The Sacraments of healing: Penance and the Anointing
                     (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 295-320)

1. The Sacrament of Penance heals and restores.

If we aspire to holiness we shall have to nurture a sincere esteem for the Sacrament of Penance. At our baptism we received immense benefits from God and the sin within us was utterly taken away. By this I mean that we were taken out of the darkness of our inherited separation from God and fully united to him. This inherited condition of alienation from God which we call Original Sin was removed. We were placed in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Also, all personal sins we may have committed to that point - were we baptized after the age of reason - are completely forgiven, and all punishment due to sin is also taken away. That is to say, were an adult who has just been baptized to die at that very point, he would go straight to heaven. That is the power of the Sacrament of Baptism. But this share in the life of God is weakened through personal sin after baptism. It can be lost through mortal sin, whether of thought, word or deed. Well, our Lord, who described himself as the physician of our souls, has established a Sacrament, whereby he himself, in the Church, heals the sick or dead soul and raises it up to a new health, or to a new life from death. That occurs in the first instance through the Sacrament of Penance, and for the dangerously sick in a different way through the Anointing of the Sick. 

2. We remain prone to sin after Baptism.

The Sacrament of Penance goes by various names, being called also the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Sacrament of Forgiveness, Confession and the Sacrament of Conversion. The reason why our Lord instituted this very important Sacrament is that while Baptism gives us a share in the life of grace which because of original sin we lack when we are born into the world, it does not take away the inclination to sin. We remain inclined to sin, and we need to convert from sin constantly during life. This Sacrament of Penance aids us in this constant repentance from the sins we fall into and it reestablishes the relationship with God that is wounded or lost by our personal sins. It was a great loss to many protestant churches when in breaking away from the Catholic Church they retained Baptism but rejected both the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance, two most important Sacraments for our journey through life towards holiness. On the evening of Easter Sunday, the day he rose from the dead, our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Penance when he showed himself to his apostles and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). Ordinary experience shows that those who are baptized and confirmed, those who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit through these two Sacraments, fall into sin, and often become confirmed in their sins. They can even lose the faith. I have read that letters have come to light showing that Fidel Castro once believed in God. He abandoned his faith. Our Lord’s call to repent which marked his preaching resounds constantly in the Church. He calls all of us to conversion, and this conversion occurs especially in the Sacrament of Penance. Every time we go to Confession, we ought aim to make of it a moment of conversion. The grace of God will come to us in this Sacrament to help us make it so. It will require a contrite heart, a heart drawn by the grace of God to respond to God’s merciful love. This conversion entails sorrow for sin, a firm purpose not to sin again, and trust in the help of God. It is nourished by hope in the divine mercy.

  3. The Sacrament of Penance requires repentance from us and absolution from the priest.

Through the action of the Holy Spirit the penitent comes in repentance, and by the power of the Holy Spirit the absolution given by the priest in the name of Christ bestows forgiveness. We play our part, and our Lord plays his part. We remember how the woman who was a sinner came in when our Lord was dining with the Pharisee and began to wash his feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair. Our Lord saw that she was sorry and pronounced the forgiveness of sins over her. When we come to our Lord in the Sacrament of Penance he will forgive us, but we must approach him with a repentant disposition and a readiness to amend and make up. The Church describes our part in this process when she tells us that we must examine our conscience, we must be truly sorry which includes the intention to amend, we must confess our sins to the priest who is the instrument of our Lord, and we must make up for our sins by fulfilling the penance given to us by the priest. Particularly important is contrition. If you examine your conscience and confess your sins in confession, but if you are not really sorry before God for what you have done, and have no real intention to amend, then your Confession has not been a good one and the grace of the Sacrament will not come to you. So it is important to examine your conscience before God, thinking of all that God has done for you and of how poor your response has been in return. It is most important to ask for the grace of repentance. In fact it is a good idea to go to Mass as a means of preparing for Confession, and to make the grace of repentance the special grace you ask for when you receive Holy Communion. Of course, you cannot receive Holy Communion if you are in the state of mortal sin, but you can if you are in the state of venial sin. Receiving Holy Communion helps cleanse away venial sins, but it is especially the Sacrament of Penance that does this cleansing. Its  grace restores and strengthens after venial sin. Going to confession regularly for venial sins also helps us to form a correct conscience and to fight against evil tendencies. That is why the Church recommends frequent and regular Confession for the venial sins that are so often committed. Holiness depends on sincere and regular repentance from deliberate venial sin.

4. We are seriously bound, of course, to confess all grave sins in Confession.

We should examine ourselves about this, and apart from any serious sins - such as sins against purity in thought, word or deed that may have been recently committed - if there are any mortal sins of the past that have not been confessed and they come to mind, we are bound to confess them in the Sacrament of Penance. The confession of serious sins in the Sacrament of Penance is the only ordinary way to obtain forgiveness, unless it is absolutely impossible to go to Confession. And each of the faithful who has reached the age of discretion is bound to confess his or her mortal sins at least once a year and always before receiving Holy Communion. It is a serious sin to receive Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin. One of the wonderful things about membership in the Catholic Church is that the forgiveness of sins is so readily available. No matter how bad the sin, no matter how frequently we may have committed certain sins, whenever we see a priest, there through him the Catholic is able to receive the forgiveness of sins. Christ is united to the priest and the priest acts in the name of Christ.  He forgives sins by the power and the authority of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This he makes very clear when he pronounces the words of forgiveness. He says, “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” If a person has committed a mortal sin, that person by going to Confession to the priest is raised up from spiritual death, and instead of being on the way to hell is thereupon put on the way to heaven. This power to forgive the sins of the faithful was not given to our Lady, but only to priests. So it is a tremendous blessing for all Christ’s faithful, and it is so available. The priest, of course, is bound to absolute secrecy and may never reveal that a particular person confessed a certain sin to him, even at the cost of his own life. Every Catholic ought cultivate a special esteem for the priesthood and a respect for the priest because he stands in the place of Christ in his service of Christ’s faithful.

5. The effects of the Sacrament of Penance

The effects of the Sacrament of Penance are reconciliation with God and therefore the forgiveness of sins, and with that, reconciliation with the Church. It brings recovery of the state of grace if this  has been lost, and takes away of the eternal punishment due to mortal sins. It also removes at least in part of the temporal punishment due to sin. It brings peace and spiritual strength.

6. Connected with this is the possibility of gaining indulgences.

Every day at the end of my morning rosary I ask God to grant me all the indulgences I am able to merit during the day. Indulgences are the taking away of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has been forgiven through Confession or, say, acts of contrition. The faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains the indulgence under certain conditions either for himself or for the faithful departed. They are granted through the ministry of the Church which has the power to distribute the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints. An indulgence can be partial or plenary. The partial indulgence takes away part of the temporal punishment due for sin that has been forgiven - basically twice the amount that would in any case have been taken away by the action itself. A plenary indulgence takes all temporal punishment away. That is a difficult indulgence to gain, and it requires, in addition to the fulfilment of the work the church stipulates must be fulfilled, a full detachment from all venial sin.

7. The other sacrament which brings healing and restoration is the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

The Scriptures show sickness as both a sign of weakness and also as being mysteriously bound up with sin. St Paul writes that sin entered the world through one man and with sin death appeared and spread through the whole human race. Many of the prophets, for example the author of the chapters in the book of Isaiah about the Suffering Servant, intuited that sickness could have a redemptive value for one’s own sins and those of others. Our Lord’s ministry of healing was a sign that with him there had come the Kingdom of God and therefore victory over sin, over suffering, and over death. By his passion and death he gave new meaning to our suffering which, when united to his own, will be a means of purification and of salvation for oneself and for others. Our Lord commanded his disciples to heal the sick, and the Church carries out this command by caring for the sick and praying for them. But the Church’s special gift to the sick person is the Sacrament of the Anointing of the sick. St James in his Letter writes, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call in the presbyters of the Church and let them pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5:14-15). We ought have an understanding of this Sacrament of the Anointing so as to be able to advise and help someone who is seriously ill, and their family. This special Sacrament is precisely for the dangerously ill person. In it our Lord comes to the sick person with his grace strengthening the person spiritually in his dangerous illness, and, if God judges it to be necessary or spiritually helpful, at times even assisting the person physically. Any member of the faithful may receive this sacrament as soon as he or she begins to be in danger of death because of sickness or old age. The faithful can receive it several times if their illness becomes worse or another serious sickness afflicts them. This Sacrament should, if possible, be preceded by individual confession on the part of the sick person. This Sacrament, of course, can only be administered by priests or bishops.

8. The Sacrament of the Sick is administered

The Sacrament of the Sick is administered essentially by an anointing with oil on the forehead and on the hands of the sick person (in the Roman rite) or also on other parts of the body (in other rites), accompanied by the prayer of the priest who asks for the grace of this Sacrament. This special grace of the Sacrament unites the sick person more intimately to the Passion of Christ for both his own good and the good of all the Church. It gives peace, comfort, courage, and even the forgiveness of sins if the sick person s not able to make a Confession. Sometimes, if it is the will of God , this Sacrament even brings about the restoration of physical health. In any case, this Anointing prepares the sick person for the journey to the Father’s House. The aid of the Holy Spirit comes to him.

9. Viaticum is a further gift for the person who is seriously ill. Viaticum is the Holy Eucharist received by those who are about to leave this earthly life and are preparing for the journey to eternal life. Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at the moment of passing from this world to the Father, is the seed of eternal life and the power of the resurrection. We should always be ready to inform the sick and their family of these Sacraments and call for the priest.