“Quick, I’m hurt and I need a bandage.” Or “Hey, you’d better get some ice on that bruise.”
We usually know what to do when we get hurt physically. But what about when we get hurt spiritually?
In fact, how many of us know that this is exactly what happens when we sin? We get hurt.
Oh, we might realize that we’ve hurt somebody else by our actions. But there’s plenty of hurt to go around.
Many of us were taught that sins are bad acts. We also know that sin is something we do that is unloving — against God and against our neighbor.
Our grandparents were taught that “actual sin is any willful thought, word, deed or omission contrary to the law of God” (Baltimore Catechism , n. 278).
Sin is indeed bad. But if we really delve into what sin means, we find we need to know more. As a caller to The Compass noted recently, “How many people really know what sin really is?”
The call was prompted by a partial quotation, attributed to Pope Francis, that the church is a “field hospital.” While the pope often refers to the church with this term, the actual quote dates far earlier than Pope Francis. It was probably St. Augustine (d. 430 A.D.) who first said, “The church is not a hotel for saints, it is a hospital for sinners.”
What Pope Francis stresses today is something he said in a 2015 homily: “This is the mission of the church: the church heals, it cures. Sometimes, I speak of the church as if it were a field hospital. It’s true: there are many, many wounded!”
So what does this have to do with sin?
If we study the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), we hear echoes of the Baltimore Catechism and Pope Francis: “Sin is an offense against reason, truth and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor. … It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (n. 1849).
Here we start to get the idea of how sin hurts. It not only does something “bad,” it wounds.
Adam and Eve
By understanding sin this way, we begin to return to the traditional biblical sense of sin: as breaking the covenant relationship with God. This covenant relationship gives us life and health. Remember what happened to Adam and Eve after they damaged their relationship with God?
When we separate ourselves from God, we lose the most important and healthy connection: love. Sin moves us away from the “God (who) is Love” (1 Jn 4:16). And losing love – any love — wounds us.
This is also why so many of Jesus’ actions focused on healing. Remember how he told the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mt 9:2-6)? Only with forgiveness and mercy was the man able to stand up and walk home. He had been set right with God and God’s love healed him.
There are many types, many degrees, of sin. There are also many levels of participation in sin. At times, we are more guilty — “culpable” — of the same sin than at other times. It can boggle the mind trying to sort it all out. However, the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults sums it up: Mortal sin (the really serious sin) “destroys the loving relationship with God that we need for eternal happiness.” On the other hand, it adds, “venial sin” (the less serious type) “does not completely destroy the love we need for eternal happiness (but) it weakens that love and impedes our progress. …”
Left too long, even those wounds of venial sin start bleeding away at us and we get weaker and weaker. And more prone to mortal sin.
Why? The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that, even though we were washed clean at baptism, “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).
‘Sacraments of healing’
We are vulnerable to sin and easily hurt by sinful acts. When we begin to understand how serious sin is — how it damages love between us and others, and thus separates us from God (who is love and the giver of life), we can start to see how we might need a healer, and even a field hospital when we sin.
Fortunately, the church — that field hospital — has things called the “sacraments of healing:” anointing and reconciliation.
Christ the healer gave his church the power to forgive sins and to heal — to help people get back up, apply antiseptic and healing salve to their wounds and go on. The sacrament of reconciliation heals both our souls (our inner selves) and our relationships (our outer selves) with others.
While most Catholics realize that the sacrament of reconciliation removes sins, they may not know how closely related it is to the sacrament of anointing of the sick. Both are sacraments of healing.
Healing pours forth, in a visible and tangible way in anointing because it uses the Oil of the Sick. We all remember the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37), who poured wine and oil on the wounds of a half-dead man he found lying along the road. The Good Samaritan is often seen as Jesus.
The sacrament of anointing can bring healing to body and soul. Ideally, this sacrament takes place in the context of the sacrament of reconciliation, but sacramental anointing can, by itself, absolve a person of sin.
It’s also ideal if this sacrament takes place in community, since it is the prayer of the church that asks for God’s healing mercy for the sick. If the sick person becomes whole and healthy in body as well as soul, they are restored fully to the community.
In the same way, the prayer of the church helps those seeking the sacrament of reconciliation. Our prayers give them the strength to “get back on their feet” after they have been healed, and our love brings them back into community.
This year, in a Lenten Angelus message, Pope Francis spoke about sin and how it can harden — even kill — the soul. His words remind us that God provides healing and will always be there to offer it to us, as long as we make the tiniest step toward him. God’s healing is better than any bandage or antiseptic, because God’s love also brings new life:
“(E)ven sin, even the mummified heart, is never the last word for Jesus,” Pope Francis said, “because he has brought us the infinite mercy of the Father.
“Even if we fell down, (Jesus’) soft and strong voice reaches us: ‘I tell you: get up.’”
The church exists to be the field hospital to which all of us can turn in any sort of pain, stumble or fall.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults; w2.vatican.va; “Rome Reports”; catholicworldreport.com; and the Baltimore Catechism