We read from the letter of James about how anointing was already established by the time he wrote his letter — sometime in the first century.
“Is anyone ill among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And a prayer of faith shall save the infirm, and the Lord shall alleviate him. And if he has sins, these shall be forgiven him.” (James 5:14-15).
And we see in the healing miracles of Jesus that he used touch as part of it. That gift of healing was passed on to the Apostles, as we see Peter heal the sick in the Acts of the Apostles. In chapter 3, he is asked for alms by a lame man, and he heals him by calling on the name of Jesus. (Acts 3:6)
Anointing of the Sick anoints chronically ill, sick, injured, or dying persons, offering forgiveness from sin, abundant grace, and healing in body and soul. It came to be called Extreme Unction over the years because it was gradually reserved for those at the point of death. After the Second Vatican Council, the Holy See clarified that this sacramental rite was for those who are seriously ill.
Because there is in the sacrament a forgiveness of sins, only priests and bishops can celebrate it. Consider the healing of the paralytic in Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” When challenged by the Pharisees, he says, “That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, pick up your mat and go.” (Mt 9:6, Mk 2:10, Lk 5:24) So, even in the sacrament of physical healing, the connection to sin, both actual sins and original sin, is inescapable. We do not contract cancer by our own actual sin, but our physical illness is a result of humanity’s spiritual illness that comes to us from Adam and Eve.
The sacrament of anointing the sick is different from the gift of miraculous healing. God gives that to individuals without regard to their status as clergy or lay, and it is just the power of the Holy Spirit working through his agents.
Viaticum is the traditional Last Rites. When someone is truly at the point of death, a priest will hear their confession, anoint them, and give them the Eucharist as preparation for the end of their natural life and their entry into the afterlife.
Confession is the way Catholics who have sinned grievously can be renewed and restored to a right relationship with God and neighbor. Grievous sins are also called mortal sins because they are serious enough to have separated us from God and his Church. They mean we are spiritually dead. We are back to the place we were before Baptism. Just as Baptism fixes original sin, Confession fixes actual sin.
It is called Confession because a necessary act in the Sacrament is the verbal, audible, confession of the sins for which the penitent is seeking absolution. It is called Reconciliation because it reconciles the penitent to God and the Church.
It involves satisfaction because every sin is a violation of justice, and justice demands recompense or satisfaction for the injury done through sin.
The story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah is a great way for us to think about these elements. What David did was at least threefold. He was not where he was supposed to be as a King for it was the time when kings go to war but he was lounging around the palace instead. He lusted after a beautiful woman he saw bathing, and he committed adultery by sleeping with her even though she was another man’s wife. Then he committed murder in an effort to cover his other crimes when he made sure Uriah was placed where the fighting was most fierce.
The second half of the story highlights elements of a good confession. When the prophet Nathan was sent by God to prick David’s conscience with a story about a rich man stealing a poor man’s only sheep, David is contrite. He says “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan says that the “Lord has put away your sin.” There we see absolution. Then Nathan explains that David will spend the rest of his life on a war footing instead of enjoying peace, and the baby will become sick and die. There we see satisfaction. David knows that his sin against Uriah is ultimately a sin against God. But he did harm to not only God but also his neighbor, and so there must be satisfaction towards both God and neighbor.
The priest is the minister of the sacrament, receiving his authority from the Apostles who received it from Jesus. John recounts this in chapter 20, where not did he institute the Eucharist but also the priesthood. And Matthew includes the words Jesus spoke a week after his resurrection when he showed Thomas the wounds in hands and his side. When thinking about the minister, we should never lose sight of the sacrament. God is giving to us his sanctifying grace, and he is using the minister as mediator just as he used angels and prophets to send his word to his people throughout salvation history. When we are confessing our sins, we are confessing to God through his minister, and the minister knows he is just as much of a sinner as we are. But by the authority of his ordination, the minister (the priest) can give us what we seek: absolution of our sins and reconciliation with God and his Church.
At the end of the rite, the priest will invite the penitent to make an act of contrition. The traditional prayer is:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.
In this prayer, we see the difference between perfect contrition and imperfect contrition, which is also called attrition. When we are sorry because we dread the loss of heaven or the pains of hell, we are imperfectly contrite. It is when we declare that the main offense is to have offended God that we are perfectly contrite. In Psalm 51, which David wrote after Nathan came to him about Bathsheba, it says, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight.” (Ps 51:4) David knows that he has sinned against Uriah by stealing his wife and then having him killed to cover up his other sins. But he knows the greater sin is against God. When we understand that every sin is an injustice to God, then we are already in a better state of contrition.
When the penitent goes into the confessional, he goes understanding that nothing he says will be shared by the priest. He, too, should respect the seal and reveal nothing. But the priest cannot reveal anything to any authority, and this includes hearing somebody confess to a murder. The priest might try to convince the penitent to confess to the police, but he cannot go himself and report what he heard. Any priest who breaks the seal can only receive absolution of that sin from the Holy Father.
Confession forgives any sins committed after Baptism. But if you are not repentant, then you are not forgiven. Only a Bishop or a priest can absolve sins in Confession. An actual mortal sin occurs when one does something that is seriously immoral, with full deliberation and knowledge. A Catholic who has committed a mortal sin should not receive Holy Communion until he has received absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation. To be forgiven, admit your sin in Confession, with true sorrow (regret for sin) and repentance (a turning away from sin, toward the love of God and neighbor). Confession restores the state of salvific grace lost by actual mortal sin.
Indulgences are the term we use to try and capture the mystical reality that the merits of Christ are infinite and were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin. And there is a holy exchange between the Church Militant, the Church Suffering, and the Church Triumphant, as we see when we ask the saints in heaven to pray for us, and when we pray for the souls in Purgatory.
Indulgences are those occasions when the treasury of merits is opened to individual Christians for the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Since justice demands satisfaction for sins, the souls in purgatory are making satisfaction for the sins they committed even though those sins were forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation. When we get to Purgatory, we will be happy because we know we are going to Heaven, but we will be in Purgatory until we have wiped our account clean and are ready to be with Jesus in Heaven. Indulgences are somebody paying part of our tab with some of the merits of the Saints.
You can see how this beautiful sharing could become commercialized by an unscrupulous bishop who needed money and began to permit the exchange of money for indulgences. This is what upset Martin Luther, among other things.