"The Christian at least has the last sacraments administered a few hours in advance [of death].                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Sigmund Freud[1]

Catholics have always had the security of knowing that, when in danger of death, the Church provided them with a saving Sacrament of a most powerful nature. Indeed, many a Catholic family is familiar with the story of some lapsed member, away from the Sacraments for years and even decades, who at the last moment asked for the priest in order to receive the "last rites." Will such be possible in the future? One may be permitted to doubt it.

What are the effects of Extreme Unction (usually provided after Confession and in association with the Holy Viaticum or the Sacred Species.)? They are as varied as they are potent. Their "end" or "purpose" is said to be "the perfect healing of the soul," and it surely has the inherent power to attain its end in those who pose no obstacle to the grace it conveys. As the Council of Trent explains, "this effect is the grace of the Holy Ghost, Whose unction blots out sins, if any remain to be expiated, and the consequences of sin, and alleviates and strengthens the soul of the sick person, by exciting in him a great confidence in the divine mercy, sustained by which he bears more lightly the troubles and sufferings of disease, and more easily resists the temptations of the demon lying in wait for his heel;[2] and sometimes, when it is expedient for the soul's salvation, recovers bodily health." These effects are usually grouped under four headings.


The first effect is the Remission of sins which follows from the passage in St. James: "If anyone be in a state of sin, his sins are forgiven him," and which is indeed confirmed by the very "form" of the Sacrament which states "Indulgeat tibi Dominus... quidquid...deliquisti... (May God pardon thee whatever sins thou hast committed..."). Of course, it is true that mortal sins are forgiven by Confession, Absolution and Penance - but it is not unusual that a sick man, being weak or unconscious, cannot confess; yet providing he places no obstacle to the infusion of Grace into his soul (and implicitly has a proper intention), than through this Sacrament, even if he cannot confess, he is still washed clean of sin and regains his Baptismal purity. To such an individual Extreme Unction becomes the pillar of salvation. It can be argued that conditional Absolution obviates the need for this final Sacrament, but that would be to ignore its other effects.


 Secondly, this Sacrament remits temporal punishment due to us for our sins. It was, as Father Kilker says, "instituted for the perfect healing of the soul with a view to its immediate entrance into glory, unless indeed the all-knowing master of Life and Death should deem the restoration of bodily health  more expedient. Consequently, it must accomplish the removal of all disabilities, it must render us fit to enter our heavenly home without delay. Were this not so, it would be absurd to say that the Sacrament is "consummativum spiritualis curationis."[3] This doctrine must not however be construed to mean that when Extreme Unction is received, the remission of the entire temporal debt infallibly occurs. Often the subject blocks the completeness of the effect by defective and impeding dispositions. But, if the subject has in every way the correct disposition and devotion, it must be conceded that he receives the plenissimam poenarum relaxationem - the complete remission of temporal punishment.


The third and terribly important effect is what is called the comfortatio animae: or the "Comforting of the Soul." The approach of death with its distressing pains, its physical prostration and the associated mental disquietude, can truly be a most appalling experience. Man dreads few things as much as this "moment of truth." He reviews his past actions and, as it says in the Book of Wisdom, "they shall come with fear at the thought of their sins, and their iniquities shall stand against them to convict them." At the same time he recognizes that soon he must stand before the Judgment Seat of God. It is precisely at this time that the Devil uses all his powers and wiles to attack the soul. As the Catechism of the Council of Trent puts it: "although the enemy of the human race never ceases, while we live, to meditate our ruin and destruction, yet at no time does he more violently use every effort utterly to destroy us, and if possible, to deprive us of all hope of divine mercy, then when he sees the last day of life approach." Now the third effect of this Sacrament is "to free the minds of the faithful from this solicitude, and to fill the soul with pious and holy joy." It further provides "arms and strength... to the faithful... to enable them to break the violence and impetuosity of the adversary, and to fight bravely against him..." Who of us can be so presumptuous as not ardently to desire such assistance?

Fourthly, it is a doctrine of our faith that one of the effects of Extreme Unction is the restoring of bodily health, if recovery is expedient for the soul's welfare. As a physician in practice I can testify to this effect without hesitation.


                   Lastly, though not strictly speaking a theological effect, the administration of the Sacrament under traditional circumstances, made it perfectly plain to the individual concerned that he was facing death. He could no longer hide from himself the reality of his situation. He was forced, as it were, to the battlefield, and not allowed to drift away in some gently morphinized dream that "everything will be all right." And how often did physicians and relatives see the wonderful effects this Sacrament worked upon the souls of those who received it - turning as it were, their last moments on earth into a foretaste of that heavenly peace and glory that is in fact, offered to every soul.






According to Father Kilker, "the remote matter of Extreme Unction is oil of olives. The "proximate matter" is the oil of olives blessed by the Bishop. This the Council of Trent definitely defined. "Intellexit enim Ecclesia materiam esse oleum ab episcopo benedictum" (Session XIV). There is no doubt about what St. James meant when he said "oil of olives" (V:14). Initially the oil of the sick could be blessed by priests and even saintly laymen, but ever since the Council of Châlons in 813 canon law requires that it be blessed by a Bishop. In the Eastern Church it is customary for the oil to be blessed by the priest in the house of the sick person.

In the Latin church it has ever been the custom to employ pure unadulterated olive oil, to which a fragrant oleoresin called Balm or Balsam has been added. In some Eastern rites the practice of adding a little water as a symbol of Baptism, or of a little wine in memory of the good Samaritan, or even of the dust of the sepulchre of some saint, has long been in vogue.

Now this oil is blessed by the Bishop at the magnificent Mass of Maundy Thursday in Holy Week - a Mass so sacred that the Bishop is traditionally attended and assisted by twelve priests, seven deacons and seven sub-deacons in order to say it properly. The prayer reads: Emitte, quaesumus Domine, Spiritum sanctum tuum Paraclitum de coelis in hanc pinguedinem olivae, quam de viridi ligno producere dignatus es and refectionem mentis et corporis..." ("Send forth we pray, Your Holy Spirit, the Paraclite, from heaven into this rich substance of oil..." For Catholics the remote matter of Extreme Unction remains oil of olives and the proximate mattter, "the anointing with oil blessed by a bishop.


What then is the "matter" specified by Paul VI? in his new Rite of Anointing and Pastoral Care of the Sick (promulgated November 30, 1972)?[4] The answer is any oil of plant origin - and pray - what oil is ultimately not of plant origin? Axle-grease, Vaseline and Mazola oil can satisfy the requirement. Further, the oil can be blessed by any priest who has the "faculty," and this faculty has been extended by the "Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy" to any priest "where didactic or catechetical reasons prompt it." The blessing has of course also been changed. No longer is the Holy Spirit invoked, but rather, it now reads: "May your blessing come upon all who are anointed with this oil, that they may be freed from pain and illness and made well again in body and mind and soul." Notice also that the emphasis is almost entirely on the healing of illness, and not on the forgiveness of sins.


Let us next consider the "Form" of the Sacrament, or the words that the priest uses when anointing the patient "in danger of death." The traditional words are: "PER ISTAM SANCTAM UNCTIONEM ET SUAM PIISSIMAM MISERICORDIAM, INDULGEAT TIBI DOMINUS QUIDQUID PER... DELIQUISTI" ("Through this Holy Unction or oil, and through the great goodness of His mercy, may God pardon thee whatever sins thou hast committed [by evil use of sight - smell, touch etc. - depending on the organ anointed.") Needless to say, this form also has been changed by the post-Conciliar Church to "PER ISTAM SANCTAM UNCTIONEM ET SUAM PIISSIMAM MISERICORDIAM ADIUVET TE DOMINUS GRATIA SPRITUS SANCTI, UT A PECCATIS LIBERATUM TE SOLVAT ADQUE PROPITIUS ALLEVIAT." The semi-official translation given out through the Holy See Press Office is: "Through this holy anointing and His most loving mercy, may the Lord assist you by the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that when you have been freed from your sins, he may save you and in his goodness raise you up." Another translation taken from Father Keating's article is closer to the original:


 "Through this holy anointing and His great love for you, may the Lord who freed you from sin, heal you and extend his saving grace to you..."[5] The official translation provided in DOL 408 is "through this holy anointing may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up."

Once again we must ask whether this change in the form is substantial. Pre Vatican II theologians are virtually unanimous in stating that the essential words of the form - the words that convey its essential meaning and are therefore "substantial" - are "INDULGEAT TIBI DOMINUS" - may God pardon thee. Most also insist upon "quidquid deliquisti" and "sanctam unctionem." After all, as Leo XIII said, "the sacraments... ought... to signify the grace which they effect" if they are to "effect what they signify." And in the present situation this is the health of the soul which is effected by strengthening of the soul through grace and by the remission of sins..." (Summa, III, Suppl. 29, 1). Now the new form OMITS all these critical words, and only asks that God "heal" one. While it is to be admitted that throughout history several valid forms have been in use, since the Council of Florence the form has been fixed. If some of these alternative forms used the word "parcat," "remittat," or even "sanat" in the place of "indulgeat," this in no way affected the substance of the form. However, to OMIT the critical phrase entirely is to remove from the "Form" its ability to absolve. What results is a change in "meaning," and to make a change of such a "substantial" nature almost certainly renders the form invalid. Even if the "blessing" is preceded by a valid absolution - which in many cases is also questionable - one is deprived of the other sacramental effects that are so important.[6] Should an older priest desire to use the traditional form, he should know that it is specifically forbidden by Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution.


The post-Conciliar rite is named "Anointing of the Sick." Clearly then, if the post-Conciliar "blessing" is upon the sick, the ersatz sacrament should no longer be limited to those "in danger of death." Twice during the Second Vatican Council the Fathers rejected suggestions that the requirement of "danger of death" for the reception of the Anointing be omitted. As Father Keating points out however, "the new rite does what the Council was not able to do."[7] In contrast to the negative wording of Canon 940 which states "Extreme Unction is not able to be offered except to the faithful, who, having attained the use of reason, fall into the danger of death from illness or old age," the new rite can be administered to those who are ill, but in no danger of death whatsoever. Furthermore, in so far as the Constitution on the Liturgy stresses that "whenever rites, according to their specific nature, make provision for communal celebrations involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, as far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and quasi-private." Thus it follows that officially, this new so-called "Sacrament" can be given communally. Indeed, in many parishes, it is the custom to gather all the mildly infirm and aged "senior citizens" together in the parish hall, and to bestow this "blessing" upon them - to be followed by coffee and cake!

It is to be admitted that the Apostle James specified the "sick." "Is any man sick 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" (James V:14-14). But it is a matter of common sense that one cannot and should not call the priests for every trivial complaint. The standard practice of the Church throughout history has been to understand by the "sick," those in danger of death - those about to undergo major surgery, those who have had a heart attack etc. The application of the sacrament to a more general category cannot but trivialize it in the minds of the faithful. And indeed, one sees this in that nurses of presumably Catholic background rarely if ever bother to call a priest even when a patient in the hospital is truly in danger of death.[8] Such is not to be wondered at when they are taught that "Anointing of the Sick is a ritual moment which makes visible and present to the sick and the whole community an image of who we are as Church, that is, a community of mutual healing and support."[9]


In actual practice several other "modifications" are allowed for. According to one study, "the sick person and all those present may receive communion under both kinds... If the sick person is not confined to bed, he may receive the sacrament of anointing in the church or some other fitting place, where there is a suitable chair or place prepared for him and enough room for his relatives and friends to take part." The same document continues to state that "in hospitals the priest should consider other sick people": whether they should be included in the celebration, or if they are not Christians whether they might be offended." And so, even in its mitigated form the "president" is to be careful not to offend the Protestants, even if it means depriving a Catholic soul of what he believes (?) is a critical sacrament![10]

In the traditional rite the priest arrived in a subdued manner, carrying the Blessed Sacrament in his pyx, and spoke only when necessary. Those who knew and understood his function knelt before him (for he carried the Blessed Sacrament), and those caring for the patient prepared a table by the bed with lighted candles and a crucifix. Whenever possible the priest was accompanied by an acolyte who rang a bell so the faithful would not accidentally slight our Lord. On arriving he would say three short appropriate prayers, the Confiteor, (if appropriate, listen to the patient's confession and give him Absolution[11]), and then immediately administer the Viaticum. Then with his right hand extended over the head of the patient he said "In the name of the Father + and the Son + and the Holy Ghost +, be there quenched in thee all power of the devil, through the laying on of my hands, and through the invocation of the glorious and holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God, her illustrious spouse Joseph, and all the holy Angels, Archangels, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins, and all the Saints, Amen." Then with his thumb dipped in the Holy Oils, he anointed the sick in the form of the Cross on parts described in the rite above. This was followed with a short responsory prayer (including the Lord's Prayer) and three additional, highly specific prayers for the sick person. Because he was carrying Our Lord's Body, the priest did not stop to chat or have coffee, but returned as quickly as possible to the sacristy.

In the new rite the priest arrives - no longer necessarily even dressed as a priest - and greets one and all in a friendly manner. Then instead of doing what he came for, he makes a speech to let all know why he came. This is followed by a "penitential rite" in place of the Confiteor. According to the instructions "whenever possible, Viaticum should be received within mass" (which of course poses no difficulty as the Novus Ordo only requires a table). There follows a short litany which may be transferred to after the anointing, or "at some other point." Now he lays his hands on the sick person in silence, for the various above mentioned prayers are no longer required. As for the anointing, it is limited to the forehead and hands, and this is done with the new "blessing" of dubious sacramental efficacy. This is followed by a prayer "best suited to the person's condition." (Hutton Gibson suggests "Now I lay me down to sleep.") The service ends with the Lord's Prayer and a blessing.


Lest this description seem exaggerated, allow me to give the suggested manner of acting according to Father Richstatter, a well known expert on liturgical practice. After suggesting that Confession or the Viaticum (Eucharist)  not be administered at the same time as the Sacrament for the Sick, he  describes the new way of doing things:


"The rite starts much as Mass does: with prayers to gather us into the presence of Christ and of one another, and to recall our continuing need for healing. Holy water may be used to remind us that we have been baptized into the Christ who suffered for us and has transformed our suffering into victory. All sacraments begin with readings from the Bible. The number and length of the readings (and of the homily and general intercessions) will depend on the circumstances. The rite is similar to the first part of Sunday Mass."

"After the litany of intercessions the priest will lay his hands on your head. Together with all present he will pray silently for your healing. Next he will bless God for the gift of oil: "God of all consolation... make this oil a remedy for all who are anointed with it; heal them in body, in soul and in spirit, and deliver them from every affliction.' The the priest will anoint you with the blessed oil. First he will make the sign of the cross with the oil on your forehead, saying: 'Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help youwith the grace of the Holy Spirit.' All respond: 'Amen.' the priest will ask that you present the palms of your hands to him and he will anoint them with the sign of the cross: 'may the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.' All respond: 'Amen.' You may find it helpful to rub your hands together and pray that as the oil penetrates and soothes your skin, so may the healing of Christ penetrate and heal any weakness or affliction."

Yet another change! In former times the priest would anoint and administer Extreme Unction "conditionally" to a person who was already dead - up to a limited time of about three hours. This was only  reasonable because the patient could die while awaiting the arrival of the priest, and because no one presumed to know at just what point the soul departed from the body.[12] Now, "when a priest is called to attend those who are already dead, he should not administer the Sacrament of anointing. Instead, he should pray for them, asking that God forgive their sins and graciously receive them into the Kingdom." One would think that even if the president didn't personally believe in the sacramental effects produced, he would administer the rite to console the next of kin. In any event, those who believe in the efficacy of this new rite better be sure they call the president in time.


It is interesting in passing to quote Paul VI's description of the new rite. According to him "the celebration of this sacrament consists especially in the laying on of hands by priests of the Church, the offering of the prayer of faith, and the anointing of the sick with oil made holy by God's blessing." But have no fear, for Paul VI continues: "This rite signifies the grace of the sacrament and confers it." Despite his assurances, one may reasonably be allowed to doubt if the new rite conveys anything more than a blessing.

It should not be thought that the Church has any objection to the blessing of the sick. Indeed the Roman ritual contains three such blessings: There is an extended  blessing with a relic of the true Cross in honor of St. Benedict and St. Maurice, and there is an "ordinary" blessing for both adults and for children.[13] This is but further evidence that there was no need to change the Sacrament into yet another such blessing.





Returning to more serious considerations, let us remember that none of us can escape the possibility of facing death. If we are to believe in the "effects" of the Sacrament, then it behooves us also to believe in the need for its "validity." Validity in turn demands a certain integrity in Matter and Form and hence it is our right to have this integrity retained by the Church that claims to be founded by Christ and the Apostles. No traditional Catholic admitted to the emergency room "in extremis" and asking for a priest, would settle for a Baptist minister - even if he should say the proper words of the form. Yet in fact, of what more use is a priest who uses an incorrect and doubtful form.? One must further express great wonderment at the new breed of priest who feels free to "play around" with such a powerful Sacrament the bestowal of Extreme Unction must be one of the paramount and most satisfying aspects of a priest's life, and is moreover something which in charity and in justice he is bound to provide. And what is one to think of a "Church" that would dupe its obedient and faithful followers, rob them of this pearl, and pay them off with a facile blessing? Indeed, we live in dangerous times and the world itself is in extremis. Unless we take a stand on such issues, we will have little grounds for complaint when on our own death beds we prepare to face our Lord and Judge without the assistance of these necessary graces.







Confirmation has been called the "compliment and perfection of Baptism," and Scripture tells us that it was conferred by the Apostles: "They laid their hands upon them, and they received the Holy Ghost" (Acts VIII:17).

The effects of Confirmation are twofold. First of all, it impresses upon the soul a special character which cannot be effaced. This sacramental character makes us soldiers of Christ, and we are thus bound to defend the faith under all circumstances, even at the cost of our lives.


Secondly, through Confirmation we receive the Holy Ghost with the abundance of His gifts and graces. He gives us the grace of strength, which confirms evermore within us Faith, Hope and Charity, and thus we are able to confess Jesus Christ by word and deed, and to advance in piety, despite the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil. "In this sacrament, " says St. Thomas, "is given the plenitude of the Holy Ghost for the strengthening of grace."


To fully understand the difference between the graces bestowed in Baptism and Confirmation, one has but to consider their varied effects on the lives of the Apostles. After Baptism and prior to Pentecost, they had lain hidden, timid, fearful and had even denied and deserted Our Lord when threatened. After the descent of the Holy Ghost, they were like lions breathing fire, and not even the threat of death could hinder them from preaching the Gospel.

Those of us who have received this Sacrament may see few such dramatic effects in our lives: however, an example will give us encouragement.

A man endowed with marvelous strength is not always conscious of that strength until the time comes to use it. So it is with the Sacrament of Confirmation. On special occasions the strength of the Sacrament is experienced, just as it was experienced by the early Christians in times of persecution. Moreover, this is infallibly experienced, providing that sin places no obstacle in the way, for just as sin hinders the grace of a Sacrament in its actual reception, so also does it hinder the effects of the same grace at the moment in which it should be exercised.

And so it is that Confirmation bestows upon Christians in substance what the Holy Ghost bestowed upon the Apostles at Pentecost, and enables them to defend the faith against whatever assails it in every age.

Let us for a moment consider the words off St. Therese of Liseaux with regard to this Sacrament:


"A short time after my First Communion, I went again into retreat for my Confirmation. I had very carefully prepared myself for the coming of the Holy Spirit. I could not understand why so little attention was often paid to this Sacrament of love... How happy my soul was! Like the Apostles I happily awaited the promised Comforter. I rejoiced that soon I should be a perfect Christian, and have eternally marked upon my forehead the mysterious cross of his ineffable Sacrament. On that day I received the strength to suffer, a strength which I much needed, for the martyrdom of my soul was soon to begin"






Scriptural reference has already been provided. In the second century Tertullian states "after having come out of the laver (baptism), we are anointed thoroughly with a blessed unction according to the ancient rule... Next to this, the hand is laid upon us, through the blessing calling upon and inviting the Holy Spirit." St. Cyprian teaches "anointed also must he of necessity be, who is baptized... a person is not born by the imposition of hands when he receives the Holy Ghost, but in baptism; that being already born he may receive the Spirit..." St. Ambrose told the catechumens who had just been baptized and anointed "thou hast received the spiritual seal, the spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the spirit of counsel and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and of piety, the spirit of holy fear; and keep what thou hast received. God the Father has sealed thee... God the Father has confirmed thee: and the Spirit has given the pledge in thy heart..."

Pope Innocent III wrote "The anointing of the forehead with chrism signifies the laying on of the hand, the other name for which is Confirmation, since through it the Holy Spirit is given for growth and strength." He further said "We regard Confirmation by the bishop, that is, the laying on of hands, to be holy and to be received with reverence."  Innocent IV mentions that the apostles conferred the Holy Spirit through the laying on of the hand, which Confirmation or the anointing of the forehead with chrism represents."                                                







The Church has always taught that the Sacrament of Confirmation was not necessary for salvation. However, Confirmation was instituted for the battles in this life, and is required by precept because Our Lord instituted it as a means of grace. All are obliged, therefore, to receive it, if they are able to do so.


The Council of Laodicea in 370 stated that "it behooves those who are illuminated to be anointed after Baptism with the supercelestial chrism, and to be made partakers of Christ." St. Peter Damian, a Doctor of the Church, insists that the obligation to receive it is a serious one. Benedict XIV taught that the obligation bound under pain of sin, if no grave inconvenience was involved in its reception. Clement XIV approved a decree in 1774 which stated that "this Sacrament cannot be refused or neglected without incurring the guilt of mortal sin, if there be an opportune occasion of receiving it."






Some historians have claimed that Confirmation grew out of Baptism - citing the fact that in the Eastern church both are given at the same time as evidence. Let us listen then to one of the most important authorities of the Eastern Church, St. John Chrysostom. He tells us that

"Philip was one of the seven, the second [in rank] after Stephen. Hence, when he baptized, he did not communicate to the neophytes the Holy Ghost, because he had not the power to do so. This gift was peculiar to the twelve, a prerogative of the Apostles; whence we see [even now] that the bishops and none other do this."


In the Western Church, the ordinary (normal) minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation is the bishop. Since Pius XII's decree Spiritum Sancti Munera of September 14, 1946, it has been common law in the Latin Church that all pastors or their equivalents may confer this sacrament on their subjects in danger of death. In the Eastern Churches today, the ordinary minister of the Sacrament is the parish priest, and the Sacrament is frequently administered immediately after Baptism. It goes without saying that the Priest or Bishop must have been validly ordained.







Chrism blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday is considered to be the "remote matter" of the Sacrament. The Church has always insisted that only olive oil and balm may be used for this purpose. The post-Conciliar Church now allows for the use of any "vegetable oil."[14] The reader is referred to the Chapter on Extreme Unction for a fuller discussion of the nature of this oil, and the blessing required to "sanctify" it.


(The need for balsam or balm - a fragrant oleoresin exuded from certain plants and trees - to be added to the olive oil was debated by theologians over the centuries, and was considered until 1971 as "of precept" but not essential for validity.)


There is some difference of opinion about what is called the "proximate matter." Some theologians hold that it lies in the imposition of hands, while others maintain that it lies in the anointing with chrism. Still others hold that both are required, and some that either is sufficient.


Because of the differences of opinion most theologians now hold that both the imposition of hands and the anointing with chrism are necessary. Indeed, in the traditional rite, the bishop performs both actions simultaneously with an individual imposition of hands for each confirmand as the anointing is being done. A prior imposition of hands takes place at the beginning of the ceremony when the bishop extends his hands over the confirmands as a group. In the Eastern Rites, only the second imposition of hands is used, and it is this one that pertains to the "proximate matter."


In the new post-Conciliar rite established by Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution Divinae consortium naturae (15 August, 1971), and based on his personal reply to a query (DOL 306), only the initial blessing over all the confirmands has been retained. The individual laying-on of hands at the time of the actual anointing has been suppressed. He stated that anointing with chrism "sufficiently expresses the laying on of hands."


This decision is interesting in view of the statement by Father Pourrat that "In the Apostolic Age, the matter of Confirmation was the imposition of hands; after the second century, it was, besides, the anointing with holy chrism."[15] This constitutes a clear-cut departure from both Scriptural and Patristic custom.




During the course of history different forms for the Sacrament of Confirmation have been used - they have presumably all been substantially (i.e. their meaning) similar. The Current form has been in use since at least the 12th Century and was specified as such by both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventura, though St. Albert the Great and Alexander of Hales specified slightly different but substantially similar ones. The Council of Florence and the Council of Trent both specified that the formula was "I sign thee with the Sign of the Cross, and I confirm thee with the chrism of salvation. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. (Signo te signo Crucis, et confirmo te Chrismate salutis. In nomine Patris, et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.")


The form used in the Eastern Churches differs slightly -  "The sign [or seal] of the gift of the Holy Ghost." (The Latin for this would be signaculum doni spiritus Sancti.) This probably dates back to the First Council of Constantinople (381), and certainly dates back to the Trullan Council of 692. (This is not to say that it was not in use prior to that time, but only that we can historically trace its use back to these dates.)


Now the essential words must clearly be found in what the Western and Eastern form-ulas have in common. Father Joseph Pohle discusses this in his pre-Vatican II text The Sacraments: A Dogmatic Treatise.[16]


 "Which particular words constitute the substance of the formula is a purely theoretical question that can easily be decided if we admit the Greek formula[17] to be essentially equivalent to the longer Latin one... Manifestly, the formula of Confirmation must express two concepts, viz; (1) the act of signing or sealing (signo te) and (2), the grace of the Holy Ghost (confirmo te). Neither the invocation of the Most Holy Trinity nor the words signo crucis and chrismate salutis are essential. So far as we know, all the forms ever used embodied these two leading ideas, at least implicitly."


(The blow on the cheek (alapa) did not become customary until the twelfth century. It was apparently devised in imitation of the blow by which knighthood was conferred in the Middle Ages and obviously complemented the concept that the recipient of the Sacrament was now a soldier of Christ.)






When we come to the new rite of Confirmation as established by Paul VI's Apostolic constitution Divinae consortium naturae (15 August, 1971), we find the following statement:


"The Sacrament of Confirmation is conferred through the anointing with chrism on the forehead, which is done by laying on of the hand and through the words 'accipe signaculum doni Spiritus Sancti.'"Officially translated as "Be Sealed with the Gift of the Holy Ghost."


Paul VI tells us that he has adopted this formula from the Byzantine Rite, stating, "We therefore adopt this formula, rendering it almost word for word... by which the Gift of the Holy Spirit Himself is expressed and the outpouring of the Spirit which took place on the day of Pentecost is recalled. He is of course correct, for the Greek form, as noted above, is signaculum doni Spiritus Sancti. Why however did he add Accipe which changes the meaning of the words from the active sense of something the Bishop imposes on the recipient, to the passive request for him to accept what is offered?


The answer is that by the use of this one word, the recipient is merely asked to receive the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and this is a purely subjective act on the recipient's part. By doing this Paul VI introduced a formula which is much more acceptable to the Protestants who would be horrified at the idea that an indelible character is imprinted ex opere operato on the recipient.

There is yet a further problem with Paul VI's Divinae consortium naturae. In it he states that the rite of Confirmation "recalls" what took place on Pentecost. This is a faulty notion of a Sacrament. The gifts of the Holy Ghost are bestowed once again through the rites of the Church, and not simply "recalled."




Paul VI tells us that the reason for the revision "which concurs with the very essence of the rite of confirmation" was in order that "the intimate connection of this sacrament with the whole Christian initiation may stand out more clearly." And the result, he assures us is that "the rite and words of this sacrament 'express more clearly the holy things they signify and the Christian people, as far as possible, are able to understand them with ease and take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.'" It is for the reader to judge whether this end has been achieved.





                   Once again we have a Sacrament whose form and matter have been significantly tampered with. While one cannot officially state that it has been invalidated - indeed, only the teaching magisterium of the Church could ever come to such a conclusion and obligate us to accept it as being "of faith." However, one can certainly state that with the change in the remote matter of olive oil to any vegetable oil, with the suppression of the laying on of hands and the statement that the signing of the forehead with the cross suffices for this, and with the subjective change in the form of the sacrament, an element of doubt has been raised. We are no longer supplied with the necessary medium certum.








As Voltaire said: "Repentance for our faults can alone take the place of innocence, and that, to show ourselves repentant, we must begin by declaring them."                   

Few Catholic customs have been subjected to greater criticism than that of going to Confession. One can do no better than to initiate this discussion with the sneering comment of George Bernard Shaw to G.K Chesterton after his conversion: "Your portly kneeling figure" in the confessional would be "incredible, monstrous, comic." More enlightened was Chesterton's answer: "When a Catholic comes from confession, he does truly, by definition, step out into that dawn of his own beginning... in that brief ritual  God has really remade him in His own image. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old."


All of us "who are over 30" remember the long confessional lines that plagued us every week in our childhood. Saints like the Curé of Ars were known to have spent 17 hours continuously in that "dark box" - and those that suspect some "voyeristic" pleasure in such a function would do well to meditate on the fact that man's inventiveness in sin is limited, and that priests have always complained that listening to pettiness of man's repetitive sins is the least pleasant and most boring of all their obligations.

All this has changed. Currently only 6% of those who consider themselves Catholic and who go to Church regularly go to Confession on a monthly basis and only 1% more often than that. According to the Notre Dame study in 1983, 26% of those formally affiliated to their parishes never go to confession at all. Now all this is occurring at a time when higher percentages of practicing Catholics are receiving the Eucharist on a regular basis. Studies show that among those who go to Confession once or twice a year or never at all, more than 80% are communicants. Are we to assume that sin has lessened? One may be permitted to doubt this.[18]


A recent report by the American Bishops' Committee for Pastoral Research and Practice considers the results of such polls "puzzling." Religious liberals conclude that the old forms are no longer serving the believers' needs. Others suggest that the more obvious explanation is a lessened fear of hell and a decreased awareness about the nature of sin and the purpose of the Confessional.[19]






Considerable confusion has been spread abroad by liberal Catholics who attempt to explain away Confession as a "way of getting rid of guilt," and hence as a Catholic variety of psychotherapy. It should be clear that, while the forgiveness of sins carries in its train the removal of guilt - at least that obvious guilt that relates to the sin involved - this is a far cry from the analyst's couch. The Catholic penitent is just that - a penitent. He admits that he is guilty of sin and his forgiveness is among other things totally dependent upon a "firm purpose of amendment." The psychoanalyst who by definition passes no moral judgement on his patient, functions to uncover the root causes for a patient's sense of guilt. This sense of guilt the psychiatrist deals with is in no way objective; it is not an offence the patient is aware of. The psychiatrist functions to help the patient uncover supressed or false reasons for this sense of guilt. If and when he does this, he then attempts to teach the patient how to live with those "negative" (never evil) traits within his and every person's soul. The psychiatrist never forgives - it is the patient who must forgive himself. The psychiatrist never  demands retribution, for this also is left to the patient - indeed, if the patient felt the need to perform some penitential act it would be viewed by the analyst as evidence of a persisting guilt complex. The psychiatrist does not demand any amendment of life other than that which the patient may himself recognize the need of.






As a result of Adam's "fall," the material and animal principle in man declared war against the spiritual and intellectual - the net result of which is, as St. Paul expressed it, that "I find a law, that when I have a will to do good, evil is present with me. For I am delighted with the law of God according to the inward man, but I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin" (Rom. VII:22-23). While such is the underlying principle leading to sin, the ten commandments clearly codify those offences against God and one's fellow man.

We see also, that even among the Jews, Confession was a "sacrament." In Numbers V: verses 6 and 7 we read" when a man or woman shall have committed any of all the sins that men are wont to commit, and by negligence shall have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and offended, they shall confess their sin and restore the principal itself, and the fifth part over and above, to him against whom they have sinned. But if there be no one to receive it, they shall give it to the Lord, and it shall be the priest's besides the ram that is offered for expiation, to be an atoning sacrifice."[20] 


As with the other sacraments, Confession was established by Our Lord when he said "Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven" (2.Cor. II:6-8 Cf. also John I:9; James V.16).

And from the foundation of the Church the Fathers have encouraged Confession. As St. Clement of Rome said in the First Century: "For whatsoever things, therefore, we have transgressed by any of the suggestions of the adversary, let us supplicate pardon. Tertullian says of this Sacrament that "Confession of sins lightens their burthen, as much as the dissembling of them increases it; for confession savoureth of satisfaction, dissembling of stubbornness... if thou drawest back from confession, consider in thine heart that hell-fire which confession shall quench for thee; and first imagine to thyself the greatness of the punishment, that thou mayest not doubt concerning the adoption of the remedy." St. Cyprian teaches: "we have an Advocate and an Intercessor for our sins, Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, if only we are penitent that we have sinned in time past, and confessing and understanding our sins whereby we now offend the Lord, we promise, for the future at least, to walk in his ways, and to fear his commandments." St. Cyril of Jerusalem instructs us to "Put off the old man, who is corrupted according to the deceitful lusts,[21] by means of  confession, that you may put on the new man." St. Ambrose tells us that "Sins are remitted by the word of God, of which the Levite is the interpreter, and also the executor; they are also remitted by the office of the priest, and the sacred ministry."


We see in these early examples all the principles required for a proper confession: the admission of sin to a priest, a firm purpose of amendment; the acceptance of a penance (sacrifice), the need for reparation or restitution where appropriate; and absolution given by the priest as an alter Christus.




It should be clear that through the medium of the priest - who functions as an alter Christus or "another Christ" - it is to Christ Himself that we confess, and similarly, the priest forgives us in the same capacity. This is made strikingly clear in the Eastern Rites where the priest and the penitent approach Christ's icon on the iconastasis; the priest drapes his stole over the penitent who then confesses to both the priest and before the iconographic representation of our Lord.





                   St Augustine addresses this issue. To quote him directly:

"Let no person say, I do penance in secret in the presence of God; it suffices that he who is to grant me pardon should know the repentance which I feel in the depth of my heart. If such were the case, it would be without reason for Jesus Christ to say, Whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, or that He should have confided the keys to His Church. It is not, then, sufficient to confess to God; we must also confess to those who have received from Him the power of binding and loosing."[22]

And again:


"There are some who imagine it is sufficient for their salvation to confess to God, from whom nothing is concealed, and who reads the secrets of all hearts, for they are unwilling, either from motives of shame, or pride, or contempt, to show themselves to the priests, although our Lord has appointed them to discern between the different kinds of leprosy. Disabuse yourself of such an opinion, and be not ashamed to confess to the vicar of the Lord. For we must submit to the judgment of those whom He has not disdained to put in His place. When, then, you are sick, send for a priest to come to you and disclose to him all the secrets of your conscience. Do not permit yourself to be led astray by the false religion of those who tell you, in visiting you, that confession made to God alone, without the intervention of the priest, is capable of saving you. We do not deny that it is often necessary to address ourselves to God, and make our confession to Him, but, before all things, we have need of the priest. Regard him as an Angel sent by God; open to him the innermost secrets of your heart; reveal to him whatever causes you most confusion; be not ashamed to declare to one man what you have not blushed to commit in the presence of many. Make, then, an entire confession, without dissimulation or excuses for your fault. Be simple and exact; make no evasions or circumlocutions, which only obscure and embarrass the truth. Note the circumstances of your sins, the places, occasions, and the persons, without however naming them."[23]



The Eastern Churches hold to the same opinion. The Confessio orthodoxa directed against Cyril Lucar by Peter Mogilas (1642), which was signed by all the orthodox patriarchs of the time, enjoys among them the value of a creed. It contains the following statement:


"This contrition of the heart must be followed by an oral confession of each and every sin, because the confessor cannot forgive anything if he does not know what there is to be forgiven and what sort of penance he is to impose."






Brief mention must be made of what is called the "Seal of Confession," or the obligation of the priest never under any circumstances to reveal what he hears in confession. The most trifling disclosure, either direct or indirect, is contrary to the very essence of confession.


"The seal of confession is of divine right; it rests on the institution of the Sacrament of Penance, on the obligation laid upon us to confess our sins; hence no power can dispense from the law, not even in the case of danger to the commonweal,"[24]

                   Civil law has recognized this seal and priests have given up their lives to protect it. Priests who have gone insane, have on being questioned about what they heard in confession, refused to answer. Priests who have left the Church and apostatized from the faith have somehow kept the seal. It is an extraordinary fact that over almost 2000 years of recorded history, no one can point to a documented case where this seal has been violated.



God does not ask the impossible. Obviously, if no priest is available, one cannot confess to one. However, when in danger of death, a Catholic can request any validly ordained priest to hear his confession. According to Father Augustine, such applies "even [to a priest] who is a member of a schismatic or heretic sect, or apostatized or censured..." Such a priest "may validly absolve anyone in danger of death, even in the presence of an approved confessor."[25] A further note has been added to this ruling by a decision of the Holy Office: "provided no scandal is given to the faithful, no danger of perversion threatens the sick person, and finally, provided that it may be reasonably presumed that the schismatic minister will absolve according to the rite of the Church."


If even such is not available the person can make what is called an ACT OF CONTRITION.


"O My God, I am heartily sorry for my sins, not only because I fear the loss of heaven and the pains of hell [up to now we have an act of imperfect contrition], but most of all because I have offended Thee My God, who art infinitely good and worthy of all my love. [It is this higher motivation - for the love of God - if sufficiently intense - that makes an act of contrition perfect.] I resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to amend my life, to confess my sins and to do penance" [i.e., make satisfaction].


It should be added that for the dying individual


"The Papal benediction with attached plenary indulgence may be gained by saying the Holy Name of Jesus. If unable to say it, the person must at least think it, and with contrition kiss a blessed crucifix."[26]




The acts of the penitent are the proximate matter of the sacrament and as such similar to the anointing with chrism in Confirmation or the use of water in Baptism. Sins are not atoned for simply by fulfilling the sentence of a judge; the Confession of the sinner and the will of an offended God must also be taken into consideration. In view of this three acts are required of the penitent: Contrition, Confession, and Satisfaction.

CONTRITION is deliberate sorrow for sins which includes the purpose of confessing and making satisfaction for them. The Council of Trent declared that "Contrition... is a profound sorrow and detestation for sin committed, with a resolution of sinning no more. The word Contrition comes from the Latin contritum or contritio which signifies a crushing, breaking or undoing of something - thus it represents that crushing or breaking of man's attachment to sin.


Natural sorrow or remorse (such as is based on some worldly motive such as shame) is not sufficient because the Sacrament of Penance pertains to the supernatural order.


Attrition or "imperfect contrition" combined with the reception of penance is sufficient for the forgiveness of sin. Such for example, as illustrated above in the "act of contrition," is the fear of hell. While this is the least noble of supernatural motives, it is undeniably supernatural because the existence of hell is accepted on divine faith. Further, attrition includes a detestation of sin, which is a means of avoiding hell. This kind of sorrow is likened to the fear entertained by a slave.


Perfect contrition however can remit all sin. This is true even when confession is impossible (i.e., when a confessor is unavailable), provided that the desire for the sacrament is included in the contrition, for contrition breaks the attachment of the will to sin. (Contrition does not extend to original sin, which is something that exists apart from the individual's will, nor to future sins that may or may not be committed.)


In point of fact, no sin can be forgiven without contrition - in sacramental penance attrition becomes contrition through the power of the Sacrament. The reason for this is that the will cannot both cling to and detest the same sin at the same time.


Attrition or Contrition, should be true and formal (i.e., not pretended); it should be supernatural, (i.e. be inspired by and dependent upon grace and motivated by some consideration known by the light of faith); it must be supreme (i.e., the penitent must regard sin as the greatest of evils - this does not require an intense feeling of sorrow, but rather a conviction of the evil of sin); and it must be universal, (i.e. extend to all one's mortal sins).


A purpose of amendment is implicit in true contrition, for it is the resolve not to sin again. Without the resolve not to sin again there is no true contrition. Yet this purpose of amendment, which is more than a mere wish of avoiding sins, is not a promise or vow never to sin again.


Theologians list three qualities that should be present. The intention must be firm (at least at the time it is made), it must be efficacious (there must be the intent to avoid the occasions for the sin and the ordinary safeguards against sin - both caution and prayer. There must also be the intent to repair as far as is possible the damage done by the sin. And finally, it must be universal (i.e., the resolve to avoid all mortal sins).


CONFESSION is defined as the telling of the personal sins one has committed after Baptism to an authorized priest for the purpose of obtaining absolution.


Confession is necessary for salvation for anyone who after Baptism has the misfortune to fall into mortal sin. This general obligation which arises from divine law is made more specific by the law of the Church: "Every one of the faithful of either sex, upon reaching the age of discretion is bound to confess sincerely all sins at least once a year" (Canon 906).


It is commonly taught that the divine precept of confession would oblige anyone who is in actual or probable danger of death. The precept would also become binding in the face of special circumstances, as for example, when he is about to marry or be confirmed, when one is in need of special graces to overcome temptations, or when he is not in a state of grace and wishes to receive Communion.


Confession should be discreet, free, sincere, courageous, marked by shame, sorrowful, humble, truthful, open, simple, entire, accusatory, manifestive of a readiness to obey the confessor, secret, frequent and prompt.

SATISFACTION is the last and final aspect of penance. It is an act of virtue which pertains to justice. In making satisfaction for sin, the compensation is not quantitatively, but only proportionately equal. (We can never make adequate satisfaction for a Mortal sin which offends an infinite God and therefore in some way is an infinite offence.) But God accepts this satisfaction (i.e., the penance given) as sufficient to regain divine friendship. As the Council of Trent teaches, "it befits divine mercy that sins not be forgiven us without any satisfaction, lest having thus found an occasion for thinking sins to be light, we fall into graver sins (such as insulting and contemning the Holy Spirit), storing up wrath for ourselves on the day of wrath."


Satisfaction can be made in God's sight through the grace of Christ in several ways:

          1) By freely undertaking penance for sin.
          2) By patiently bearing the temporal punishment sent by God.
          3) By doing the penance assigned by the priest in confession.


The three principal acts of penance are almsgiving, fasting and prayer which are said to primarily uproot the concupiscence of the eyes, concupiscence of the flesh and pride of life. It should be clear that the penance imposed is a means whereby the penitent satisfies the temporal punishment due to his sins. The eternal punishment due to mortal sin is forgiven by the Sacrament itself; the penance is designed to remit temporal punishment.


Normally the priest is obliged to assign a penance. (He might not do so with a dying patient.) Similarly the penitent must perform the penance, which is an integral part of the sacrament. (There is no special obligation to fulfill the Penance before receiving Holy Communion, though this is certainly the best course to follow in practice.)




Not greatly stressed in texts on Sacramental Theology is another important aspect of Confession - namely spiritual direction. Not infrequently, after having absolved the penitent of his sins, the priest will give a brief instruction to the penitent on the spiritual life, for it is understood that the virtuous life is not an end in itself, but predispositive to the spiritual life.




The form of the Sacrament has changed over the centuries. Father Villien lists many of these in his History and Liturgy of the Sacraments.[27] Thus for example an early Pontifical from Tours, after stating that Christ had instituted the Sacrament, and after invoking various saints and the Blessed Virgin, states: "ipse vos obsolvat per ministerium nostrum ab omnibus peccatis vestris, quaecumque cogitatione, aut locutione, aut operatione negligenter egistis, atque a vinculis peccatorum vestrorum absolutos perducere ad regnum coelorum. Per Dominum..." (may He absolve you through our ministry from all your sins, be they negligences of thought, word or deed, and absolve you from all the chains of your sins [so that you may attain] to the kingdom of heaven. Through our Lord Jesus Christ....") The traditional form for Absolution which uses the indicative formula "I absolve you from you sins in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit" has been in use from at least the thirteenth century, is in conformity with that specified by St. Thomas Aquinas and was affirmed by the Council of Trent. One will note in passing that the substance of the formula remains unchanged.[28]




The Concilium responsible for changing the sacraments attempted to alter the traditional form of absolution to "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit I absolve you from your sins and restore you to the peace of the Church," which as Annibale Bugnini points out, "calls attention to the ecclesial aspect of reconciliation." This change was blocked by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith on the grounds that it removed the Trinitarian phrase.[29] The integrity of the form is preserved. But what of other changes?


It is interesting to quote Annibale Bugnini about these. According to him:

"the structure [of the sacramental rite] is the same as in the older rite, but has been enriched and revised. The penitent is now welcomed; he makes the sign of the cross and is urged to trust in God's mercy. This opening rite is followed by a reading from the word of God (optional), personal confession, expression of repentance, prayer of absolution, praise of God's mercy, and dismissal of the penitent."


"The various formulas put on the lips of the priest and penitent are either taken from or thoroughly inspired by the Scriptures. The presence of God's word as read during or before the sacramental rite urges us to repentance and to proclamation of God's mercy. By means of it the power of God to save is proclaimed in the very midst of human sin. It is a highly significant innovation to have God's word present even in this manner of celebrating reconciliation."


Another interesting feature is the "restored" gesture of laying on of hands (or at least the right hand), which accompanies the formula for absolution. Such an action of course requires the removal of the screen between priest and penitent. Such is of course not essential to the rite, but does provide privacy and anonymity. [30] Many new churches provide rooms where priest and penitent can openly face each other, and some have abolished confessionals to force the use of open confession.


There  is also much talk of celebration - to again quote Bugnini, "the rite is easily adaptable to situations in which there are a large number of penitents. On the other hand, it also becomes possible, especially at times when there is less pressure, to have a true celebration that is spiritually rich and profitable." What is meant by this is that ideally the sacrament should be part of a community celebration.


The new rite, now called the Sacrament of Reconciliation, was introduced by Paul VI's Reconciliationem inter deum et homines (2 December 1973). It has three forms: 1) individual reconciliation; 2) communal celebration followed by individual reconciliation for the forgiveness of "grave" sins, and 3) General absolution for use when the numbers of penitents are such as to preclude individual Confession (as in time of war or disaster). The first, apart from the "welcoming," and the reading from the "Word of God," closely resembles what we have always known as the Sacrament of Confession. In the practical order, the "welcoming" and reading from the word of God, being optional, are rarely carried out. The older generation goes to confession in the same manner it always has. The last and third form has always been an option in the Church when large numbers of the faithful were in danger of death and sufficient priests are not available for individual confession - such occurs in time of war or pestilence. The privilege has been extended to cover the situation where there is a genuine shortage of priests.




The second form is the most innovative and the one recommended for use whenever possible. Paul VI gives some of the reasons when he introduced the new Rite of Penance, December 2, 1973:


"In the Sacrament of Penance the faithful obtain from God's mercy pardon for having offended him, and at the same time reconciliation with the Church, which they have wounded by their sins..."


"The hidden and gracious mystery of God unites us through a supernatural bond: on this basis one person's sin harms the rest even as one person's goodness enriches them. Penance always therefore entails reconciliation with our brothers and sisters who remain harmed by our sins."


We see in these brief quotations, not so much a deviation from orthodoxy, as a shift in emphasis. In line with this Paul VI added to the usual way of confessing, what he calls "the second way of reconciliation" which is a communal preparation followed by individual confession and absolution which "combines the two values of being a community act and a personal act." It is the preferable form of reconciliation for our people when it is possible... we hope it may become the normal way of celebration."

Further clarification of this change in emphasis is provided by the Decree of Cardinal Jean VIllot and Annibale Bugnini found in the front of the new Roman Ritual. In it they state that this "new rite, beside [being] the rite for Reconciliation of Individual Penitents, [is] a Rite for Reconciliation of Several Penitents [and it] has been drawn up to emphasize the relation of the Sacrament to the community."


                   This shift in emphasis is made more specific by Paul VI's Address to a General Audience given April 1974 (DOL 369):

"We must not be indifferent and certainly not distrustful toward the invitation of the Church is now addressing to us to reform our way of thinking and therefore also our religious practice relative to the sacrament of penance, which from now on we will do better to speak of as the sacrament of reconciliation. By that we mean, first, reconciliation with God; this is something we are familiar with even if it will always be a reason for endless and joyous wonder. We mean also reconciliation with the Church... It is at this point that a new matter for reflection begins, offered to our ecclesial consciousness by the publication of the new Rite of Penance... The reflection is this: just as every personal failure has its impact on our own essential and vital relationship with God, so too that failure has its impact on our relationship with the community, which in an analogous sense is also essential and vital...."


In the practical order this "second way of reconciliation" has not often been used, and this for the simple reason that it takes longer and requires the presence of several priests to hear individual confessions after the communal rite.





The form of the Sacrament remains the same in all three. But what about the matter? We said above that the acts and dispositions of the penitent constitute the proximate matter for the Sacrament. At first it might seem that it was impossible to change this. But is such the case? The matter can be changed by altering the way the penitent views his sins. This has been achieved in several ways.


Sin is no longer "mortal," but grave. While one can find the term "mortal in earlier post-Conciliar documents the promulgation of Reconciliationem inter deum et homines reverts exclusively to the term "grave," which term is also found in the new code of Canon Law. The term "grave" has the advantage of not upsetting an older generation, while obscuring the distinction between venial and mortal for the younger generation. The same document also explains that "the ultimate purpose of penance is that we should love God deeply and commit ourselves completely to him... Penance always therefore entails reconciliation with our brothers and sisters who remain harmed by our sins." 

The Penitent, having expressed his grave sins is now asked by the priest to "express his sorrow... in these or similar words."







"My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy."


At first sight there seems little wrong with this prayer. But notice that, unlike the traditional "Act of Contrition," there is no mention of either heaven or hell;[31]. there is no recognition of the rewards or punishments due to man for sin, and in line with the definition of penance given above, no sense of the need to make satisfaction.

Even more serious is the absence of any distinction between perfect and imperfect contrition. With the decreasing number of priests available, the lack of knowledge about how to make a proper act of contrition when one dies is bound to have serious consequences.

Annibale Bugnini spoke of "the various formulas put on the lips of the priest and penitent are either taken from or thoroughly inspired by the Scriptures," being" a highly significant innovation to have God's word present even in this manner of celebrating reconiliation." When we review the various formulas provided we see the same pattern throughout with the occasional additional concept that God should "help us to live in unity with our fellow Christians."





Many older Catholics continue to go to confession as they always did. They can see little difference in their practice, and indeed, in the practical order nothing has changed. This category of Catholic suffers from the attrition of age and is one of the reasons for the decreased use of Confession. 

 Younger post-Conciliar Catholics pose a different problem. For them religion has to a great extent been reduced to the social obligation of helping their neighbor. They are no longer taught about heaven and hell, and no longer have a proper understanding of the nature of sin, contrition and penance. Nor do they see the priest as a man set apart, an alter Christus appointed to guide their souls. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that they fail to storm the doors of the Confessional.



Ó Rama Coomaraswamy 2002

[1] Letter to Fliess, quoted in Paul Vitz, Sigmund Freud's Christian Unconscience, Guilford: N.Y., 1988.


[2] The Reference is to Genesis 3:15


[3] Rev. Adrian Kilker, Extreme Unction, A Canonical Treatise, London: Herder, 1927. The Latin is from St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gent., lib. 4., c. 73 de Ext. Unct. (trans. "the perfect healing of the soul.")


[4] Sacram Unctionem infirmorum, AAS 65(1973).


[5] Charles J. Keating, The Sacrament of Anointing the Sick, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, June, 1974.


[6] Extreme Unction is usually preceded by Confession and Absolution.


[7] Paul VI in his Apostolic constitution quotes the Council as saying: "Extreme Unction, which may also and more properly be called '"the anointing of the sick,' is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for that person to receive this sacrament has certainly arrived." Once again we have the use of doublespeak.


[8] The reader is reminded that the author has been a practicing surgeon for some 30 years. It is pertinent to quote the comments of Father Baumann, Director of Marydale Diocesan Retreat House and Chairman of the committee for the Continuing Education of Priests:

"The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick should  not be a last Sacrament any more than Baptism, confirmation, Matrimony or Holy Orders... We used to have some notion that it could effect a forgiveness of sin, and on occasion, might even restore physical health. Today we see the Sacrament NOT (his emphasis) as a preparation for death but as an aid to a more beautiful life - first and immediately on earth." (The Messenger, Sept. 12, 1982)


[9] Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., The New Rite for Anointing the Sick, Catholic Update, St. Anthony Message Press, 1984. Father Richstatter is a recognized authority and his texts are fairly standard teaching sources in today's seminaries.


[10] Anointing the Sick, a Study in Pastoral Liturgy Prepared by the St. Thomas More Center for Pastoral Liturgy, published by Mayhew-McCrimmon Ltd., Southend-on-Sea, England and used in the Sydney Australia Archdiocese. Quoted by Hutton Gibson in his Paul VI's Legacy: Catholicism? Cochin, India: Leo Panakal, 1974. An American version is available from Catholic Update published by the St. Anthony Messenger Press (Cincinnati, Ohio) entitled The New rite for Anointing the Sick by Father Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.


[11] If the patient is incapacitated, the priest will ask him/her if they have sinned against any of the commandments and then list each of them in turn. All the patient has to do is nod his head or even blink his eyes.


[12]. The physician can certify that the body has died. The older medical and theological literature gave ample testimony to the fact that patients occasionally would recover after being pronounced dead by competent physicians. Rigor mortis which occurs 3 to 6 hours after apparant death was considered a point of no possible return.  Current medical practice has the technology to refine the point of body death with greater accuracy - absence of electrical activity in the brain and heart. However, this is still to speak of the body and not the soul. (Cf. Rev. Juan B. Ferreres, S.J., Death, Real and Apparent in relation to The Sacraments, Herder: St. Louis, 1906.)  


[13] There is even a blessing for sick animals.

[14] "Olive oil or another oil extracted from plants." DOL 3864. Chrism is also important in Baptism and Extreme Unction. One wonders why axle grease could not be considered an oil extracted from plants. Cases of priests using Vaseline as chrism have occurred.


[15] Father P. Pourrat, Theology of the Sacraments, Herder, St. Louis, 1914, footnote, page 85.


[16] B. Herder, St. Louis, 1917).


[17] The Greeks refer to the Sacrament of Confirmation as "the chrism of Holy Ointment," or "the seal of the gift of the Holy Ghost."


[18] Many surveys gloatingly inform us that 80 to 95% of Catholics are using artificial methods of birth control. No religious distinctions can be found among parties getting divorced or abortions.


[19] Many of these comments are drawn from a New York Times article, March 31 1990.


[20] According to Rabbi David Kimchi, not only was such confession necessary, but, without it, sacrifices could be of no avail; for he remarks: "all the efficacy of sacrifices consists in the confession of sins and in repentance." (Quoted by Rev. L. de Goesbriand, The History of Confession, Benzinger: N.Y., 1989.


[21] "Lusts" in theological writing do not necessarily imply sexual sins. One can for instance, "lust" after money.


[22] S. Augustine, Sermon II, in psalm i., n. 3.


[23] Quoted in Rev. Goesbriand, The History of Confession, op. cit.


[24] Quoted from De Réal by Dr. Goesbriand, op. cit.


[25] Rev. Charles Augustine, A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law (1917), Herder: St. Louis, 1925.


[26] Louis LaRavoire Morro, My Catholic faith, My Mission House, Kenosha, Wis.


[27] A Villien, The History and Liturgy of the Sacraments, Burns Oates: London, 1932


[28] The deprecative formula is still used in the Greek Church, but since the ninth or tenth century the Latin Church has insisted on the indicative formula. To quote Pohle-Preuss, "the indicative formula of absolution now used in the Latin Church is prescribed by Eugene IV (1439), by the Council of Trent, and by the Roman Ritual. Hence probably no other is now valid." The Sacraments, Vol. III., Herder: New York, 1918.


[29] Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1975, Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minn., 1990. Why they were so resistant to change in this sacrament after their laxity in the others is hard to understand.


[30] The use of confessionals dates from about the 17th. Century. Prior to that time priests sat in a chair and the penitent sat or kneeled beside them.


[31] The word "hell" has been all but deleted from the new translations of the bible approved for use by the post-Conciliar Church. The New American Bible uses the word but once, and this in a passage never assigned for reading from the pulpit. The Douay-Rheims version mentions it over 120 times, and the King James version over 50 times. (Cf. Roslie Cowles, The Remnant, Oct. 15, 1983.