Lawn Chair Catechism: Hearing is Believing

Welcome back to CatholicMom.com’s Summer series, Lawn Chair Catechism. For details on the series, to find the book or study guide, or to catch up on my previous posts for this year, head on over to my page for this year’s series.

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This week, we’re talking about the Sacraments of Healing: Confession and Anointing of the Sick. These are probably the two most misunderstood Sacraments in the Church, the first by Protestants, and second by Catholics!

Confession is the regular means by which our sins are forgiven, even if our contrition isn’t perfect. The Church asks us to go at least once a year (to prepare for reception of Communion, which should happen at least once a year, during the Easter Season), but suggests more frequent reception of the Sacrament. When pressed for just how frequently, St. John Paul II recommended monthly Confession. It’s also called Reconciliation, for through the Sacrament, we are reconciled to both God and His Church, as well as Penance, for we are doing penances in reparation for our sins. I’ll discuss this a bit more a little later, though.

Anointing of the Sick is misunderstood by Catholics because, for some reason, it became common practice to reserve this Sacrament until someone was on his death bed, resulting in people calling it “Extreme Unction” and “Last Rites.” However, Scripture clearly depicts this Sacrament — consisting of prayer, laying-on of hands, and anointing with holy oils — being given to those who were sick, but not necessarily dying. This is what the Church recommends, as well.

I have actually received Anointing of the Sick twice in my life: once while I was pregnant with my older daughter, an experience I’ve written about extensively before, and then again when I was in the hospital with an intestinal blockage and facing possible surgery. (I did not have surgery, but was so relieved to receive the Anointing.) Both times, the anointing gave me a wonderful peace in my soul.

Let’s have a look at the questions for this week:

• What does it mean to say that Christianity is not about picking ourselves up by our bootstraps when we’ve fallen?

• What is the difference between self-esteem and self-righteousness?

• What is your understanding of the word mercy?

• How would you explain to a non-Catholic the reasons that Catholics confess their sins to a priest?

• What do the following words mean: contrition, confession, absolution, and satisfaction?

• When was a time that your emotional/spiritual state affected you physically?

• What is the purpose of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick?

I’d like to focus on one question: How would you explain to a non-Catholic the reasons that Catholics confess their sins to a priest?

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When Christ walked the earth, He told his Apostles that they had the power to forgive sins, and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them. As the Old Testament priests and prophets passed on their anointing to others through prayer and laying-on of hands, so, too, did the Apostles pass on their priestly powers by laying hands on others. The first example of this was when they selected Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot.

Why would Christ give men the power to forgive sins? Why would we want to confess our sins to others when we can go to Christ Himself? My simplest answer to that is that we aren’t really talking to the priest, but to Jesus. The priest is there, to be sure, but he stands in for Christ, and speaks with His voice. I’ve had proof of this in my own life, as I wrote last year:

There is a mortal sin in my past life that is painful to me to think about. I regret in on many levels, including that level at which I understand that I did something to hurt God, to separate myself from Him, that put my eternal soul in jeopardy. For years after, I would go to Reconciliation Services but not go to a priest for absolution. Instead, I would sit in the pew afterwards and cry, wishing I felt that I could go to the God of Mercy with my sorrows. I didn’t know about the sin of despair, but I suppose I was right in the thick of it.

Finally, years later, I forced myself to go to Confession for the first time in…well, forever. It was my first Confession at my new parish, and I finally unloaded the guilt I’d been feeling for years. My priest said to me, “First, thank God you are here. But your children need you; your family needs you…” and he proceeded to speak to me the most beautiful words in the world: the words of absolution. I cried tears of joy as I left the church that day, and felt lighter than I’d felt in longer than I could remember.

But I couldn’t stop feeling badly any time it crossed my mind. I continued to feel horrible guilt over it. I did not doubt that I was forgiven, but I just couldn’t forgive myself.

One day, a friend told me that there are graces to be had for mentioning sins from your past life during Confession, even if already confessed, to show your sorrow for them. So I brought this sin that burdened me to the Confessional again. I shed tears again over my guilt and regret, as if I hadn’t even confessed it before. “I know I’ve been forgiven, Father, but it burdens me…”

This priest, who was nothing like my own pastor – they weren’t even from the same country or background! – began to council me:

“First, thank God you are here. But your children need you; your family needs you…”

In that moment, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that when I spoke to the priest in Confession, it was Jesus. I knew that when I heard the words of absolution, it was Jesus.

And that’s why I go to a man and confess my sins. Because Jesus is the One Who is listening, Jesus is the One Who speaks to me, and Jesus is the One Who sends me on my way with, “Go and sin no more.” Knowing it in your head is one thing, but having the consolation of hearing the words are another. And, as I mentioned before, we are sensual people, needing to experience things with all of our senses — and Catholicism is a sensual faith, engaging all of our senses in our journey to Heaven.

To me, the most beautiful words I can hear are these:

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son, you have reconciled the world to yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.