20 AUGUST 2006
RAPHOE DIOCESAN PILGRIMAGE TO KNOCK SHRINE
The Care and Healing Power of the Church
in the Sacraments of Penance and Anointing
“Penance and the Anointing of the Sick are two sacraments instituted for the specific
purpose of healing and strengthening soul and body” – Bishop Philip Boyce
The Bishop of Raphoe, Dr Philip Boyce, delivered the following homily during the Raphoe
Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock Shrine on Saturday 19 August. This theme of this year’s homily
is: “The Care and Healing Power of The Church in the Sacraments of Penance and Anointing.”
Bishop Boyce said:
The drama of our human condition is closely bound up with the mystery of sin, forgiveness and
salvation. The peace of heart and the friendship with the living God originally enjoyed, were
destroyed and lost by man’s sinful action and his transgression of God’s law. The human being
himself was incapable of regaining the happiness of a lost innocence. But “God loved the world
so much that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have
eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world
might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17). He is Christ our Saviour, the lover of
souls, the healer of the sick, the Good Shepherd who cares for the lost sheep, the one who
reconciles fallen man with his Creator and Father.
To continue his caring, healing and reconciling work in the world, Christ founded his Church.
To her he entrusted the Sacraments which are very effective channels of divine life. He made
the Apostles the custodians of these treasures. To them he gave the power and the duty to guard
and administer these healing and reconciling graces. When He had instituted the Blessed Eucharist,
he said: “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). On the evening of Easter Sunday, He
appeared, giving them his peace and saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins
of anyone, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of anyone, they are retained” (Jn 20:23).
And when about to ascend into heaven, He said: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing
them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).
Moreover, all those who were labouring under the burden of various infirmities and trials were
to find comfort and healing through the blessing and prayer of the disciples: “Heal the sick,
raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay”
The Church, in her care for souls, continues this healing and reconciling work through the ministry
of her ordained priests. Pope John Paul II stated that the Church’s task was that: “of reconciling
people: with God, with themselves, with neighbour, with the whole of creation … By her nature the
Church is always reconciling” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, No 8). We take two examples of this
saving and healing grace: the Sacrament of Penance and the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
The Sacrament of Penance
Confession is the most challenging and difficult of the Sacraments, because in it we lay bare our
inmost thoughts, our weaknesses and sins that shame us, our deepest motives. This we do to another
human person, a priest who, we know in faith, takes the place of God. It can be very humiliating.
And yet we get untold benefits of freedom, forgiveness, peace, healing and strength from this
Sacrament. We sin as individuals. We also have to make an individual confession. It does us good
to go on our knees, put our sinful deeds into words before an ordained priest, face up to the truth
about ourselves and entrust our lives to God’s merciful and just love.
Indeed, in a Synod for Europe held in 1991, the Bishops saw the Sacrament of Reconciliation playing
a fundamental role in the recovery of hope for our ancient Continent. They said: “One of the roots
of the helplessness that assails many people today is found in their inability to see themselves
as sinners and to allow themselves to be forgiven, an inability often resulting from the isolation
of those who, by living as if God did not exist, have no one from whom they can seek forgiveness”
(John Paul II, Ecclesia in Europa No 76). In some ways they are among those whom St. Paul describes
as “having no hope and without God in this world” (Eph 2:10).
Thanks be to God, we should say, for our faith and for the Sacrament of Confession!
At times we do not appreciate the treasures we have in our Catholic faith. At other times we take
them for granted. Yet many are those who experience the spiritual benefits of Confession. The first
effect and principal purpose of this Sacrament is reconciliation with God. Anyone who makes a good
Confession with a contrite heart and a firm purpose of amendment is sure that God has blotted out
the sin that weighed on his conscience. That person is certain of having been restored to God’s
friendship and to the blessings of a child of God.
A silent weight is lifted off the mind as a result of a good confession. The gnawing worry caused
by a troubled conscience gives way to peace of soul. As our Catechism says: “For those who receive
the sacrament of Penance with contrite heart and religious disposition, reconciliation is usually
followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation. Indeed the sacrament
of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection”, restoration of the dignity
and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God”
I remember one time I visited a Marian Shrine on mainland Europe, in Belgium. One evening as I walked
around I met a lady who was looking for the Confessional area and may not have been receiving the
Sacraments very often. “Father, could you tell me where I could get the Sacrament of …” and she
hesitated for a minute. Then she continued: “Where I could get the Sacrament of Resurrection.” I
thought it was a very good description of Confession. For that is what it truly is: a Sacrament that
gives a true spiritual resurrection from sin to friendship with God, from slavery to freedom, from
darkness to light.
If we have committed a grave or mortal sin, we must go to individual confession before receiving Holy
Communion. But we need not be great sinners or be away from the Sacrament for years or have grave
sins on our conscience to go to Confession. In fact, the Church asks those who wish to make progress
in holiness, or who are more deeply united to God in the religious or consecrated life, to avail of
the Sacrament of Reconciliation more frequently – not because they are greater sinners but because
they need more grace and strength to live a holy life. “The purpose of the sacrament of Penance is
to make saints as well as to save sinners” (L. Trese). In fact the grace of this sacrament gives
strength for the journey ahead; it inoculates against temptation and heals the wounds we receive in
the good fight of every day against the weaknesses and selfish inclinations of our fallen nature.
Confession is indeed the sacrament of pardon and of new life. It is often a forum where a soul receives
advice, encouragement, counsel and direction. This sacrament accompanies a Christian on the way to
perfection. “It would be an illusion to want to strive for holiness in accordance with the vocation
that God has given to each one of us without frequently and fervently receiving this sacrament of
conversion and sanctification” (John Paul II, 27 March 2004). In fact, it contains limitless
possibilities of healing and growth.
Moreover, this sacrament reconciles us not only with God, but also with others whom our sin has
wounded or against whom our sinful ways have set up a barrier of discord or enmity. Here we are
reconciled with the Church whose life our sin had weakened. We are reconciled with our brothers
and sisters with whom our fraternal communion was damaged by our sinful actions. We are also reconciled
with ourselves in our inmost heart and regain our peace of conscience.
A famous convert, John Henry Cardinal Newman, who knew what it was to be deprived of sacramental
Confession and then who experienced its benefits, once wrote:
“How many are the souls, in distress, anxiety or loneliness, whose one need
is to find a being to whom they can pour out their feelings unheard by the
world? Tell them out they must; they cannot tell them out to those whom they
see every hour. They want to tell them and not to tell them; and they want to
tell them out, yet be as if they be not told; they wish to tell them to one
who is strong enough to bear them, yet not too strong to despise them; they
wish to tell them to one who can at once advise and can sympathize with them;
they wish to relieve themselves of a load, to gain a solace, to receive the
assurance that there is one who thinks of them, and one to whom in thought
they can recur, to whom they can betake themselves, if necessary, from time
to time, while they are in world.” (The Present Position of Catholics, p. 351).
And later he added the phrase in a sermon: “Happy all Catholics, if they knew their happiness” (Sermon
Notes, p. 200).
Although the Sacrament of Penance may be “laborious” at times, it has been seen since the first
centuries of Christianity as a “second plank following shipwreck” (Tertullian), that is, another
chance to have sins committed after baptism forgiven and a broken or weakened friendship with Christ
restored. In a world threatened by sin, it is a sacrament given to us to enable us to grow in the
spiritual life and reach union with God.
Anointing of the Sick
The other Sacrament of healing is now called the Anointing of the Sick. It used to be called Extreme
Unction, because it was given only to those who were about to die. In fact it always does give
strength for the final struggles of life, and “completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection
of Christ, just as Baptism began it” (CCC 1523).
However, “the Anointing of the Sick is not a sacrament intended only for those who are at the point
of death. Hence, as soon as any of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old
age, the appropriate time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly arrived already” (Vat. II,
The Sacred Liturgy, No 73). It is true to say that it is a preparation for our final journey, but it
is also meant to be a remedy in the presence of any serious illness.
It too forgives sins, also the sins of those who may be unconscious and who cannot confess them at
that moment. Hence, its great spiritual value. But it is meant not only to cleanse and save the soul,
but also to benefit the human body that is weighed down by illness. If it be God’s will, it can also
bring healing to the body. It conveys a gift of grace by the Holy Spirit that alleviates pain, brings
peace, gives courage and strengthens hope.
This effect on the mind and body as well as on the soul has often been experienced by the priest called
for an Anointing and by those who care for the sick. Some of the prayers of the Ritual that may accompany
the Anointing of the Sick illustrate the Church’s trust in its healing effects: “Cure the weakness of
your servant. Heal his sickness and forgive his sins; expel all afflictions of mind and body; mercifully
restore him to full health and enable him to resume his former duties”. And when it is received with
a lively faith, the healing and calming effects of this sacrament are much more noticeable. “The prayer
of faith (says St James in his Letter) will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up” (Jas 5:5).
Caring for the weak and infirm is part of the Church’s mission. In this service of souls, she imitates
her Master to whom the people brought all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and
pains … and he cured them” (Mt 4:24). The disciples also received the command: “heal the sick”
(Mt 10:8). The Church continues to carry on this healing ministry in a special way through the sacraments.
Penance and the Anointing of the Sick are two sacraments instituted for the specific purpose of healing
and strengthening soul and body.
Knock Shrine is a place of comfort and of healing for an untold number of people. Pilgrims flock here
from all over Ireland and from abroad throughout the whole year. Many
priests give their time generously to the ministry of Reconciliation. Even in the dullest weekday in
the heart of Winter, confessions are heard from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and an average of 150 people avail
of the Sacrament in the Reconciliation Chapel. During the Knock Novena, six confessors are available
for nine hours every day. With up to twenty of them at the peak hours.
Before solemn Eucharists during pilgrimages, the Anointing of the Sick is administered in a liturgical
and communal celebration to many who are burdened with sickness or weakened through old age.
Outside the Novena Week, a noticeable increase has been recorded this year with up to a thousand
pilgrims every day and a number of concelebrating priests. According to those who have ministered
here for many years, this has been the busiest year of pilgrimages at Knock.
It would be impossible to calculate the graces of healing, of strength and of reconciliation received
at Knock. Many of them are secrets lodged in the human heart and known to God alone. This Shrine is
truly one of the principal places of the Church’s caring, healing and reconciling service in Ireland
A word of special thanks and appreciation is due to Mgr Joseph Quinn and Rev Richard Gibbons who are in
charge of Knock Shrine and who give all their time and energy to the running of this important place of
pilgrimage. A word of gratitude also is due to the many priests who come for shorter or longer periods
to help in various ways and to administer the Sacrament of Penance.
Knock is our National Shrine where Mary, Queen of Ireland and Queen of Peace, is present to intercede
for her children. Here the Church shows her caring, healing and reconciling face. May we, and all pilgrims,
find at Knock that peace and comfort which the world cannot give.
Notes for Editors
The Most Reverend Philip Boyce is Bishop of Raphoe. The Diocese of Raphoe has: 33 parishes; a Catholic
population of 79,720; 71 Catholic Churches; and, the patron saint of the diocese is St Eunan.
The Raphoe pilgrimage takes place every year during the Annual Novena to Our Lady of Knock. The theme
for Bishop Boyce’s homily this year is: “The Care and healing of the Church in the Sacraments of Penance
Martin Long Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
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