For a non-Catholic learning how to see the world and Christianity as a Catholic, the term “sacrament” can be a large ominous hurdle. My own struggle with it came from an ignorance of what the Catholic Church meant by sacrament. The term sacrament means “outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification”. * At first this rather dry definition sounded like a showy way of displaying grace for one’s own purposes. However, that is not what is intended. In fact, the Church goes on to say that God uses sacraments for our benefit, but is not limited by them. “ It is the teaching of the Catholic Church and of Christians in general that, whilst God was nowise bound to make use of external ceremonies as symbols of things spiritual and sacred, it has pleased Him to do so, and this is the ordinary and most suitable manner of dealing with men. “ ** Simply put, we need sacraments because God has said so. Once I understood that the sacraments were nothing to be feared, or nothing newly “invented” by the Church, I was more readily able to believe them.

Now that the barrier of why sacraments had been instituted was cleared, the next, even larger barrier was the sacraments themselves. The sacraments of healing are The Anointing of the Sick, and the sacrament of Penance. (Catechism of the Catholic Church –CCC 1421)

Coming from a faith community that at times did the laying on of hands to pray for the sick, The Anointing of the Sick was no big deal. In fact, I respect the Catholic views a lot more about making sure that a sacred ritual like a sacrament has both a clear formal definition and at the same time allows for priestly judgment. The Anointing of the Sick is usually reserved for those who have a terminal or rather serious illness. In years past, it was reserved for a person’s dying moments, but as our medical understanding has improved so too has the view on when to give this sacrament. Also, this sacrament can be given more than once to the same person, something I was ignorant of before starting this journey. What this sacrament is for is for those who are in grave need. That should not be understood to mean that the Church or a priest only cares if a person is at death’s door.  Just like in other churches I have attended, prayers for the sick are offered up at every Mass, at every meeting, and whenever a parishioner asks a priest to pray for a loved one or themselves. As with all other things in Christianity, the Anointing of the Sick has been written about as infinitude and a small blog post cannot begin to cover it all. If you are still curious, or would like to read more, I suggest The Coming Home Network forums, www.catholic.com, and going to a Catholic book store. The Anointing of the Sick is an expression of love and faith that intends to heal both the body and the soul.

The sacrament of Penance is also known as confession or reconciliation. It is known by several other names, each one focusing on an aspect of the sacrament. This sacrament has to be one of the hardest ones to come to terms with for non-Catholics like myself. Growing up in a household where the words “I don’t need a man to come between me and my God.” were almost a knee-jerk reaction to any discussion of a confessional nature; I was more than a little leery of the topic. That was until I read an explanation of the binding and loosing powers in Matthew 16:19.

The Catechism teaches “In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins, the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church. This ecclesiastical dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ’s solemn words to Simon Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head. (CCC 1444)

Similarly Jesus Himself gave authority to the apostles to forgive sins in His name in the passage “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. . . . 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 20:21–23)  Now after reading that last passage, I know many non-Catholics will cringe and say that man cannot forgive sins only God. That is true, and in fact any Catholic priest will tell you it is the power of God in them that does the forgiving and that they are the vessels that carry the forgiveness. While over time the understanding and form of confession has changed, a study of history and scripture will find that confession has always been a part of the church and was accepted by all Christians for the first sixteen hundred years. Lastly, a few names from history that affirm this sacrament are Hippolytus, Cyprian of Carthage, and Ignatius of Antioch from years eight to three hundred these historians all gave accounts of the sacrament of confession.

Upon writing this post, I wish I could convey more about how frightened I was at the idea that I would have to tell my sins to another person and then they would have to give forgiveness for them. Just know that everyone feels that at first. The priests also go to confession, so they are just as aware if not more so of the anxiety accompanied with talking about one’s most closely guarded secrets and failures.

Finally, the sacrament of confession isn’t required for every little transgression. The requirement is for mortal and grave sins; and to be done at least once per year. Also know that Catholics believe you can ask God directly for forgiveness for venial sins and in theory you could ask forgiveness for any sin as God is not limited by the sacraments.(see Perfect Contrition vs Imperfect Contrition – CIC 916) However, the sacrament isn’t just so you go to a priest and feel bad and grovel as it has been unfairly portrayed in movies, books, etc. Confessing your sins to a priest also gives you grace to receive this forgiveness and be unburdened. Even the secular world has therapists that are basically people that others go to unload themselves. Only in the instance of a priest, you can be assured that they will guide you will all the loving kindness of a brother in Christ.

All in all, I found that the more I studied the sacraments, the more I came to recognize that my resistance to them stemmed less from actual scriptural understanding and more from either a natural tendency to buck authority or a complete lack of understanding of the Catholic point of view.

A Brother In Christ

*(Catechismus concil. Trident., II, n. 4, ex S. August “De catechizandis rudibus”) – from www.catholic.com

**(“The Sacramental System”, New York, 1902 p. 46) – from www.catholic.com