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Chapter 32: Penance, Anointing, and the Life of Self-denial


Vatican II favors the metaphor of Christian life as a pilgrimage. Christians follow Jesus’ path through trials, oppression, suffering, and endurance to glory (see LG 7). The Church as a whole is like a pilgrim in an alien country, pressing on despite persecution, consoled by God, proclaiming Jesus, overcoming obstacles by the Spirit’s power, faithfully revealing Jesus’ truth and love until he comes in glory (see LG 8 and 9). The goal of the Church’s pilgrimage is heavenly fulfillment, and only in this perspective can she be understood (see LG 48). Even the obligation to cultivate human goods in this world is grounded in the more fundamental Christian obligation to seek heavenly things (see GS 38, 57).

This pilgrimage by the Church and each of her members is a hard journey. Its successful completion is a certainty for the Church, but that is not necessarily the case for us individually. Disaster is possible. One can die along the way. And, regardless of what else happens, the day of the Lord is coming, a day of judgment which can spell doom (see LG 48). Eternal salvation is at stake at every moment of one’s earthly pilgrimage. Each Christian must work out his or her personal salvation in fear and trembling (see Phil 2.12).

Despite the clear teaching of Vatican II, the passing character of this life and the reality of heaven and hell have in practice been deemphasized and sometimes ignored since the Council. Much attention—rightly—goes to faith and hope. But there is a tendency to pass over the need to build a life of Christian performance on a sound foundation of living faith. The teaching of the Council of Trent, that every Catholic “ought to keep severity and judgment in view as well as mercy and goodness” and none should acquit himself or herself (DS 1549/810; cf. Rom 2.4–11), receives scant acknowledgment in preaching and religious instruction, which frequently are one-sided at best.

In fact, however, the way of the Lord Jesus, the pilgrimage of Christian life, must be a way of self-denial. This is necessary for us not only as it was for him—to make up for the sins of others—but to make up for our own sins, to heal the effects of sin in ourselves, to strengthen ourselves for a more adequate effort, to free ourselves from all that holds us back on our journey. The sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick organize Christian life from this point of view.

Old Testament experience was shaped by the seemingly endless journey of God’s people traveling toward their promised homeland. It began with Abraham, who was called by God to leave his home. He responded with faith. His traveling, like that of others called by God, was symbolic: “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Heb 11.13–16). Detaching themselves from what had seemed secure, God’s people always were compelled to move on. Christians, too, must leave everything behind to follow Jesus and in him find fulfillment. To be a Christian is to be a member of a people perpetually on pilgrimage. Thus the injunction: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3.2).

For many people in the West, life has been comparatively comfortable since World War II. Pilgrimage means little in the jet age, especially if the world’s troubles have little personal impact. Catholics must remember that the journey to heaven will be hard, obstacles must be overcome, much which is good must be left behind, the sacrifices to be made and the sufferings to be endured cannot be limited in advance, there is no insurance against the cross, the worldly environment through which we travel is hostile and can be seductive, and the Church is not a vehicle to spare her members the hardships of travel by transporting them while they sleep.

Perseverance is necessary, and a special grace is required for it (see DS 1572/832; S.t., 1–2, q. 109, a. 10). This gift will be given to those who are faithful to the graces they receive. Yet we must be careful. Trent teaches that salvation is worked out not only in fear and trembling, but “in labors, in sleepless nights, in almsgiving, in prayers and offerings, in fastings, and in chastity”; Christians “should be in dread about the battle they must wage with the flesh, the world, and the devil” (DS 1541/806).

Sin is more than an immoral act which must be amended. All sin requires reparation, and the whole of Christian life requires self-denial. Every act of self-denial can serve as reparation for sin, and such reparation is suitably centered in the sacrament of penance. Moreover, this sacrament is an apt way of overcoming venial sin. The sacrament of the anointing of the sick completes penance by consecrating the Christian for the final act of reparation—suffering and death with Jesus.