The Power of Anointing to Shorten or Eliminate Purgatory
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J.
The Sacrament of Anointing is the new name given by the Second Vatican Council to the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. As might be expected, all the founders of Protestantism denied that Christ instituted this sacrament. At most, they would admit that Anointing of the Sick was a charism of bodily healing. That is why the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century issued no less than four infallible declarations defining both Christ’s institution of Anointing and its three-fold purpose of conferring grace, remitting sin, and giving strength of body and soul to the sick who receive this sacrament.
Proper Disposition for Anointing
It is no exaggeration to say that the Sacrament of Anointing is not well understood by most Catholics. This is partly due to the fact that, over the centuries, the Sacrament was generally conferred only on persons who were fatally sick or injured and in close danger of death.
But more important, many of the faithful do not realize that this Sacrament does not require what we call “perfect contrition” for its valid administration and remission of even grave sins.
True, anointing can be given only to people who are sorry for their sins. However, we must immediately distinguish that the sorrow for sin need not be present at the time a person is anointed. The sorrow for sin may go back even years before a person is in danger of death. Only one condition must be fulfilled: the now sick and dying person, at least at some time between having gravely sinned and the time of Anointing, had been sincerely sorry for having offended God by grave sin. Thus, Anointing can be given to people who had sinned years before. It may be years before they had repented—had been sorry. Nevertheless, though years may have elapsed between the sorrow and the anointing, the sorrow is still effective for the valid administration of the Sacrament of Anointing. To repeat, and re-emphasize, the sorrow necessary for the valid reception of Anointing need be only the fear of God’s punishments, [namely, imperfect contrition]. In other words, the same basic sorrow which is necessary for the Sacrament of Penance is necessary for the Sacrament of Anointing.
A good practice that I highly recommend is the daily anticipation of our bodily death. Call it the Daily Acceptance of Death. It goes like this:
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I accept from Your hands, whatever kind of death it may please You to send me today (tonight), with all its pains, penalties and sorrows, in reparation for my sins, for the souls in Purgatory, for the conversion of sinners, for all those who will die today (tonight), and for Your greater glory. Amen.
You might call this prayer a daily preparation for the Sacrament of Anointing that, please God, we shall receive on the eve of entering everlasting life.
Shorten or Eliminate Purgatory
For most Catholics, Purgatory is something in which they believe but which does not deeply influence their lives. This is unfortunate because one of the great blessings of Anointing is to shorten our stay in Purgatory or even enable us to enter heaven without purgation when our souls leave our bodies.
No one has improved on Saint Catherine of Genoa’s description of the pains in Purgatory. Let me just share with you several quotations.
No tongue can tell nor explain, no mind understand, the grievousness of Purgatory. But I, though I see that there is in Purgatory as much pain as in Hell, yet see the soul which has the least stain of imperfection accepting Purgatory, as I have said, as though it were a mercy, and holding its pains of no account as compared with the least stain which hinders a soul in its love. I seem to see that the pain which souls in Purgatory endure because of whatever in them displeases God, that is, what they have willfully done against His great goodness, is greater than any other pain they feel in Purgatory. And this is because, being in grace, they see the truth and the grievousness of the hindrance that prevents them from drawing near to God (Fire of Love, Understanding Purgatory, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1996, pp. 49-50).
Another statement of Saint Catherine deserves to be memorized.
Gold which has been purified to a certain point ceases to suffer any diminution from the action of fire, however great it be; for the fire does not destroy gold, but only the dross that it may chance to have. In like manner, the divine fire acts on souls: God holds them in the furnace until every defect has been burnt away and He has brought them each in his own degree to a certain standard of perfection. Thus purified, they rest in God without any allow of self; they become impassible because there is nothing left to be consumed (Fire of Love, Understanding Purgatory, pp. 59-60).
We could quote not only Saint Catherine of Genoa but Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and a host of other masters of the spiritual life who are unsparing in their description of the pains of Purgatory.
Let us be clear. Sin and pain go together as cause and effect. Had there been no sin in the world, there would be no pain. Absolutely speaking we have only one choice. As sinners we must either suffer here on earth or, even though we die in the grace of God, suffer in Purgatory.
But there is one more choice. What is that? If we receive the Sacrament of Anointing before bodily death, we can deserve to enter heaven immediately without the purgatorial sufferings that we had deserved. No human language can exaggerate the importance of being anointed before we enter eternity. This sacrament has the power of bringing us immediately into the presence of God for whom we were made.
Lord Jesus, we are deeply grateful for Your institution of the Sacrament of Anointing. It is Your divine will that all of us will die in body as the price we have to pay for our sins. However, it is also by Your divine grace that we can see You face to face the moment You call us into eternity. If we are anointed by Your Sacrament of Mercy, we may hope to be received in Your divine arms, provided our hearts are totally detached from every creature here on earth and totally united with your Sacred Heart. Amen.