catechism, it is through this sacrament that the Good Shepherd seeks out the lost sheep and the Good Samaritan binds up wounds. The purpose of the Sacrament of the Sick is two-fold: to strengthen the recipient against the temptation to despair and to unite her suffering to the suffering of Christ.
For Father Richard Veras, priest of the Archdiocese of New York, the sacraments are an act of humility and an acknowledgement that our brokenness can only be healed through God.
“Sacraments are an acknowledgement that we can’t bring healing; God has to. The scandals show us brokenness. What human being with unaided effort can fix this? No one. The Church brings this hope in the midst of the need for God to intervene. Sacraments are privileged moments where God is intervening,” he said.
Father Veras sees both sacraments as a sign of our belonging to Christ.
“It’s interesting that both sacraments are so radically personal, but both so radically remind me of my deep belonging to the body of Christ. Penance reminds me that my sin affects the whole Church, my healing affects the whole Church; when someone is anointed, there are benefits for the whole Church.”
This aspect of belonging is vitally important, especially at the end of life.
Christopher Vogt, theology professor at St. John’s University, noted, “At the end of life, people often feel isolated — cut off from the places and people and activities they have known and loved throughout life. The sacraments can be one way of helping people experience a sense of ongoing connection to the community of the Church. Bringing the Eucharist to the homebound and the dying not only gives them the opportunity to be drawn near to Christ by receiving his body but also to be drawn near to the community of the Church.”
Father Paul Kollman, CSC, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, sees that it is through the Church that Christ communicates with us.
“Christ communicates through the Christian community and its ministers the tenderness he showed: his mercy, compassion, attentiveness, courage to intervene on our behalf,” he said. “The Sacrament of Reconciliation manifests this especially in offering the forgiveness that almost invariably accompanied encounters with him, especially his healings. The intimacy of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is meant to communicate the close attentiveness that Jesus always gave, especially those who stood in need of care.”
Potential for conversion
Meg Hunter-Kilmer is a self-described “Hobo for Christ,” who travels the world speaking of God’s love and mercy. She’s on fire with the love of Christ and eagerly shares his love with others. Hunter-Kil- mer spent five years teaching before she felt called to begin a traveling ministry.
She attributes all of this to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
“Every good thing in my life was the product of one confession when I was 13,” she said. “I was an absolute disaster — a miserable mess of despair — and that confession changed my whole life. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d be alive, but in that moment I encountered mercy in a way that I didn’t know it existed, and everything was changed.”
The heart of the sacrament is compassion and conversion. Hunter-Kilmer said, “It is an invitation, the Lord is saying, ‘I know who you are and what you have done, but that doesn’t have to define you.'”
The distinct power and grace Hunter-Kilmer experienced as a teenager is described by Father Veras this way:
“I can go in my room and pray and confess, and an Act of Contrition is beautiful inside or outside, but objectively it doesn’t give you the grace of the sacrament, and the healing that comes through it. Confession gives a person a peace that nothing else does, and a big part is the tangibility. There’s a certainty that I’m forgiven. One aspect is incarnational, flesh and blood, and it comes through person of the priest.”
Healing sacraments and addiction
Father Paul Kollman sees the potential for Anointing of the Sick in light of our understanding of the person as a unity of body and soul.
He said, “The Anointing of the Sick should be available at any moment of serious illness, and these days with our deeper insights into the interrelationship among our physical bodies and our emotional/spiritual selves, such illness can take many forms, not only what might be formally seen as medical conditions.”
One such illness is addiction. With the opioid crisis and numerous other addictions becoming more widespread, the sacraments provide potential for a new avenue of healing.
Todd Whitmore, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame who works with addicts in recovery, says that both sacraments can be used as part of the path to healing. For the aspect of addiction that is a disease, the Anointing of the Sick is appropriate, while for the aspect of it that is a moral failing, penance is necessary. These, he says, can be administered in tandem with one another.
“Even if we view addiction as a disease, most persons who have been in active addiction for any period of time have also done things which they regret and which are not completely reducible to the disease,” Whitmore said. “Many members of Alcoholics Anonymous talk about their addictions as a disease, yet at the same time, the 12 steps, with their emphasis on moral inventory and making amends, look an awful lot like key aspects of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Addiction certainly makes a person less free, but the range of both compulsion and freedom varies from person to person, and even within the same person at different times.”
The Sacrament of Reconciliation joins the work of the 12 steps. Weeman said, “Steps 4-9 encompass an honest examination of conscience, sharing our failing with another person, ask God to remove defects with our behavior, heal the wounds that we have made, and invite us to make amends from any wounds we have caused, with God or our neighbor.”
Father Veras echoed the thought: “If you look at the 12 steps, part of it is to speak of sins to another person, so purely on a human level, we need that. We need to say it out loud. I had a friend who was pastor of a busy parish in Manhattan, and it was not uncommon for non-Catholics to come into the confessional because they know it’s confidential. They want that.”
Healing scars of past sin
At Project Rachel, a ministry for post-abortive men and women, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is the first step toward healing. Project Rachel is a “compassionate and confidential ministry which extends God’s unconditional love and forgiveness to women and men who experience the tragedy of abortion,” according to Brie Anne Varick, coordinator for the office of human life and dignity in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
Bernadette Roy, a leader of Project Rachel in Indianapolis, said:
“Just as Adam and Eve hid from God in the Garden of Eden, we, women and men who have chosen abortion, hide from God. We hide from ourselves and from the people around us. We are in the dark. When the time comes, and we can no longer hide or bury the truth, we seek forgiveness. We don’t know if we can be forgiven, but we want to be. Finding mercy sounds easy but making a call or going to reconciliation is the hardest first step of our lives. Knowing that the priest can absolve this grave sin, in God’s name, is like taking a deep breath after trying to drown ourselves in the lake of shame and guilt.”
Both Roy and Varick emphasized that reconciliation is only the first step in healing, as it is difficult for many people to accept God’s forgiveness. The Project Rachel team consists of licensed therapists, trained laypeople and post-abortive men and women who provide love and support to walk with those on their journey of healing.
For Roy, the Eucharist operates on a healing level as well.
“We hear the priest, we want to be free, but more often than not we think we don’t deserve forgiveness,” she said. “As we grow in grace from the sacraments, of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, we heal from our wounds.”
|Advice for making a good confession|
Experts offer tips on ways to get the most out of the Sacrament of Reconciliation:
“If you’re wondering, ‘well, was that really a sin, do I have to confess this?’ just name it and lay it down before the Lord. The evil spirit likes to work in secrecy and justification. Both on a psychological level and spiritual level, you will not regret naming your sins.” — Father Michael Rossmann, S.J.
“If you’re looking to use the Sacrament of Confession as part of the addiction recovery process, it would be invaluable to invite the assistance of someone who has already done so.” — Scott Weeman
“Find an examination of conscience that works for you, that is appropriate to your state in life and that helps you take an honest look at yourself.” — Meg Hunter-Kilmer
“Before doing an examination of conscience, think about what you regret, what do you wish you could undo, what words do you wish you could take back. It’s these things that are already on your mind, the things that you struggle with, that will most put you in position of repentance. Many people are stuck in a grammar school list. As an adult, they put together this sort of religious category of confession and leave out the humanity of it. Instead, begin by asking, What do I wish I had never done? What do I wish I could take back?” — Father Richard Veras
A healing embrace
Weeman’s and Roy’s experiences of the life-giving grace of the sacraments are echoed by Father Veras, who, as a priest, is moved when someone returns to the Church.
“A mother or father will always love their child, no matter how far you think you went,” he said. “It’s like the prodigal son, because it is so moving to the priest. The priest never is thinking, ‘Where have you been?’ It gives the priest absolute joy, nothing but joy, to have someone return to the Church — just joy — the joy of the father welcoming the Prodigal Son. If I have this joy, then what must God’s joy be at the return of this person?”
Father Veras sees the sacraments as a way of accepting and welcoming sinners.
“Anointing of the Sick can be an embrace of someone who may have been away from the Church for a long time, who may be discouraged because of sins and regret. For the other sacraments, preparation is necessary, but both these sacraments are ready to embrace you. For penance, all you need is true contrition. We can anoint someone who has lost consciousness. It’s the mystery of God’s healing.”
Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick writes from Oklahoma.
|Pastoral Care of the Sick – Q &A with a hospital chaplain|
Father Jonathan Brown worked as a hospital chaplain at the Royal and Broadgreen hospitals in Liverpool, England, from just before his ordination to the priesthood, in 2012, until February 2018. With the assistance of two other priests, a lay chaplain and about 60 volunteers, he served the 300-400 Catholic patients in the hospital. He recently spoke with OSV about his work, and the following is an excerpt from that conversation.
Our Sunday Visitor: Describe your role as hospital chaplain.
Father Jonathan Brown: The reality of my role was found in being the archbishop’s representative in the hospital, to provide a stability and consistency to ministry, removed from the personality of the minister and predicated solely on the relationship of the individual to the Church. The Sacrament of the Sick was a fundamental part of my ministry, alongside Reconciliation and Holy Communion, and of course non-sacramental pastoral care.
OSV: What is it like to administer the sacraments to the dying?
Father Brown: There was a special joy in being able to administer all of the sacraments that the Church envisages at the end of life. To be reconciled with God, anointed with the grace of the Holy Spirit, and fed for the journey: This embodied the freedom and peace which is God’s will for each of us, united the dying person to the death of Christ, and filled them with the peace which is his gift and his promise. I saw many miracles — moments that defied the expectation and explanation of the medics — during my ministry, but the most common fruit of the Sacrament of the Sick was peace: that peace which the world cannot give.
For some, after decades away from the Church, there was terrific liberation. For others, a new depth of meaning to their reception of the sacraments. But for all, there was the opportunity to feel the presence of Christ alive and active, and with them in their sickness.
For those who were dying, it could be tempting for the bystander to think of the sacraments in psychological terms, as presenting an opportunity for catharsis, to make a clean breast of things, and to feel supported by familiar rituals: But this would be to miss the supernatural aspects completely. Communion is intrinsically a being at one with God; Reconciliation rebuilds broken relationships and through love and mercy brings pardon and peace; anointing involves having God poured over us so that we can live in him and he in us.
OSV: The Church calls Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick the sacraments of healing. How did you witness healing in the patients?
Father Brown: We ask for the healing that is God’s will, and for docility to that will. We might be unwaveringly determined that the healing take a particular form, and it is moments such as these that the spiritual side of the healing that the Sacrament brings can come to the fore. Often I saw actual physical healing, but much more I saw attitudes soften, hearts being opened, souls being drawn into deeper relationship with God. With time, it was often possible to listen to people speak of the healing that came, and how different this was to what had been thought to be needed, and how much the healing had exceeded all that had been asked.
Patients woke up just to receive the sacraments. Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion arrived at a patient’s bedside the moment after the doctor had said they could eat again after being unable for months. Patients would hang on for the priest, and slip away the moment after receiving the Sacrament of the Sick. I can come up with any number of extraordinary occurrences, but the reality of my time as a hospital chaplain is that God makes the extraordinary happen pretty much every day.