Sacraments of Healing: Help in Tough Times

by Tony Tamberino

Amy called me at the parish youth ministry office, asking to see me after school. When she arrived, her news was a sad surprise.

"My grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer," Amy said. Between tears, she continued, "He’s shut himself up in the house. He won’t see or talk to anyone, doesn’t eat and won’t even go back to his doctor.

"My grandmother is a mess. My dad is angry because my grandfather won’t even talk on the phone. I’m afraid he’s going to die—without seeing me or any of the family! What can I do?"

Her grandfather belonged to our parish and bowled in the same league as the pastor. But he wouldn’t even see the pastor!

I suggested that Amy send her grandfather a letter to tell him how she felt. When she was little, she told me, she made him cards and would write in big letters, "I love you, Pop-Pop," on the front. She agreed to try.

As she prepared to leave, she asked me how her grandfather could change so much, so fast. There could be lots of reasons, I said. When people face really tough times, they can become overwhelmed with fear and grief and anger. They can feel isolated, abandoned and even guilty about lots of stuff. There’s a strong temptation to just shut yourself away, thinking that healing and happiness are gone forever.

All Amy said, as the tears began again, was, "That’s really sad!"

Always a Healer

What do you do when someone feels that healing and happiness are gone forever? There are no easy answers, but the Church has always been very concerned about that problem.

In fact, Jesus expressed that concern consistently. As he preached the Kingdom of God, he spent a fair amount of his ministry healing the sick and reaching out to those who were alienated and alone.

In the first chapter of Mark, it seems that the whole city of Capernaum sought healing from Jesus after he healed Peter’s mother-in law. Jesus’ healing ministry wasn’t limited to people who sought him out. Often Jesus himself initiated healing.

The people of Israel understood that such power to heal was a clear sign of the coming of the Messiah. Many saw in Jesus’ healing ministry a sign of God’s saving power.

But it is also clear that Jesus considered physical healing only one part of his total mission. Before curing a paralytic brought to Jesus by his friends, he proclaimed that the man’s sins were forgiven. He preached repentance and demanded that people turn from sin and selfishness.

In the story of Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree just to see him, Jesus offered another kind of healing—one that looks to repentance and forgiveness and a complete change of heart. Zacchaeus is healed, but it is a healing of the heart and conscience as he declares that, "Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over" (Luke 19:8).

Jesus understood that there is much more to healing than physical cures. Have you ever had friends who were sick of heart or overcome with sadness or doubt? Even before they said what was bothering them, you knew that they were in some kind of pain—in need of healing.

Jesus could sense when a person’s spirit was sick and in need of healing, too. While he often cured physical troubles, he also brought healing to those overcome by sin, selfishness or sadness. He invited them to experience God’s saving love and forgiveness and he offers you that same invitation.

 Jesus not only offers you healing, but also asks you to share the gift you have received. Have you ever had the desire to be an instrument of healing for others: to help someone with a fractured friendship or who was struggling with alcohol or an eating disorder?

You can! Jesus shared his ministry of healing and forgiveness with his followers and sent his disciples to take up his mission. Even after his resurrection, as he commissioned the disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19), he entrusted to them the power to forgive sins in his name.

As the Church began to preach Jesus Christ as the risen Lord, it became clear that the healing power of Jesus was present in the community and that the apostles continued the ministry of Jesus as they preached and healed and even suffered in the name of Christ.

Those first disciples understood that, through Jesus’ saving death, resurrection and glorification, forgiveness and reconciliation had been won. The power of sin and evil had been conquered. Jesus brought the healing power of God’s grace to all who longed for it. He empowered his followers to do the same.

Where Is God?

You know it isn’t always easy to feel God’s presence in your life. Especially when things don’t seem to be going well, it seems almost natural to wonder where God is in all of this. Think about Amy’s grandfather.

The good news is that God is present in tough times. How do you know that? Where can you find and experience God’s presence when things go wrong? Turn to Christ. Rely on his word. Pour your heart out in prayer. Turn to your family and friends. And call on the Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth.

In James 5:14-15, we read, "Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters [say PREZbiturs and think leaders] of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven."

You can’t handle the tough times alone. Amy understood that much better than her grandfather. Whether it’s sickness or grief or anger, or even your own sin and weakness, you need to turn to the community of faith and in that community recognize the presence of Christ who wants to offer healing and grace.

You believe in a God who stands with us in difficult times, who knows pain, rejection and heartbreak. You are part of a Church that, in the sacraments of healing, proclaims and celebrates that God is alive and cares when his children suffer.

Healing Hearts

Reconciliation is one of the sacraments of healing, I explained to my youth group. The focus of the sacrament is on your sorrow for sin and humbly receiving God’s forgiveness through the ministry of the priest. But Alan didn’t buy it.

He challenged, "It doesn’t feel like healing to me. I get nervous and embarrassed and I always think that Father Tim is going to hate me."

Before I could respond, one of the other kids in the group said, "Yeah, but how do you feel when you’re all done?" Alan answered that he feels glad it’s over with.

Someone else asked, "But how do you feel inside?" He reluctantly admitted that he always feels "lighter—my heart seems less heavy."

Most of the young people reported that, when they confess their sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they feel relief. They have a sense of coming clean, of being better connected to God and others. We concluded that healing did take place—a healing of heart and soul as we accepted God’s grace of forgiveness.

Jesus gave the apostles the power to forgive and hold back (bind and loose) sins after the resurrection. (See Matthew 18:18.) The Church has always understood that, at this point, Jesus was giving us the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that we could experience God’s love and grace even when we had fallen prey to selfishness and sin.

It has always been true that human beings fall easily into sin. From the story of the Original Sin to present-day examples of pride, greed, violence and lust, it is clear that sin is real.

Jesus in his ministry of healing reached out not only to the physically sick, but also to those whose hearts and souls were ailing. In many ways, Jesus was the ultimate psychologist. He understood the human heart and human behavior better than anyone else. He understood that sin and selfishness injured the sinner more than they hurt anyone else.

Sin is choosing self over God and others. Such selfishness hardens your heart, leads you to care mostly about yourself and weakens or cuts off your relationships with others.

When Jesus looked into the eyes of people caught in sin, they understood that they were being offered an opportunity for healing and a new lease on life. Oh, they could refuse it and some did. But many people opened themselves to that offer. They recognized that God knew them through and through, and loved them just the same.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation requires that you have true sorrow for your sins and that you confess them to the priest. The priest acts in the name of the Church and as a representative of Christ. He offers absolution—that infallible statement that, indeed, God forgives you and brings you back to grace. Finally, the priest gives you a penance or asks you to do something to show your inner attitude of sorrow and your desire to change and avoid sin.

It is Christ who forgives in the sacrament. It is the healing presence of Christ that you experience.

Jesus is still offering that healing today. Through the ministry of the Church and the life of the faith community, Christ reaches out to all who sin. His words remind you that healing is possible and that when you have true sorrow and trust in the Father's mercy and compassion you can experience God’s love anew! What could be more healing than that?

Pray for the Sick

On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, some members of the peer ministry team were helping at the parish Mass that would include the Anointing of the Sick. It was a very powerful celebration, with over 130 parishioners receiving the sacrament. After the homily, the pastor invited the whole community to pray as he invited those to be anointed to open their hearts to the power of God’s grace.

Then he and two other priests began to lay hands on each person who desired to receive the sacrament. Most of them processed down the aisle, but some couldn’t so the priests went to them. As the priests put both hands on the heads of the sick, the whole assembly prayed in silence.

Then the anointing ritual began. As each person came to the priest, he anointed him or her on the forehead and prayed, "Through this holy anointing may the Lord help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit." Then he anointed the person’s hands and prayed, "May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up."

At a reception after Mass, a couple of the peer ministers said they were surprised that a lot of healthy-looking young people came for anointing. They thought that you had to be close to death or very old to receive the Anointing of the Sick.

I explained that in order to receive the sacrament one had to be seriously ill, with an illness that could be life-threatening. In fact, I said, even people with depression or mental illness could avail themselves of the sacrament if their illness is serious.

The young people helped serve punch and cookies and met some of those who had been anointed. While we were cleaning up, one of them said, "This was pretty cool. A lot of the people here today usually don’t get to Mass. It was good to be able to have them come and be a part of the Church."

Another one added, "It took their minds off themselves and their troubles for a while. This Sacrament of Anointing is a great idea!" I couldn’t have agreed more.

Amy’s Pop-Pop

I had hoped to see Amy and her grandfather at that Mass. They hadn’t come, though, and I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It had been about six weeks since her visit. Our pastor hadn’t been allowed to visit either, though he’d tried twice.

On the Thursday after Easter, I learned that Amy’s grandfather had died. This was very sad news. When I went to the wake, I expected to find a troubled family. When I walked into the room, Amy almost ran to greet me—with good news.

On Easter Sunday she and her parents went to her grandfather’s house and announced that they wouldn’t leave the front porch until they had seen him! After a full two hours, he finally gave up and let them in. (It seems that they were playing and singing Easter songs while they waited.)

When Amy walked into her grandfather’s room, all her recent cards with "I love you, Pop-Pop" were hanging around the room. She burst into tears.

Her grandfather said he was sorry for the heartache he’d caused, and the family spent a very tearful but happy Easter together. The next morning, Easter Monday, her grandfather called the pastor and went to confession. The whole family gathered for the Sacrament of Anointing and received Communion together. Pop-Pop died Wednesday night.

At the funeral Mass, Amy managed to smile through her tears. She had experienced the healing power of Christ and had actually served as an instrument of that healing for her family. I couldn’t help but shed a tear or two myself as I marveled at the way God’s grace can work through the sacraments of healing.

Become an Instrument of Healing

1. Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation

To be a sign of healing and forgiveness for others, you should take advantage of the sacrament that can bring healing to you.

2. Participate in Parish Ministries to the Sick.

Begin regular visits to the local nursing home, arrange a group to make cards and small gifts for delivery to parish shut-ins or assist at the celebrations of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick whenever they are held.

3. Start a Ministry of Prayer for the Sick.

At your school, ask permission for a poster to be placed where the names of sick students or family members could be posted. Invite members of your school community to hand in the names of those they would like remembered. Update the list weekly.

4. Pray Daily for the Sick

Say a decade of the rosary or pray one of the psalms every day. Offer the troubles of your everyday life for the intentions of the sick and sorrowful.



You say, "Call on the Church, the Body of Christ." Sounds good, but I certainly don't know how to do that. Help!


It begins by relying on the people closest to you: your parents who have formed you in your faith. Call on your pastor, principal or other members of your faith community, especially your youth or campus minister or the youth group itself. Finally, don't forget your Catholic and Christian friends who also believe in Christ and share a relationship with him. Turn to them, ask them for prayers and advice or to pray with you.



I have lots of questions about Confession. Here are two: Are sins you don't mention forgiven? What if you don't do your penance?


Any serious (mortal) sin must be mentioned during your confession. You know that God knows: To hold something serious back from the priest means you're not being completely honest or you're just too embarrassed. Trust God's mercy and trust your judgment. Most times, you know what's needed. As for less serious sins, you may not remember every example of disobedience or anger. If you honestly forget, that sin is still forgiven. The most important thing is to be truly sorry and to ask God for forgiveness through the ministry of the priest. Accepting a penance from the priest is also an important part of the sacrament. An act of penance indicates that you mean to rid your life of sin and want to begin to make amends. If you walk out with no intention of doing the penance, I would wonder if you are truly sorry. (If you actually forget, simply do it when you do remember.) If you receive a penance that you can't do (for instance, giving money to the poor—when you don't have any), ask for a penance you can complete.



I heard you could only be anointed once in your life. Is that true? If so, should I use my chance now already?


The Sacrament of Anointing can be received more than once. Each time a person has a serious illness or is undergoing surgery, he or she should be anointed. That doesn't mean when you have a common cold or get a tooth filled! But it would include such things as diabetes. If you have a chronic illness like that, it is quite acceptable that you celebrate the sacrament when a communal anointing happens at your parish.

Tony Tamberino is the Associate for Youth and Young Adult Ministry at The Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley, Maryland, after 10 years at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Columbia, Maryland.  He is a frequent presenter at youth conferences and retreats and is the author of the Pray Your Heart Resource Manual from St. Mary’s Press.

Emily Schmiesing (17), Jacob Sekas (15), Elizabeth Szippi (17) and Tina Voisard (17) of Holy Angels Parish in Sidney, Ohio, met on a Sunday morning to review this issue. The questions posed here are theirs. Jean Smith, parish youth director, gathered the group.