By Father Anthony J. Costa
Sixth in a series that explains the priesthood during the Church’s Year of the Priest.
“The Lord Jesus Christ … has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members. This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing: the sacrament of Penance and the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick” (Catechism no. 1421).
The children have reached the part of the first penance ceremony when they will confess their sins to the priest. A boy sits in the chair and flashes a nervous smile in response to the smile and welcome of the priest. The anxiety melts away as he joyfully experiences the healing power of God’s love for the first of many times in this sacrament.
After the children have finished, a woman sits in the same chair with tears in her eyes. She has not been to confession for many years and has been moved by her child’s first penance to experience the Father’s love in her own heart. As the mother speaks to the priest, her eyes begin to resemble the innocence and joy of the children who preceded her. At the end of the evening, the priest is once again grateful to God for the humbling experience as a minister of His healing and merciful love.
A woman calls her parish priest and explains that her father has been admitted to the hospital and needs surgery. She wants her dad to be anointed, but fears he will think of this as the “last rites” and is dying. The priest greets the family in the father’s hospital room and sees the worry on the faces of all who are present. He provides comfort and consolation in explaining that anointing of the sick is not a sacrament limited to those who are close to death. It is a sacrament that continues the healing of Jesus through the ministry of the priest.
“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” (Catechism no. 1520). The priest humbly guides the man preparing for surgery to experience the consolation of being united in his suffering with the passion of Jesus.
At any hour of the day, a priest is called upon in times of grief and loss. It means quietly praying after Mass on Sunday with the man who has received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He is summoned to the emergency room of the hospital when there has been a fatal car accident. It happens when someone dies at home after a long illness. He carries a heavy heart to the home of the young couple who have just discovered their two-month-old baby has died from sudden infant death syndrome.
The priest will have known some of these families for many years and may not have ever met other families until this moment of loss. Strengthened by the Eucharist, he will work to console the families with our faith that God has created us to live forever. Jesus has defeated sin and death by the power of His Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Many people will not remember what the priest said when he arrived at the time of death or a few days later at the funeral home, but they will remember that he was there. Most importantly he helps them to remember that God is there. The priest did not take their pain away, but he shared it with them in some way. In the weeks and months that follow, he is still there with and for them in their time of grieving by inviting them to always turn to God and trust in Him.
Father Costa is the director of spiritual formation for the College spanision at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.