Did you hear a good homily on forgiveness yesterday? Not only were the readings a great starting point for reflecting on the tenth anniversary of 9-11, the Gospel story is one of those that just hits home every time. It was one of those Gospels where we leave church thinking, I know I need to grapple with the fact I don’t want to forgive THAT person.” Or I want to believe that even though I may never see justice, I can do something so that the situation will stop eating at me. You may find yourself thinking I want to hear another homily on how I can forgive.
As perfectly timed, as yesterday’s Gospel, is the publication of my fellow blogger and colleague, Fr. R. Scott Hurd’s book, Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach. In the spirit of full disclosure, Fr. Scott is a colleague and we have admired each other’s work for a number of years and I have written an endorsement for the book which all adds up to having lots of evidence that Fr. Hurd knows what he is talking about. The book is worth purchasing for yourself and for a friend who may be stuck in the awful cycle of anger and hurt. What makes Forgiveness such a good read is that it is also a manual. It answers the HOW question in a step-by step look at sin, forgiveness and reconciliation and how we can make it happen. If you are a regular reader of this blog or have had the good fortune to hear Fr. Hurd preach, you will recognize his gift for storytelling and you will appreciate that his example of people grappling with forgiveness and finding their way toward reconciliation come from his own experience in ministry, from the lives of the saints and ripped from the headlines of the news. They offer such a breadth of experiences that I can’t image you won’t see yourself in one of them.
Be An Instrument
Forgiveness is more than just stories; Fr. Hurd tackles the big questions as well. He writes of having to face the fact we may need to express anger with God, and he tackles how tough forgiving in a Christian way can be. He reminds us that prayer and participation in the other sacraments not only can help but are essential to the process. He helps us to honestly ask ourselves if the place to start is realizing we just may need to “lower the bar!” Fr. Hurd’s book is the kind of book that you could read together with a spouse or family member or friend with whom you are trying to find the way toward reconciliation but just can’t seem to get past an obstacle. Cardinal Wuerl, in his forward to the book, writes “…We are all called to even more than the passive reception of God’s mercy. Jesus asks us to be instruments of forgiveness.” In Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach we are given the tools to be instruments of forgiveness.
It was almost 15 years ago. I was At Old St. Mary’s here in D.C. celebrating Mass in the Latin (Extraordinary Form). It was a solemn high Mass. I don’t suppose I thought it any different than most Sunday’s but something quite amazing was about to happen.
As you may know the ancient Latin Mass is celebrated “ad orientem” (towards the Liturgical East). Priest and people all face one direction. What this means practically for the celebrant is that the people are behind him. It was time for the consecration. The priest is directed to bow low, his forearms on the altar table the host between his fingers.
As directed I said the venerable words of Consecration in a low but distinct voice, Hoc est enim Corpus meum (For this is my Body). The bells rang as I genuflected.
But behind me a disturbance of some sort, a shaking or rustling in the front pews behind me to my right. And then a moaning or grumbling. What was that? It did not really sound human, more like the grumbling of a large animal such as a boar or a bear, along with a plaintive moan that did not seem human. I elevated the host and wondered, “What was that?” Then silence. I could not turn to look easily for that is awkward for the celebrant in the ancient Latin Mass. But still I thought, What was that?
But it was time for the consecration of the chalice. Again, bowing low and pronouncing clearly and distinctly but in a low voice: Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei, novi et æterni testamenti; mysterium fidei; qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem pecatorum. Haec quotiescumque feceritis in mei memoriam facietis (for this is the cup of my Blood, of the new and eternal covenant; the mystery of faith; which will for the many be shed unto the remission of sins. When so ever you do this, you do it in my memory).
Then, I heard another sound this time an undeniable moan and then a shriek as some one cried out: “Leave me alone Jesus! Why do you torture me!” Suddenly a scuffling as some one ran out with the groaning sound of having been injured. The back doors swung open, then closed. Then silence.
Realization – I could not turn to look for I was raising the Chalice high over my head. But I knew in an instant that some poor demon-tormented soul had encountered Christ in the Eucharistic, and could not endure his real presence displayed for all to see. And the words of Scripture occurred to me: Even Demons believe and tremble (James 2:19).
Repentance – But just as James used those words to rebuke the weak faith of his flock I too had to repent. Why was a demon-troubled man more aware of the true presence and astonished by it than me? He was moved in the negative sense to run. Why was I not more moved in a positive and comparable way? What of the other believers in the pews? I don’t doubt that any of us believed intellectually in the true presence. But there is something very different and far more wonderful in being moved to the depth of your soul! It is so easy for us to be sleepy in the presence of the Divine, forgetful of the miraculous and awesome Presence available to us.
But let the record show that one day, almost 15 years ago, it was made quite plain to me that I held in my hands the Lord of Glory, the King of heaven and earth, the just Judge, and Ruler of the kings of the earth. Is the Lord truly present in the Eucharist? You’d better believe it, even demons believe that!
In a recent post on the ministry of priests, there were a few comments that reflected both frustration and pain over the fact that a loved one had been in the hospital and, though the priest was called, he either never came or did not come at once. To be sure, it is lamentable that any priest would receive a request for a visit and do nothing in response to it. The Church as a whole, and pastors in particular, have obligations to the faithful who are seriously ill, especially if they are in danger of death. That said, there are very real difficulties that priests face in responding immediately and personally to all requests. In this post I would like to ponder some of the pertinent issues involved in sick calls, especially to the hospitalized.
Perhaps it is best to begin with a mini-catechesis on the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
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. (Catechism # 1499).
Scripture teaches that the sick are to be anointed by priests – Jesus sent the apostles forth two by two to proclaim the kingdom. The following description is given of their actions: So they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them. (Mk 6:12-13). We also read, Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters [i.e. “priests”] of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:14-15).
The Sacrament of the Sick is given to baptized Catholics who are seriously ill. Thus, a person with an ordinary virus, flu or injury is not usually anointed unless such illness or injury has a serious nature due to other pre-existing situations. Since most surgeries are presumed to involve serious maladies and involve significant risk, those scheduled for surgery (especially when general anesthesia is used) ought to be anointed before the surgery. A person is usually anointed only once in the course of an illness or injury. However those suffering from illnesses of a long duration or due to advancing age may be anointed periodically and especially if their condition takes a turn for the worse.
Children under the age of seven are not anointed. This is because the sacrament is related to the Sacrament of Confession and is designed to be a remedy against temptations and the effects of sin. Children under the age of seven are usually not presumed to have sufficient use of reason to be considered responsible for sins committed and hence have no need of this sacrament.
Those who receive this sacrament ought also to have recourse to confession if it can reasonably be offered and celebrated. While confession is not strictly required, anointing and confession both related to the problem of sin. Anointing is not just celebrated with the idea of physical cure in mind, but of spiritual strengthening and the avoidance of temptation that often comes with illness. Hence, confession and anointing are integrally related.
In the past, many often waited to the point of death before requesting this sacrament of the priests of the Church. Pastoral care today however emphasizes that this sacrament should be offered long before the final stages of dying set in. When physical illness of a serious or chronic nature sets in the sacrament should be administered sooner rather than later. Likewise, it is a good idea to celebrate the sacrament before surgery takes place. The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is meant foremost to help us experience healing and assist us to live gracefully with our illnesses, and not merely as a Sacrament that prepares us to die.
The purpose of the sacrament – One gift to be hoped for in this sacrament is the complete recovery of health. This is sometimes experienced. Miraculous cures are surely a sign of the power of the risen Lord and they were promised as a sign of the reign of God (cf. Mk 16:18). And yet this is not all that is meant by the “healing” that is given and experienced in this sacrament. The word “healing” however involves more than just the notion of cure. In his own day Jesus did not heal everyone. Christ also taught of the inevitability of suffering and the need to remain faithful: If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Lk. 9:23). St. Paul too experienced the call to faithful endurance as he prayed for a cure of his own illness: Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Hence the healing that this sacrament offers is more often the grace to endure suffering with holiness, and faith. Hence, a 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. (Catechism # 1590)
Especially to be noted in the mini-catechesis above is that the anointing of the sick is not primarily a sacrament for emergencies and should not be delayed until death is imminent, unless this cannot be avoided. There are certain circumstances that require an emergency administration of the sacrament, such as in the aftermath of a serious accident or when one is suddenly stricken. However, as a general practice, anointing of the sick ought to be a more routine aspect of the lives of the chronically ill and the aged, or of those who have entered the various stages of serious illnesses. If death seems to be certainly approaching, one ought to be anointed well before the final stages, and surely before unconsciousness ensues. In no case should a family wait “for the last moment” to summon the priest. This is a Sacrament for the living, not merely for those on the very threshold of death. Those who are scheduled for surgery ought to be anointed before entering the hospital, preferably at the parish, if this can be arranged.
The goal is for every Catholic to be “up-to-date” on their Sacraments long before death or the danger of death ensues, or even the advent of sudden and unexpected death. Of every Catholic who faces death, whether sudden, or at the end of a long illness, we ought to be able to say they have very recently received Holy Communion, and that confession has been celebrated with a reasonable period prior to death. Further those who have not died suddenly and unexpectedly, ought to have been anointed at some time significantly prior to death. In such cases there is no emergency need to summon the priest, for the ordinary pastoral care has already been provided. Emergency anointing ought be reserved for those who are suddenly and unexpectedly stricken, or for those who are in accidents.
And that leads us to the concerns that some have expressed that a priest was sought, and no priest came, or did not come soon.
There are a number of factors that affect the availability of the parish priest. And while these factors do not excuse a complete lack of pastoral care, they ought to be considered as we look to a solution to the problem. These factors include:
There are far fewer priests than years ago. Until about 25 years ago, most parishes had more than one priest. Many larger parishes which had as many as four or five priests, back in the 1960s, have only one priest now, and that priest has many, many duties.
Fewer hospitals have assigned and full time chaplains. Here in DC only the largest hospital centers have regular and full-time chaplains. The smaller hospitals and nursing homes depend on local parishes for pastoral care.
Most Catholics no longer go to neighborhood hospitals near the parish. Rather they are assigned to hospitals that specialize in their issues. For example, in my own parish, I may have parishioners in as many as 6 or 7 different hospitals spread all throughout the area (Providence, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Southern Maryland, PG Hospital, Adventist Hospital, Holy Cross, Washington Hospital Center, Children’s Hospital, Veterans, and so forth). Some of my parishioners are taken as far away as Baltimore. Regular visits to hospitalized members may not be possible when they are in such varied locations. Pastors often need to depend on clergy more local to the hospital in question. This leads to concerns that “my pastor never came and saw me.” But some parishioners simply do not realize how unrealistic this is for pastors, often without assisting clergy, with dozens of parishioners in as many as half a dozen different and often distant hospitals.
Pastors and priests also have serious duties at the parish which cannot always be dropped at a moment’s notice. A pastor may get an urgent call to come at once, yet he is just getting ready to celebrate a wedding. He cannot simply say to the couple they will have to have their wedding another day. Calls may come in as well in the middle of a Sunday Mass, or other significant function where a priest cannot reasonably dash off. A priest may also be teaching a class or bible study involving thirty or more people and it may not be reasonable for him to rush out in the middle of a class. He may be completely away from the parish teaching or filling in for another priest. It is simply not possible for a parish priest to be 100% available at every moment for a possible sick call, even an emergency. Sometimes the best he can do is to ask a parish staff member or the hospital to find another priest. It is not always right to allow the urgent to wholly eclipse the important.
Towards a solution. The care of the sick is important and reasonable urgencies need to be addressed by the Church. What are some of the things that can be done to realistically address the needs of Catholics given the factors seen above?
Large hospital centers should have full time chaplains if this is possible. This is especially true if the hospital has a shock and trauma unit that routinely receives accident victims and those suddenly stricken. The chaplain would also need to a coordinate with local parishes to cover any gaps caused by his day off or vacation. Here in Washington, we are often able to depend on priests from religious orders. Other dioceses are less blessed with options.
If a full time chaplain really cannot be found, the parishes near the larger hospitals need to develop a carefully coordinated plan to cover the hospitals and field emergencies. The plan should make sure that gaps are properly covered and emergency calls can be quickly handled. Further, parishioners and hospital staffs should be well aware of how to contact the priest on duty.
Smaller hospitals and nursing homes still need coverage from the local parishes. The diocese should have a carefully crafted plan on who covers them and when. Emergency clergy numbers for each hospital and nursing home should be easily available to all the priests and staff of the parishes in each diocese; for it often happens that a brother priest near the hospital will need to be contacted by a priest or staff member from across town who cannot reasonably make a visit.
Some teaching on the nature of a true sacramental emergency needs to be made to both the faithful and to hospital staffs. When death is clearly imminent we usually have an emergency. However, just because some one has gone to an emergency room does not mean that death is imminent, and that a priest is needed at once. Sometimes it is fine to wait for the next day when a priest routinely visits. Even when death is imminent, it is sometimes the case that a priest gave sacraments just the day before. It is not necessary for the priest to return and be there at the moment of death, when a person has been receiving ordinary pastoral care given to those who are seriously ill. It is sufficient in such cases that the person has recently received the sacraments and there is no reason to summon the priest to come at once or in the middle of the night. True sacramental emergencies usually occur for those who are suddenly and unexpectedly stricken or who are in an accident and are, for these reasons, in immediate danger of death.
Parish priests should well instruct their staff how to field emergency calls, assess their importance, and know options to pursue if the parish priest cannot be reasonably reached. Families should not simply be told, a priest cannot be found, they must be helped to find a priest in an authentically urgent situation.
To the degree possible, hospital staffs should also be able to know how to contact a priest quickly. Their phone lists should be up to date and include several options.
The faithful may have to accept that a priest will not always be found in time. In such cases they ought to remember that God does not reject any who call on him. And, though anointing is surely helpful, it is not absolutely necessary for salvation. Even confession in dying moments should not be thought of as magic. If a person seeks a priest and a priest cannot be reasonably found in time, it suffices for the person to make an act of contrition – no one who calls on the Lord will he ever reject. If a person is unconscious, a priest saying absolution over them, will only have effect if they had some contrition and openness to receive the sacraments prior to the unconscious state. Even when a priest rushes he does not always get there in time. In such cases, we have to trust in God.
Again, an important goal for every Catholic is to be up to date on their sacraments and in a state of grace. Sacraments are to be part of ordinary pastoral care and an ordinary part of the life of a Catholic. They are not to be merely postponed to the moment of death.
It is surely an added grief when a priest cannot be found in cases of true emergency or when proper pastoral care is not reasonably extended to the chronically ill. And while it may be an explanation that parish priests are sometimes overwhelmed, it is not an excuse. Parishes and dioceses need to work together with the faithful to see that the sick and the dying are properly cared for, that emergencies are covered, and that the faithful are properly instructed on the nature of the sacraments and how to secure the ministry of a priest when such needs arise.
As always, I am interested in your experiences in this regard. It is most helpful if you can suggest how the Church might better help in such matters.
Back just before Holy Week I read an interesting and provocative essay by Jennifer Fulwiler at the National Catholic Register. It is about the need to more clearly instruct Catechumens and those being received into the Church about spiritual attack. Plain and simple, the devil wants to destroy the faith of those who have newly entered the Church. And we need to be sober about this. Being sober does not mean we are in a panic. It merely means we are alert and have a mind that is clear as to the possibility, even the likelihood that the Devil will seek to snatch them from our hands. I want to quote from Ms Fulwiler’s article article and then give some personal experiences and concerns:
It’s a subject nobody wants to talk about. Even among fellow Catholics, you risk being seen as superstitious or ignorant if you acknowledge that there is a dark force whose sole purpose is to keep people away from the light of Christ. And, to be sure, some hesitation about the subject is warranted: We’ve all heard stories of people who became overly fixated on the subject of evil, renouncing personal responsibility with “The devil made me do it!” arguments or seeing demons around every corner. So it’s good not to place too much emphasis on the forces of evil. But this is a subject where we want to be very, very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I think that modern Catholic culture has done just that.
In my own journey, an understanding of the reality of demonic activity has been critical to my spiritual life. I’ve been fortunate to have a spiritual director who has helped me learn to recognize when these kind of forces may be at work, and to act accordingly. …it was helpful for me to learn to recognize and reject those thought patterns that are not of Christ.
This advice has been particularly critical in times of doubt. Twenty-five years of atheistic thinking patterns don’t go away overnight, and since my conversion I’ve had plenty of periods where I experienced doubt or spiritual dryness. In these moments, it’s been extremely important to understand how to parse through my thoughts carefully, separating reasonable points from lines of thinking that seem to stem from spiritual attack, bad moods or other distracting forces (I once summarized what I learned about that here). Thanks to this understanding, each period of exploring my doubts has only led me to a deeper knowledge of God and greater faith in the Church.
And so, as a new group of converts (and “reverts”) prepares to come into full communion with the Church this Easter, I hope that our RCIA directors talk to them about this issue. I hope they make Dr. Peter Kreeft’s recent article about the reality of spiritual warfare required reading, and emphasize the benefits of finding a trusted priest or trained spiritual director to help navigate the ups and downs of the ongoing conversion process. Because while the path to sainthood is a beautiful road where we find peace and fulfillment as we grow closer to the Lord, we must never forget that it is also a battle.
I must say, this article caused me to pause and repent. For I, who know better, have not made it a practice to speak to my Neophytes and Newly Received about this. That has to change. And I also need to extend longer care to those who have newly entered the Church.
It is sobering for me to consider how many of the people I have baptized quietly slipped away from the Church in the years that followed. A couple of years ago I was looking at my notes from past Easter Vigils and gradually my mouth came open. For as I looked back over those notes going back fifteen years, I saw the names of many I had prepared for baptism and reception. But more than half were gone now. And of only a very few could I say, “Ah, they have moved and I know that they are in a parish there.”
I was, frankly, stunned. Some of them had been intense, joyful and excited to be baptized and received. I remember the joy of those congregations gathered at the vigil as, one by one the catechumens went down into the water. “Alleluia!” went forth the song, as each of them emerged from the font. And joy too was expressed for those received into full communion. And now half of them gone, quite certainly lapsed.
I cannot find any hard data on line, but, I have talked to RCIA “experts” who do work at a national level and they quietly affirm that, within five years, 50% of those who came through RCIA are no longer practicing the faith in any real way. I cannot show you the hard numbers, but I have personally found this to be true.
I have tried to be better about following up with those who have come through my classes who later go “off the radar.” I call them in, or speak with them on the phone: “You know what I taught you about Mass attendance, I’m worried about you….Jesus wants to feed you!” “Adam where are you….Eve, why do hide your face?” I get their sponsors on the job too. But it’s strange, a kind of lethargy seems to come upon some of them. They make promises to return, but often don’t. Or they come once, but then disappear again. Maybe I’ll see them in the store later on and josh with them, or be very serious, depending on the situation. But something has come over them. Most didn’t have some terrible experience, they just drifted away, they just lost the joy, or things just got routine.
But Jennifer Fulwiler, above, is on to something very important: they are likely under some level of spiritual attack. Demon, thy name is lethargy, thy name is boredom, thy name is sorrow and sloth, distraction and forgetfulness. Jesus warned:
Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. (Mk 4:15-19)
Yes, spiritual attack is real. So is the world and the flesh.
I think, in the early days of RCIA we figured that those who entered in this way had a great advantage over “cradle Catholics,” for they had come to the faith as adults, and made a mature decision to follow Christ. Yes, they would remain firm. But we are waking up from that notion. We need to be more vigorous and sober in our assessment of what new and returning Catholics face. Satan is sure make some moves on them and, as Ms Fulwiler says, Twenty-five years of….thinking patterns don’t go away overnight.
In my own parish, thanks to the generous offer of a skilled parishioner, we’re looking to strongly enhance our mystagogia (post baptismal catechesis) and extend it for as long as two years. We’re also going to give more vigorous formation to sponsors and insist that they see their role as more than ceremonial and one that does not end with the Easter Vigil.
And I am going to begin to be more frank with my newly received and baptized as to the nature of spiritual attack, and the likely moves the devil will try. Further, they must be taught a deeper understanding of the drives of the flesh and influence of the world. Peter Kreeft’s article, hot-linked above in the quote from Ms Fulwiler, is a good place to start. CS Lewis also has some good material in the Screwtape Letters about how Satan seeks to knock out new converts like “low-hanging fruit.” I am grateful if you, dear reader, can add to the list of suitable material to help in this matter. Clearly the goal here is not to frighten them, but to instill sobriety and an ability to discern spirits and resist demons, all by God’s manifold grace.
Yet another thing we must do better is to draw new members deeper in to the life of the Church. While Mass attendance and regular confession are primary goals, it is also most critical that new members feel welcome and be encouraged to get involved in the wider life the parish. This will usually root them more deeply in the faith and ensure a greater fraternity that will help them in their walk: Woe to the solitary man, for if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Eccles 4:10).
And we need to teach them to pray. The danger of RCIA is that it can be top heavy on intellectual formation but almost bereft of spiritual formation rooted in prayer and the spiritual and liturgical practices of the Church. Here too, I need to do a better job of finding the right balance.
As always, I am interested in your thoughts and experiences in this matter. Perhaps your own parish is addressing this? Perhaps too, you are a recent addition to our numbers in the Church and would be willing to share the good things, and the short-comings of your formation and mystagogia.
We have to do better. My recent trip down memory lane was real wake-up call. In the early Church, we went from the rather sudden and quick baptisms of Scripture (e.g. Acts 2:39; 8:36) to a three year catechumenate. This was likely due to a bad experience the Church had with those baptized too soon. I am not sure I want to make people wait three years, but I AM more sure I want their mystagogia to extend two years beyond their baptism and reception. We need to walk with our new brothers and sisters a little further down the road than just a few weeks or months out of the font. Lord, have mercy on me for taking so long to know better.
It’s Holy Week and Lent is drawing to a close. Have you made a good confession? It just doesn’t seem possible that any Lent can be complete or even proper without going to confession. In many diocese there is a “Light is On for You” outreach wherein confession is available in all the parishes of that diocese every Wednesday night from 6:30 pm – 8:00pm. That is surely the case here in the Washington Area. I’ll be in the box waiting for people this Wednesday! So will all the other priests in the Washington and Arlington Dioceses. I am aware that Boston and other dioceses are doing something similar. But wherever you are it’s not too late to get to confession.
There are a number of reasons people postpone or even refuse to go to confession. Here are a few, plus a helps and suggestions.
1. I don’t need to go to the priest to confess my sins. Really? I wonder where you might have heard that? Is there some Bible verse that says that? Or is it perhaps just an unproven opinion? For scripture nowhere says, that you should only tell your sins privately to God. To the contrary, it says, Declare your sins, one to another (James 5:16). This same text goes on to specify that the priest is the one to do this and declares: The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Hence the Scriptures do not affirm a merely private notion in terms of confession. Quite the opposite. I have written more on the thoroughly Biblical origin of the Sacrament of Confession HERE. Please consider reading it if you have doubts that confession is an integral part of the life of a Christian.
2. I’m anxious because it’s been a long time and I have forgotten the ritual. Be of good cheer, you are not alone. Priests are well aware that many people need a little help with the format and things like the Act of Contrition. And don’t be too quick to think of Confession merely in terms of ritual. Fundamentally, Confession is a discussion. Feel free to ask the priest questions and to request help. If you’d like to review some of the aspects of Confession, how to prepare, and how the rite is celebrated here is a good site: How to Make a Good Confession.
3. I don’t have a lot of time and am not available to go at the usual time. Consider calling your parish or a nearby parish and asking for an appointment with the priest when you ARE available. Most priests are quite willing to make time to hear confessions at other than usual times. This is one of the essential reasons we were ordained. In larger cities there are often monasteries and Religious houses that make confession available all through the week at frequent hours. Here in DC both the Basilica and the Franciscan Monastery are legendary as places to go daily at all the major hours to celebrate Confession.
4. I don’t have to go if I don’t have mortal sin. Well, perhaps a lawyer will agree with you. But two things come to mind. First even little things have a way of piling up. Before long a room can look pretty cluttered, one little thing at a time. Secondly, mortal sin isn’t as rare as some people think. There is not the time to develop a whole theology of sin here, but simply realize that it is possible for all of us to do some pretty harsh and mean-spirited things, to say things that harm the reputation of others, to indulge in highly inappropriate sexual thoughts, to look a pornography, engage in masturbation, skip miss on Sunday, be prideful, thin-skinned and egotistical, misuse God’s name and refuse charity to the poor. And many of these things can become mortal sin, or are, by nature mortal sin. There is an old saying: Nemo judex in sua causa (no one is a judge in his own case). Simply making declarations that “I don’t have mortal sin” might not be a judgment you should be making. Regular confession is a more humble approach, it is less legalistic and also brings forth the grace to avoid sin in the future.
4. I don’t know what to confess. This is a common problem today where moral formation in our culture and even among Catholics is poor and generally vague. But there is help available. The sight already mentioned How to Make a Good Confession has a pretty good examination of conscience. I have also posted before what I consider one of the best helps I have discovered in preparing for confession. It is called the Litany of Penance and Reparation and is available by simply clicking on the title. If you prefer a more biblical preparation trying reading this passage:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:5-17)
It’s pretty hard to read a passage like this and come away thinking we have little to confess.
The bottom line is this: Go to Confession. Make the time. We find time for everything else. Remember how Lent began with this plea on Ash Wednesday: We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!…Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 5:20, 6:2).
In today’s Gospel, Jesus, the Light of the World, brings light to a man born blind. If you are prepared to accept it, you are the man born blind, for all of us were born blind and in darkness. It was our baptism alone, and the faith it gave, which has rendered us able to see, and, by stages, to come more fully into the light. The man in today’s Gospel shows forth the stages of the Christian walk, out of darkness, and into the beautiful light of Christ. Let’s take a moment and observe these stages evident in this man, for we are the man.
I. The Problem that is Presented – We are introduced to man who was blind from his birth, he is quite incapable of seeing at all. The text says: As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
So there is the problem, he is blind, he has no vision. And this us. On account of Original Sin we had lost all spiritual vision. We could not see God, or endure the light of his glory. This lack of vision causes many to have no “vision” for their life. They don’t know why they were made, or what the true purpose of their existence is. Many cannot see past the sufferings of this world to the glory that waits. Still others have retreated into the material world and cannot see beyond it. Others have retreated even further, away from reality into the realm only of their mind, their own opinions and so forth. St. Augustine describes this condition of the human person as curvatus in se (man, turned in on himself). Yes, there is a blindness that imprisons many in the darkness. And even for us who do believe there are still areas where it is hard for us to see. Coming to see God more fully, and ourselves as we really are is a journey we are still on.
While the disciples want to dwell on secondary causes, Jesus sidesteps these concerns and focuses on solutions. The fact is he is blind, assessing blame is unproductive. Healing the man is uppermost. In a statement, dripping with irony, Jesus says that the works of God will be made visible in a blind man. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Cor 1:25). Yes, God can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines. So Jesus gets to work.
II. The Purification that is Prescribed – Having diagnosed the problem and noting that the man is in darkness, Jesus, the Light of the World, begins the work of healing this man. The text says, When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva,and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” – which means Sent -. So he went and washed, and came back able to see.
Hopefully, you can see baptism here. Jesus says, “Go and wash.” – He went, he washed and he came back able to see. Yes, this is baptism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of Baptism: This bath is called enlightenment, because those who receive this [catechetical] instruction are enlightened in their understanding… Having received in Baptism the Word, “the true light that enlightens every man,” the person baptized has been “enlightened,” he becomes a “son of light,” indeed, he becomes “light” himself.…(CCC1216).
Baptism is required, in order to truly see. It is no mere aside that John mentions the name of the pool to which the man goes: Siloam, a name which means “sent.” Jesus sends him, and He sends us. Baptism is required. Jesus says elsewhere: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
Notice he comes back ABLE to see. But just because you’re able to see does not mean you actually DO see. Right now I am able to see the Statue of liberty, my eyes work fine for that. But I do not yet see it. I have to make a journey to do that. Thus, the man here is able to see Jesus, but he does not yet see him. He has a journey to make in order to do that. Though able to see but he, like we, has a long way to go to see Jesus fully, and face to face. Baptism is not the end of our journey but the beginning of it. It renders us able to see. But we are still new born babes. We need to grow. We can see, but there is plenty we haven’t seen yet.
III. The Perception that is Partial – Hence we notice the man can see, but he still does not know much of the one who has enabled him to see. Notice what the text says: His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is, ” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” So they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” And they said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don’t know.”
So he’s able to see. But he hasn’t seen much. The man must grow in his faith to come to know who Jesus Really is. Look at how his partial perception is described. For now, he merely understands Jesus as “the man called Jesus.” To him, Jesus is just some “dude,” some “guy.” And then they ask where Jesus is, and all he can say is that he does “not know.” Hence although he able to see, he does not yet actually see Jesus.
And this describes a lot of Christians. They know about Jesus but they don’t know him. Many Catholics in the pews are “sacramentalized but unevangelized.” That is, they have received the sacraments, but have never really met Jesus Christ and do not know him in any more than an intellectual way. Many don’t even expect to know him. He is little better to them than “the man called Jesus.” They’ve heard of Jesus, and even know some basic facts, but he still remains a distant figure in their lives. And when asked questions about him, they respond like this man, “I don’t know.”
The man needs to make progress, and he will and we shall now see. Remember, you are the man.
IV. Progress Through Persecution and Pondering – The text goes on to show us the progress this formerly blind man makes in coming to know and finally see Jesus. It is interesting that this progress comes largely through persecution. Now persecution for us need not always be understood as being arrested and thrown in jail etc. Persecution can come in many forms such as puzzlement, expressed by relatives and friends, ridicule of Catholicism in the media, or even those internal voices that make us question our faith. But, in what ever form, persecution has a way of making us face the questions, and refine our understanding. Our vision gets clearer as we meet the challenges.
Notice the man’s progress up till now. He HAS been baptized and is now able to see. But he still knows little of Jesus calling only “the man called Jesus,” and not really knowing where Jesus is. But, he is about to grow, and he does so in several stages.
In stage one of his post-baptismal growthwe that his neighbors turn on him and bring him to the Pharisees who interrogate him because Jesus had healed him on a sabbath. The text says,
They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a Sabbath. So then, the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”
Thus notice what this persecution does for him. As he is challenged to say something about Jesus he moves beyond calling him “the man called Jesus” and describes Jesus as a “prophet.” He has gained some insight here. A prophet speaks for God and, Jesus is the Word, made flesh.
In Stage two of his post-baptismal growth we see that the Pharisees doubt his story and broaden their persecution to interrogate and threaten his fearful parents, and then they call him back and put him under oath and declare Jesus to be a sinner. The text says:
Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?” his parents answered and said, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Christ, he would be expelled from the synagogue. For this reason his parents said, “He is of age; question him.”
In stage three of his post-baptismal growth we note that the continuing persecution seems to make him grow even stronger and more able to withstand his opponents. Note his determination and fearlessness in the second interrogation he faces which includes ridiculing him and placing him under oath:
So a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner.” He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” So they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” They ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.
The result of this is to further deepen his vision of Jesus. For, at first, he saw him only as “the man called Jesus,” then he sees him as a prophet, now he goes further and sees him as “from God.” He’s progressing from sight to insight. His ability to see, given him in baptism is now resulting in even clearer vision.
This then, leads us to the final end of this gospel and this man’s journey.
V.Perfection that is Portrayed – He has been thrown out of the synagogue, as many early Christians were. He has endured the hatred of the world, and the loss of many things. Now, cast aside, and hated by the world, the Lord approaches him. The text says:
When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he.”He said, “I do believe, Lord, ” and he worshiped him.
Now his vision is plain. After all this, he finally sees. He sees, not only Jesus, but Who Jesus is. First he saw him only as “the man called Jesus.” Next a prophet. Next, he says, he is from God. But this final stage is the best of all. He actually sees Jesus and falls down to worship Him, Jesus is not only from God, he IS God. Christ has fully enlightened this man.
This is our journey, moving in stages to more perfectly know Jesus. One day we will see him face to face. But even before that time we are called to grow in faith by stages so that we see Jesus for who he is.
Where are you on this journey? Our vision is daily getting better if we are faithful but it is not yet complete. Scripture says
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. (1 Cor 13:12)
Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2)
My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God? (Psalm 42:2)
For now, make this journey. Journey in stages. Come to know who Jesus is.
I have it on the best of authority that the man, on his journey to Jesus, sang this song: Walk in the Light, beautiful light. Come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright. Walk all around us by day and by night, O Jesus the Light of the World!
I saw the movie “The Rite” today. I am not a professional movie reviewer but I will say, overall, I liked the movie. It’s most fundamental message is a good one: “You have to have faith to defeat the Devil.” The movie follows the journey of a young seminarian who is struggling in his faith. He is sent to Rome to take a course on exorcism. Beginning with great cynicism he is forced in stages to confront his own lack of faith and finds a breakthrough only when forced to decide to believe or not. I’ll leave the conclusion for your viewing.
I have also read the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcistby Matt Baglio. The movie is only very loosely based on the book. The main subject in the book is not a troubled seminarian but an experienced priest of strong faith. The greatest strength of the book is that it is carefully researched and draws deeply on the Catechism, scripture, and the official instructions of the Church for exorcists. The movie, as you might expect goes more for the sensational and takes a lot of cinematic liberty with Catholic rites. The book however is careful and balanced, depicting the Church as also careful and balanced when it comes to exorcism. I strongly recommend the book for any who wish to learn more of this ancient Rite of the Church.
I would like to say a few things about exorcism that are important to know and remember, especially when sensationalistic movies etc. take liberties. Allow these observations of mine in no particular order.
1. The Church is very careful when it comes to approving an exorcism. Natural causes must be ruled out as a likely cause of the behavior of the afflicted person. Bishops normally will not approve an exorcism unless, and until, psychotherapists and psychiatrists, as well as medical doctors have thoroughly examined the afflicted person and generally concur that natural or organic causes are not at work. There is no rush to perform formal exorcisms if the guidelines are followed. The Ritual stipulates that an exorcist may use these prayers only when he is “morally certain” that the person he is praying over is possessed. Numerous mental illnesses can be mistaken for possession. Hence a careful and thoughtful evaluation is necessary by experts who do not simply reject the notion of possession but who are also not the sort to quickly presume it either.
2. The Ritual mentions three signs that indicate the possible presence of a demon: abnormal strength, the ability to speak or understand a previously unknown language, and the knowledge of hidden things. There are also possible signs in an aversion to the sacred. For example, one may experience the inability to pray or say the name of Jesus or Mary, to go to mass, or to receive communion. Another important sign is some degree of unawareness or refusal in the afflicted one of the notion that they are possessed. If some one comes to a priest and says, “I am possessed.” That is usually a sign they are not.
3. The Devil’s activity is usually distinguished in four ways: infestation, oppression, obsession, and demonic possession.
Infestation is the presence of demonic activity in a location or object. In such cases a simple blessing or saying mass on the premises will be the approach that is used.
Oppression usually involves some form of physical attack. There are noted mysterious blows or scratches inexplicably appearing on the body. Some claim to be pushed down stairs or thrown out of bed by an invisible force.
Obsession has involves an intense and persistent attack on the mind of the victim. Generally these attacks include random and obsessive thoughts that, though often absurd, are so intense that the victim is unable to free himself. There is the torment that completely dominates their thoughts.
Possession. In a demonic possession, the Devil takes temporary control of a person’s body, speaking and acting through it without the person’s knowledge. This doesn’t last indefinitely, but occurs only during moments of crisis in which the victim enters a trance state. Generally speaking, after the crisis passes, the victim will not remember what transpired (cf The Rite, Baglio, Kindle ed Loc. 738-40)
4. At the heart of the Ritual of exorcism lie the prayers of exorcism themselves, which are broken up into two sections, known commonly as “deprecatory” and “imperative” In a deprecatory prayer, the exorcist entreats God to intervene on behalf of the person; the prayer begins “Hear, Holy Father …,” while in the imperative prayer, the exorcist himself commands the demon to depart in the name of Jesus Christ, “I adjure you, Satan…” or “I cast you out.”
5. A new rite of exorcism was issued in 1999which replaced the previous one dating to 1952. The Ritual of 1616 is also in wide circulation. Most exorcist make use of the 1999 ritual as they must but also add the prayers from the 1952 ritual. This is due to a rather wide consensus that the 1999 ritual was “defanged.” The prayers of the 1952 and 1616 rituals are more elaborate and more commanding. To use these prayers seems permitted by the 1999 rite which states Aliae formulae deprecativae et imperativae addi possunt….(other deprecative and imperative formulas are able to be added….).
6. Priests are not simply permitted to undertake a formal exorcism on their own. The prayers of exorcism are “reserved blessings” and may only be undertaken with the permission and direction of the Bishop. Guideline thirteen of the Ritual states that the bishop can only nominate a priest who is “distinguished in piety, learning, prudence, and integrity of life.” In addition, “The priest should carry out this work of charily confidently and humbly under the guidance of the Ordinary.” (cf The Rite, Kindle ed. Loc 1043-45)
7. It is my understanding that the appointed exorcist(s) of a diocese ought generally remain a confidential matter. It is a rather puzzling thing to me that so many exorcists, in recent years, have given public interviews and thus publically revealed their identity to third parties. This may not be strictly forbidden, but my own study and understanding of the matter is that confidentiality is the prudent and expected disposition in such things.
8. The process of an exorcism is not usually the compact, “one and done” event depicted in the movies. Exorcisms may be repeatedly performed over a number of weeks or months, even in some cases years. Sometimes relief will be had, only to have the demon return. It is also essential for the afflicted person to partake of the sacraments except where this is not possible. Confession and communion are an essential part of any deliverance.
9. Demons often hide at first and it may take a number of sessions for the exorcists to call forth a response from the demon. Usually, as the prayers, especially the imperative ones, weary the demon and assault it, it will begin to manifest evidence of its presence. When the demon is finally forced out into the open, the person will lose consciousness and enter into a trance. At this point, all movement and speech are controlled by the demon. During these times the person’s eyes will often roll up or down (the demon can’t bear to look at holy objects, including the priest), the hands will usually curl into claws, and the person will be taken over by a rage directed at sacred or holy objects. Typically, the person remembers nothing upon awakening (The Rite,Loc 1114-18)
10. There are not always strange or surreal things that take place in an exorcism. Often an individual may simply sit still and manifest little other than sighs, coughs or fidgeting. However there are also, in some cases, manifestations of a stronger sort, once the demon has revealed itself. These can include a strange, hoarse or deep voice, a significant change in personality, an argumentative and confrontational nature, the presence of foul odors, a strong aversion to holy water, the cross, or other sacred objects. In some cases the demon may manifest hidden knowledge of others in the room. It may also speak in languages unknown by the afflicted person. In some cases the demon may use the body of the possessed to fight back physically and often will manifest unusual strength. Finally, another sign of possession is that the afflicted person will often have little or no memory of their behavior while the demon was fully manifest.
11. Finally, a balance is evident and necessary in this matter and official Church teaching and policy reflects this careful balance.
On the one hand we, in the West, have become extremely rationalistic and reductionist. We seem to want to insist that EVERYTHING has a physical cause. With this mentality, every possible manifestation of demonic influence is usually dismissed as such and explained in terms of organic brain problems and mental illness. In many cases this may be true. But there are demons, Scripture is clear on this, and they do afflict us.
We must also avoid the tendency to easily attribute everything to the devil or demons.
The Church’s insistence on reasonably ruling out organic or natural causes is an important and cautionary measure. Making these investigations are like rumble strips that avoid a rush to conclude demons where there may be none. Great spiritual harm can be done to someone in rashly concluding possession, where there is none. Not only will other important medical and physcotherapeutic treatments be possibly delayed, but a person’s self-understanding can also be seriously distorted as well.
Careful, thorough and pastoral attention is due to those who are suspected of possible possession. The initial assessment is usually made by a parish priest. If he comes to suspect a possible case of possession, his next step ought to be to request an assessment under the auspices of the diocese. Only after a panel of experts, (to include a trained priest), recommends an exorcism , would the case come before the Bishop for a final decision. If he concurs, then the Bishop appoints the exorcist who begins the process and stays in suitable communication with the bishop. Sadly, by my reading, many dioceses are not well set up for such a process. In the west we have largely forsaken exorcism as a practice and such procedures have fallen by the wayside. Many American Bishops recently attended a workshop on the Rite of Exorcism and so we may see a careful process like to one describe re-established in more diocese. Time will tell.
In the end, see movies like “The Rite” as an exotic and extreme depiction of what is ultimately a pastoral ministry of the Church. At the heart of all ministry is love and mercy, the care of a Church who loves her children, the ministry of shepherds who tend to their flock with strength and gentleness.
ABCs 20/20 did a piece on exorcism a number of years ago. If you have the time, these videos are well worth watching. Overall the piece is fair and features an actual exorcism that the Archdiocese of New York allowed to be filmed with limits.
Today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord is a moment to reflect not only on the Lord’s baptism, but also on our own. For in an extended sense, when Christ is baptized, so are we, for we are members of his body. As Christ enters the water, he makes holy the water that will baptize us. He enters the water and we follow. And in these waters he acquires gifts to give us, as we shall see below.
Let’s examine this text in three stages:
1. The Fraternity of Baptism– The text says Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”
John is surely puzzled about Jesus requesting baptism. And likely so are we. Why? John’s baptism of repentance presumes the presence of sin. But the scriptures are clear, Jesus had no sin.
For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15 ).
You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin (1 John 3:5 ).
So why does Jesus ask for baptism? He will answer this in a moment.
But first let’s consider this dramatic fact: Jesus identifies with sinners, even if he never sinned. As he comes to the riverside he has no ego concerns. He is not embarrassed or ashamed that some might think him a sinner even though he was not. It is a remarkable humiliation he accepts to be found in the company of sinners like us, and even to be seen as one of us. He freely enters the waters and, to any outsider who knew him not, he would simply be numbered among the sinners, which he was not.
Consider how amazing this is. The Scripture says He is not ashamed to call us his Brethren (Heb 2:11). It also says God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).
Jesus ate with sinners to the scandal of many of the religious leaders: -This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” (Lk 15:2). Jesus was known as a friend of sinners, had pity on the woman caught in adultery, allowed a sinful woman to touch him and anoint his feet. He cast out demons and fought for sinners. He suffered and died for sinners in the way reserved for the worst criminals. He was crucified between two thieves and He was assigned a grave among the wicked (Is 53).
Praise God, Jesus is not ashamed to be found in our presence and to share a brotherhood with us. There is a great shedding of his glory in doing this. Again, Scripture says, [Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself (Phil 1:3)
2. The Fulfillment of Baptism – The text says: Jesus said to [John] in reply, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he allowed him.
The Fathers of the Church are of varying opinions as exactly what Christ means by fulfilling all righteousness.
Chromatius links the righteousness to all the sacraments and the salvation they confer: “This is true righteousness, that the Lord and Master should fulfill in himself every sacrament of our salvation. Therefore the Lord did not want to be baptized for his own sake but for ours” (tractate on Matthew 13.2)
Chrysostom links it to the end and fulfillment of the Old Covenant: He is in effect saying, Since then we have performed all the rest of the commandments, this Baptism alone remains. I have come to do away with the curse that is appointed for the transgression of the Law. So I must therefore fulfill it all and, having delivered you from its condemnation, bringing it to an end. (Homily on Matt 12.1)
Theodore of Mopsuestia sees Christ to mean that he is perfecting John’s Baptism which was only a symbol of the true Baptism. The Baptism of John…was perfect according to the precept of Law, but it was imperfect in that it did not supply remission of sin but merely made people fit of receiving the perfect one….And Jesus makes this clear saying, ‘For thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ (Fragment 13).
From another perspective, the word “righteousness” refers, biblically, to God’s fidelity to his promises. Thus, is this sense, Jesus would mean that his baptism would be the sign of the fulfillment of God’s righteous promise of salvation. God had promised this and God is faithful to his promises. Jesus’ baptism indicates this. How?
St. Maximus of Turin speaks of the Old Testament prefigurement of baptism at the Red sea and then shows how Christ fulfills it:
I understand the mystery as this. The column of fire went before the sons of Israel through the Red Sea so that they could follow on their brave journey; the column went first through the waters to prepare a path for those who followed……But Christ the Lord does all these things: in the column of fire He went through the sea before the sons of Israel; so now in the column of his body he goes through baptism before the Christian people….At the time of the Exodus the column…made a pathway through the waters; now it strengthens the footsteps of faith in the bath of baptism. (de sancta Epiphania 1.3)
So what God promised in the in the Old Testament by way of prefigurement he now fulfils in Christ. They were delivered from the slavery of Egypt as the column led them through the waters. But more wonderfully, we are delivered from the slavery to sin as the column of Christ’s body leads us through the waters of baptism. God’s righteousness is his fidelity to his promises. Hence Jesus says, in his baptism and all it signifies (his death and resurrection) he has come to fulfill all righteous and he thus fulfills the promises made by God at the Red Sea and throughout the Old Testament.
3. The Four Gifts of Baptism– The Text says, After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.“
Eph 5:30 says we are members of Christ’s body. Thus when Jesus goes into the water we go with him. And in going there he acquires four gifts on our behalf as this text sets them forth. Lets look at the four gifts he acquires on our behalf:
Access – the heavens are opened . The heavens and paradise had been closed to us after Original Sin. But now, at Jesus’ baptism, the text says the heavens are opened. Jesus acquires this gift for us. So, at our baptism, the heavens open for us and we have access to the Father and to the heavenly places. Scripture says: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, (Romans 5:1) It also says, For through Jesus we have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph 2:17). Hence the heavens are opened also at our own Baptism and we have access to the Father.
Anointing –the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove – Here too, Jesus acquires the Gift of the Holy Spirit for us. In Baptism we are not just washed of sins, but we also become temples of the Holy Spirit. After baptism there is the anointing with chrism which signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit. For adults this is Confirmation. But even for infants, there is an anointing at baptism to recognize that the Spirit of God dwells in the baptized as in a temple. Scripture says, Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
Acknowledgment – this is my beloved Son. Jesus receives this acknowledgment from his Father for the faith of those who heard, but also to acquire this gift for us. In our own Baptism we become the children of God. Since we become members of Christ’s body, we now have the status of sons of God. On the day of your Baptism the heavenly Father acknowledged you as his own dear Child. Scripture says: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26)
Approval – I am well pleased . Jesus had always pleased his Father. But now he acquires this gift for you as well. Our own Baptism gives us sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is the grace to be holy and pleasing to God. Scripture says, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens, as he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Eph 1:1-3)
Thus, at his Baptism, Christ acquired these gifts for us so that our own Baptism we could receive them. Consider well the glorious gift of your Baptism. Perhaps you know the exact day. It should be a day as highly celebrated as your birthday. Christ is baptized for our sakes, not his own. All these gifts had always been his. Now, in his baptism he fulfills God’s righteousness by going into the water to get them for you. It’s alright to say, “Hallelujah!”