Monday, 26 August 2013

Is that all there is ..?

The best version I can find during a quick Youtube search is this one by Bette Midler: Is that all there is? Listen to if first before reading on ....
What we do in this Sacrament of Anointing is not to explain or domesticate or sacralise suffering but something different and something much more creative and worthwhile. We, in our fragility, as Church, stand with you in your fragility.
"We in our fragility stand with you in your fragility". Is that really all there is to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick? I strongly suspect that, after finishing, the good Father and his confreres proceeded to anoint everyone present, regardless of whether or not they came within the purview of those considered by Canon Law (and also the Catechism of the Catholic Church) to be those on whom the Sacrament is to be conferred (cc.1004 ff). Correct me via the comments if I am wrong in this, but it would certainly be consistent with the sentiment expressed in the quotation above.

That the good Father was preaching to a diocesan pilgrimage in Lourdes just makes it all the more incomprehensible: Living With Our Limitations. It is certainly a nicely crafted piece of rhetoric but, despite its very convincing nature, it leaves an unease, not least because if fails to offer any recognisable catechesis on the nature of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. It is, frankly, drivel from that point of view.

Despite its insistent citation of St Paul, you aren't quite convinced that you are really hearing St Paul's understanding of the meaning of suffering - you know, the passage where he talks about making up in his own body on behalf of the Church what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. And I don't think it would take any of us long to find a passage where St Paul challenges us to overcome the weakness and fragility of sin. In talking about being "by the grace of God what I am", St Paul is actually referring to his standing as an apostle of Christ, granted he says of himself that he is the "least of the apostles" .... and I can't make out how that matches up to what Father seems to be wanting St Paul to say in the context of his homily. The Biblical appearance of Father's words doesn't seem to be matched by the Biblical reality.

There is no doubt for all in the Church an experience of a "catechetical moment" and a "pastoral moment" with regard to life changing events. There is a "catechetical moment" with regard to suffering and pain which best comes before one is called to live out that teaching in experience. Once that becomes the experience of life and of the Christian mystery, then it has become the "pastoral moment". In that sense, and only in that sense, is Father right to suggest that it is not for the cleric in their fitness and health to preach the meaning of suffering to the one who suffers but for the sick person to live out for themselves in life what they already know in idea. It is, however, of the "pastoral moment" that the cleric should encourage the sick person to consciously live the meaning of their suffering, and that inevitably recalls, or for those lacking in Christian formation creates for a first time, the "catechetical moment". Lourdes seems to me to offer a unique context in which the "catechetical moment" and "pastoral moment" can be lived together, precisely because the teaching to the individual sick person is mediated through the group of sick persons. Father seems to me to have gravely abdicated his catechetical responsibility at a potentially valuable time. The Church's teaching on the meaning of suffering is not "cheap explanation" and surely the Christian mystery has lifted once and for all the inexplicability of suffering and pain.

And what to make of Father's rather patronising account of "fairy godmothers"? Is he decrying the possibilities of grace and, yes, of miracle and indeed doing so within minutes walking time from an office that has studied carefully over 60 instances of miracle? It would certainly be quite wrong to raise expectations unrealistically, but that is quite possible without being so cynical in one's imagery.

Why do I expostulate at such length and with such vitriol on the subject of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick? Because, if that really were all there is .... why would I want to bother with it?

I am desperately hoping that, when I reach the point in life where I am in need of the Sacrament,  the almost total indifference to the real meaning of the Sacrament expressed in the "much more creative and worthwile ..... We in our fragility stand with you in your fragility" (and the widespread practice of conferring the Sacrament on all present) will not leave me with a subjective experience of little or no value. Yes, I know that what counts is the objective content of the Sacrament, but it is easier if one has some confidence in the subjective understanding and practice of the Sacrament, too. I have an awful feeling that in the alarm of the circumstance of serious illness I will need that subjective experience rather more than perhaps I should.

[If you want to find what the Sacrament is really about, try the Catechism of the Catholic Church nn.1499ff, summarised at nn.1526-1532.]

1 comment:

Rita said...

I do sometimes wonder if priests have a real fear of the power that works through them and that sometimes this manifests itself as an often very public dismissal of the nature of the sacraments. Many moons ago I was in helping out with some Confirmations and the Bishop gave a homily that said "when I annoint you, you won't change, it won't make you different". This was not a good "catechetical moment". Later I saw him in the sacristy and he said, "you know, I get so very tired, unnaturaly tired, after Confirmations". Perhaps it is a form of humility that he really did not want to recognise the power that had passed through him?

I don't think this excuses talking about the sacraments in homilies in such a manner that their nature is obscured. However, I do appreciate that so many of our priests are genuinely terrified of their priesthood. Others manifset this by hiding behind latin, lace and fiddlebacks.