Vol 53 No 2 Winter 2023
|Continuing Reflection on Penance
|The Liturgy Commmittee: Reflection. Review. Evaluation.
|Blown Away by Music:
|Faith Communities as Living Communion
|Norton, Bishop Tim
|What might the Catechumenate look like in Australia?
|Behold Love’s Amazing Grace: An invitation for All to Participate in Liturgy in Catholic Schools
|Towards Full Presence
|Eucharist / Mass
|New Mass Setting
|Australian Composers / Music
|Mystery and Mission Conference
|Catechesis - liturgical
|Our Cover: Liturgy Snapshots - Symbolic Action
|Lifeblood of Mercy
|Online Formation for Liturgical Ministers
|Ministries – Liturgical
|Books: Paul Turner - Ars Celebrandi: Celebrating and Concelebrating Mass
|Eucharist / Mass
Continuing Reflection on Penance
In the last issue, Archbishop Patrick O’Regan laid out the background to the sacrament of penance in relation to the decrees of the Australian Plenary Council 2022. He noted how it renews the grace of baptism in order to restore a person to the communion of the Eucharist. He went on to explore how participating in the Eucharist is itself a sacrament of forgiveness and healing. Indeed the sacrament of penance sits in the midst of a whole constellation of prayers and pastoral opportunities for accepting God’s compassionate mercy.
His article begins by noting the special relationship between penance and the anointing of the sick because these two sacraments are grouped together in the Catechism as ‘sacraments of healing’. What strikes me as extraordinary, however, is that our pastoral approach to these two sacraments is quite sharply different.
The history of both these sacraments has been tied up with death. In the first centuries of the Church’s history, penance was a once-only opportunity to address serious sin; it was to be followed by a demanding life of repentance. Consequently, to escape long years of austerity, it was often postponed till near death. Penance was liberated by the Irish monks who evangelised Europe towards the end of the first millennium, bringing with them their penitential practice derived from models of spiritual direction. The priest would hear a person’s confession of sin and then impose hands for the forgiveness of sins. The rite became an annual Easter event and in the 20th century was frequently celebrated before receiving holy communion.
Anointing goes in the opposite direction. The use of holy oil blessed for the sick was unrestricted in the early Church: people were encouraged to take it home to use as a liniment or medicine as they wished. About the same time that the Irish monks were opening up penitential practice in Europe, the anointing was being restricted to the ordained minister who alone imposed hands and anointed. It soon came to replace the deathbed reconciliation and so was regarded as a dying person’s ‘extreme unction’. The anointing retained this connection to the moment of death until the 20th century when, drawing on the rediscovery of liturgical sources, the Vatican Council decreed: ‘Extreme unction’ which may also and more properly be called ‘anointing of the sick’, is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for that person to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived (SC 73).
Now, today, the general pastoral approach to penance is to urge more frequent recourse to the sacrament, even when one is not conscious of serious sin. The grace of the sacrament, it is said, will assist the Christian in the small day-to-day failings which are a constant part of living the gospel. By and large, Catholics are urged to confess their sins in the sacrament of penance as often as possible, and generally they feel guilty that they do not go often enough.
With the anointing of the sick, we do encourage people not to wait until the last moment, but rather to call the priest to administer the sacrament earlier so that the Church can offer healing and pastoral support when people are confronted by a serious diagnosis or the burden of old age. However, with this sacrament, the Church does not encourage its celebration for trivial illnesses. It is a sacrament for those whose health is seriously impaired. A prudent or reasonably sure judgement is required for deciding on the sickness which would warrant use of the sacrament. Here there is no talk of everyone receiving the ‘grace of the sacrament’, and instead, there are warnings against its indiscriminate use.
In terms of a healthy pastoral practice, I would urge a middle course for both sacraments. I think there is still too much reluctance on the part of the sick and their families to seek the help of the sacrament of anointing. Having communal anointing rites in the church certainly encourages good use of the sacrament. An easier opportunity is made for those who have been diagnosed with a heart condition or cancer to receive the anointing; likewise for someone who has been in a sporting or car accident, an elderly person who has had a fall, someone about to have surgery, and so on. The healing touch of Christ and the ministry of the Church are very important at such moments, but there is often a reluctance to ask, and the person is left to battle on alone.
For the sacrament of penance, I think we should stop ‘the-more-the-better’ rhetoric. Those who use the sacrament every week or fortnight can fall into the trap of trivialising the rite by producing a fairly standard list of insignificant peccadillos. As Archbishop O’Regan wrote in the last issue, we need to open up the whole constellation of moments of forgiveness in the Christian life: from the Eucharist itself, to the Lord’s Prayer, to reading Scripture, to works of charity and mercy… all these are moments of reconciliation when we experience God’s compassion and love. Where then does the sacrament of penance fit in?
It takes its place above all in significant moments of conversion when God’s grace calls us to repentance and a new way of life. It might occur each year before Easter while we embark on the Lenten penitential journey. It may happen in our soul at a time of solitude, escape or retreat. It may occur at significant turning points in our life: graduation or marriage, a change of job or moving house, situations of domestic violence or divorce, times of conflict, and so forth. The question is: what are the turning points in life (conversion means ‘turning back’)? Learning from the anointing of the sick, the people of God might benefit from celebrating penance less frequently but more deeply.