For all intents and purposes, it appears that this pandemic has been the catalyst leading the Church into exile. For all of the discussion about the domestic church and everything we can do at home, the reality is—based on salvation history—we are in exile. The length is unknown, but this fact should be like a bright neon sign, especially since we have been exiled from the Eucharist, “the source and summit” of the Christian life, not only during Lent, but also during Holy Week and the whole of the Easter season.
Once we are aware of this deeper spiritual reality, how are we to respond? One of the principle reasons God sends His people into exile is to bring them back to faithfulness in Him. He uses it to rouse us from our slumber; to enkindle within us repentance of heart and a deeper love and desire to follow Him and a greater call to love and serve our neighbor.
In order to come to this deeper repentance and to seek the forgiveness we need for our sins, Christ instituted the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. Many priests across the world are faithfully providing Confession to the faithful. Priests are seeing penitents returning to the Sacrament after decades away.
We should ask ourselves, what God is trying to accomplish at this time of separation? We can be sure He is seeking to bring about great goods that couldn’t have been accomplished any other way through His Divine plan.
Now would be a good time for reflection and honest soul searching. This includes an honest look at how we view the Blessed Sacrament and whether or not we offer Our Lord due reverence and love as we should.
Chances are very high that many do not avail themselves to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, even though it is required once a year. Very short Confession lines point to this problem. It seems that Christ is using this period of exile to bring about a great deal of healing and conversion that is desperately needed. This painful healing requires fortitude on our parts to bear it patiently out of love for Him.
The reality is, either people will grow in deeper love of God in this period or they may fall away. We can trust that whatever happens, His ways are higher than our own. Hopefully more and more people will return to Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation so they can joyfully enter into union with Christ in His Real Presence once public Mass is restored.
Heroic priests and Anointing of the Sick
The other Sacrament of Healing is Anointing of the Sick, which is not the same thing as Last Rites. The Sacrament is meant to strengthen those in bodily affliction and offer spiritual healing through the remission of sins and sanctifying grace, which strengthens the soul to unite their sufferings to Christ Crucified.
By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ (CCC 1499).
Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death.
Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him (CCC 1500-1501).
Suffering weakens our body and soul. The Anointing of the Sick is meant to be a source of spiritual strength while we battles illness or injury.
Unlike Last Rites (for those who are dying), Anointing is for those who are seriously ill or elderly. It is essential for the faithful to call the priest before the person is no longer responsive, so they can be given Anointing and/or if needed Last Rites along with Confession and Holy Communion depending on the situation.
The Catechism teaches that the effects of Anointing are:
A particular gift of the Holy Spirit. The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death.This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will. Furthermore, “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”
Union with the passion of Christ. By the grace of this sacrament the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.
An ecclesial grace. The sick who receive this sacrament, “by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,” “contribute to the good of the People of God.” By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father.
A preparation for the final journey. If the sacrament of anointing of the sick is given to all who suffer from serious illness and infirmity, even more rightly is it given to those at the point of departing this life; so it is also called sacramentum exeuntium (the sacrament of those departing). The Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it. It completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life: that of Baptism which sealed the new life in us, and that of Confirmation which strengthened us for the combat of this life. This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house (CCC 1520-1523)
The danger we have in times such as these is the same problem the Catechism states in its teaching on the Anointing of the Sick. We can become fearful or unwilling to confront the suffering we have been asked to endure. This same fear can overtake all of us, and yes, even our priests and bishops.
The priest is called to be a spiritual father in the supernatural order of grace. He is not a social worker, administrator, business man, or fundraiser. These are tasks he must accomplish, but they are not tied directly to his priestly identity. He is called to be a mediator, spiritual father, shepherd, teacher, sanctifier, healer, and governor. He is called to lay down his life with Christ Crucified, even if it may cost him his own life.
This is a hard truth. Our human ways are not God’s ways.
The sick need the healing power of God’s sanctifying grace. They need to be forgiven of their sins and to experience the tangible signs and spiritual depths of the Sacraments. This is a part of the high calling of the priest. He must find ways, no matter how difficult, to minister in union with the Divine Physician during this pandemic. There are countless individuals who are alone and afraid in their hospital beds or at home right now who need the spiritual healing of the Anointing of the Sick, Confession, Holy Eucharist, and for some, Last Rites.
It is also not only the sick who need the powerful witness of the priest as spiritual healer. The doctors, nurses, hospital staff, family members, media, and the world need to see their loving witness to Christ Crucified. People follow courage and strength. There is no greater witness in this pandemic than a priest walking firmly united to Christ into a hospital room willing to surrender his own life if necessary.
Yes, we grieve the deaths of the priests who have succumbed to COVID-19 around the world, but we also rejoice because they have surrendered themselves completely to Christ Crucified. To will the good of our priests, to truly love them, we must desire for each one of them to become holy saints. Through their sanctity, Christ will transform this pandemic and exile into a place of renewal and love. We must remember His ways are not our own, but we trust completely in all He is doing in the world right now.
Pray for our priests to be given the courage, strength, and charity they need to walk into battle to serve the sick and afflicted and to face down the Enemy as he seeks to spread panic, fear, and despair. To our priests: Take heart, Christ Our Savior and His Mother are with you.