“Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
To this point in our series, we have explored the matter and form (res et verba) — the things used and the words spoken — in sacraments that are about initiation into the life in Christ and about renewing ourselves in that life with the sacred food that Christ himself gives us, of his own body.
Now, though, we turn from the sacraments of initiation to those of healing: penance and anointing. While newness is an aspect of them as well, along with renewal, they are first about brokenness, sickness, physical and emotional pain, and spiritual illness. These sacraments are about needing help.
As we turn from the glorious table of the Lord’s Supper, we remember that the Lord ate with sinners: Mt 9:10-13; Luke 5:29-32; Mk 2:15-17. When challenged about this by the religious leaders of his day, he answered, “Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do” (Mk 2:17).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that, even though we have been made new in Christ, we carry this new life “in earthen vessels” and have not reached the fullness of what God has prepared for us:
“We are still in our ‘earthly tent,’ subject to suffering, illness and death. This new life, as a child of God, can be weakened and even lost by sin” (n. 1420).
Sacrament of reconciliation
So Christ the physician has given his church the power to forgive sins and heal — to help people get back up and go on. The sacrament of reconciliation heals both our souls (our inner selves) and our relationships (our outer selves), because we have hurt others by our sins.
There are four elements to the sacrament of reconciliation, also called penance: contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction. We must be sorry, confess to God before a priest, receive the healing of Christ, and then go and repair things as much as possible.
The things, the matter of this sacrament, is a little different than in the other sacraments. To this point, the matter — the things of the sacrament — have been objects. But here, they are human actions. For reconciliation, the remote matter — the physical things brought to the sacrament — are the sins themselves. St. Thomas Aquinas explained this back in the 13th century (III, 90, Art. 1).
Wait, you say. You cannot put your hands on sins, like you can bread or oil. True, but all of us have felt the reality of sin — both those sins that have hurt us and the sick feeling of guilt in our hearts from sins we have done. They seemed pretty real, didn’t they? They matter — and are matter.
The proximate matter — the physical actions associated with the things of this sacrament — is what the penitent does. These actions include the feelings of sorrow, coming to confession, that voiced act of contrition and, most of all, the confession of sins to Christ in the person of the priest.
The form of the sacrament of reconciliation — the words that reveal the unseen action of the triune God — is spoken by the priest: “I absolve you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Through this sacrament, healing is poured forth, revealed through the Sign of the Cross by which all sinners can be reconciled to God. God’s healing helps us back up on the path of life.
Sacrament of anointing
In the same way, healing pours forth in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. We all remember the Good Samaritan, who poured wine and oil on the wounds of the half-dead man he found lying along the roadside. Oil is an ancient medical treatment still used today — just ask anyone who has had a massage to work out stiff muscles.
The sacrament of anointing brings healing to both body and soul. Ideally, the sacrament takes place in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation, but sacramental anointing itself absolves a person from sin.
Also ideal is that this sacrament take place in the midst of the community, since it is the prayer of the church that asks for God’s healing mercy for the sick person.
While many people still think of this sacrament in terms of being near death, the documents of Vatican II remind us that anointing is encouraged whenever “anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 73).
The remote matter — the physical thing — of the sacrament of anointing is oil, in this case the Oil of the Sick which has been blessed by the bishop. The actual anointing with oil, in the sign of the cross, on the forehead and the palms of the hands – is the proximate matter of the sacrament.
The words — the form of the sacrament — are “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit” (on the forehead) and “May the Lord who frees you from sin, save you and raise you up” (on the hands). All present respond: “Amen.”
What better help when you’ve fallen, through sins or bodily failing? God — working through his church — will raise you up.
Next: Matter and form of sacraments of service
Sources: Fr. John Doerfler, diocesan chancellor; The Catholic Encyclopedia; The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas; Catechism of the Catholic Church; The United States Catechism for Adults; and the Catholic Update.