Six or seven sacraments?
Are there six or seven Sacraments? Answer: Seven.
Yet, in practice, for many Catholics nowadays, there are only six. The Sacrament of Confession (Penance, Reconciliation) has to a very great extent vanished from their lives; they rarely, if ever, darken the door of the confession. Is that good or bad?
It has to be bad, since our Lord has given us this Sacrament on a very special occasion and in very special circumstances: on the day of His Resurrection, on Easter Sunday night, in the very same room in which He gave us His Body and Blood three nights before.
You remember how He appeared to his apostles on that glorious evening when they had bolted themselves into the Upper Room, so that they would be safe from possible attacks on their lives following the crucifixion of their Master. Suddenly our Lord is with them and his first words are "Peace be with you. Receive the Holy Spirit: Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven" (St John, 20:21-23).
So the disappearance, or halfdisappearance of confession from the lives of many Catholics is, in effect, and in practice the refusal to accept a very special gift our Lord has given to them, n a very special occasion, the very day of His Resurrection.
For the conclusion is unavoidabe: He means Confession to be a very important way of sharing with us the saving power of his Resurrection. And since He has given us the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion in the very same Upper Room, He has in that way as well as in other ways, established a link between the two Sacraments.
Yet there is abundant evidence that nowadays this Sacrament is not being used nearly as much as it used to be. Why? There are various suggested reasons, but one very important reason is the loss of the sense of sin and the corresponding forgetfulness of our great need of God's forgiveness and mercy. That can easily happen: since we live in a world where God's laws are widely disregarded, it's all too easy for us to come to accept the standards of the world.
But the only conclusion we can come to from the disregard of God's laws is that people have changed: it doesn't mean that God and his laws have changed, no matter how many people disregard those laws: For God is not influenced by opinion polls; He doesn't change his laws when the latest Gallup poll is published!
And so we need, desperately need, to remind ourselves that to be at odds with God, to turn away from Him by serious sin is a very great evil, the greatest of all possible evils. There is no other harm we can do ourselves that can be remotely compared with this harm.
But the harm involved in serious sin is one for which there is a remedy: a sincere Confession, as well as a genuine and thorough-going determination, despite our awareness of our human weakness, not to offend God in the future and to keep clear of what we know to be occasions of sin. (This determination, this resolve, is vital; without it our sorrow cannot be genuine).
For in giving us this Sacrament our Lord clearly intends that we use it. He means it to be a valuable help on our path to Heaven, together with the sacrament of Holy Communion. Each of the other five Sacraments, it is true, has its own importance, but none of them can be used with anything like the frequency of Confession, and Holy Communion.
Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, are each strictly once in a lifetime Sacraments. Anointing and Matrimony are two _Sacraments_ which most Catholics receive once in a lifetime — if ever that' So Confession and Holy Communion are the key Sacraments where our day to day living is concerned.
And while the Church recommends frequent Holy Communion and teaches that we are not necessarily bound to go to Confession before every Holy Communion, she also teaches that we are, except in rare and very exceptional circumstances, obliged to go to Confession before receiving Holy Communion if we have committed a serious sin.
For, remember, Confession is a distinct Sacrament from Holy Communion: we receive help and graces in confession that we do not receive in Holy Communion. And not least of these graces is that if we are already in the state of grace our regular Confession makes our Holy Communion more profitable and more fruitful; while if we had been in the state of serious sin, we can now, after a Confession made with firm purpose of amendment, receive the Body of Christ profitably, fruitfully, worthily: in a state of grace. We remove ourselves from the danger, the very real danger nowadays, of a sacrilegious Holy Communion.
Read also the words of Pope John Paul II: In addressing the Canadian Bishops, he emphasized, as he has often done, the importance of "frequent and individual confession of sins". He also asked the Bishops to help their priests "to have an ever greater appreciation of the splendid ministry of theirs as confessors... Other works, for lack of time, may have to be postponed or even abandoned, but not the confessional".
Well may we apply to the Sacrament of Confession the words spoken by our Lord to the Samaritan woman: "If you but knew the gift of God" (St John, 4:10), a gift that is lavished upon us through the priest's words of absolution and the concluding prayer of the Sacrament: "Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace: and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . ."
"May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of all the Saints, whatever good you do and suffering you endure, heal your sins, help you to grow in holiness and reward you with eternal life."
1 sometimes wonder how today's journalists, had we been
working in the first century, would have reported on meetings held by St Paul. The reality is that we probably mostly would not have bothered. Busy news editors are not noticeably enthusiastic about giving many column inches to wandering preachers of breakaway religious sects who claim that their leaders have performed miracles.
Not that is, unless there is some controversy — for instance, a member of the political or religious establishment of the day accuses the sect of breaking up families or brainwashing 15 year olds. The staple diet of the pages of most news desks are the doings and sayings of those who wield power in society — the emperor, the senate, the army padded out with so-called "human interest" stories about the great and not so great.
But at least one event in St Paul's travels that may well have stirred interest in the morning
news meeting of the Roman Daily Express, the Empire Times
or the Roman Broadcasting Corporation was his visit to Ephesus. The interest would have focussed on employment, trade unions and law and order. Imagine the headline: "Jewish sect provokes riot". The story might have run like this: "Several thousand Ephesian trade unionists this morning demonstrated against a Jewish sect which they believe is threatening their livelihood. The workers belong to the guild of silversmiths who make shrines for the goddess Diana. At a meeting in Ephesus, they were told by their president Demetrius that a wandering Jewish preacher called Paul had said that gods made with human hands were not gods at all.
Demetrius said that if people took notice of this sort of talk, not only would the silversmiths' standard of living be ruined, but the temples of Diana would be empty, and the civilised world destroyed. Two of Paul's colleagues were shouted down when they attempted to speak. For two hours the crowd shouted, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians".
"Members of the Jewish sect call themselves followers of the Way. The Way was started by a vagrant Galilean peasant who was crucified some years ago in Jerusalem for stirring up political trouble. His followers claim he performed miracles, healings and exorcisms, and that he rose from the dead. The sect denies allegations of cannibalism. Paul is now reported to have fled Ephesus for Macedonia."
That report reveals several characteristics of a typical news story as currently written by 20th century journalists. First this particular story has been chosen because it deals with news (that is, something that is first and foremost new, but is also interesting and/or