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 | By Doug Culp

The biblical basis for the sacraments of healing

“They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men … When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Child, your sins are forgiven … But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth’ – he said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.’ He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone.” (Mk 2:3,5,10-12)


The great physician

This passage famously portrays Jesus as a healer of both the body and the soul. The catechism (1421) states that Jesus willed his Church to continue his mission of healing and salvation through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is this mission that provides the sacrament of penance and reconciliation and the sacrament of the anointing of the sick with their purpose. With this in mind, we now turn our attention to the Bible to seek evidence that Jesus Christ did, in fact, institute these sacraments of healing.

Penance and reconciliation

The biblical basis for Jesus forgiving sins is apparent in the passage at the beginning. Christians agree on this point. The contention arises as to the validity of the sacrament whereby one confesses her/his sins to a priest, who absolves the person in the name of Christ.

Two passages, in particular, are relevant to this question. In the Gospel of Matthew (16:19), Jesus says to Simon Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

This power of binding and loosing extends to all the Apostles. In the Gospel of John (20:19-23), Jesus has risen, appeared to the disciples for the first time, and breathed on them the Holy Spirit. He then says to the disciples, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

St. Paul provides additional evidence of Christ’s institution of the sacrament in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. (5:18-19) In this passage, St. Paul writes that it is Christ himself who has given the Church the ministry of reconciliation and entrusted “to us the message of reconciliation.”

Anointing of the sick

The catechism says that Jesus “makes [his disciples] share in his ministry of compassion and healing” (1506) and quotes a passage from the Gospel of Mark. (6:12-13) This passage occurs at the end of a section entitled, “The Mission of the Twelve,” which recounts Jesus sending out the Twelve Apostles in pairs to minister. It concludes with the Apostles preaching repentance, anointing the sick with oil and curing the sick.

Later in Mark’s Gospel, a risen Jesus again sends out the Apostles. According to Jesus, one of the signs that will accompany those who believe the Gospel is, “They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (16:18)

Finally, the Letter of James (5:14-15) leaves no doubt as to the thinking of the Apostolic Church as to whether the anointing of the sick was called for by Christ. The catechism (1511) explains that the Apostle James actually recommends and promulgates the sacrament in this passage. James writes that the presbyters of the church should be summoned when someone is sick to pray over and anoint the person with oil in Jesus’ name. These actions promise the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the sick person.

Did You Know…

The anointing of the sick is not reserved for those who are about to die. The catechism (1515) states any baptized person who is gravely ill can receive it. If that same person recovers, but falls ill due to a completely different malady, the person can receive the sacrament again. The sacrament can be received repeatedly for the same illness, especially if the person’s condition worsens. The sacrament may also be received before a person undergoes any serious operation.

Doug Culp is the chancellor for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington.

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