Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Ecumenically incorrect charity

If we come to the point where the conflict is not between good and evil, but between good and good or evil and evil, we can navigate safely if we have within us the working of the Holy Spirit called charity.

Some years back, I was in a hospital room with a dying woman. She was a Roman Catholic, and I am an Anglican priest. It seemed that she could die at any moment, and no priest from her own church was anywhere in sight. She wanted very badly to make a confession and to be anointed, and even to be given Communion one last time. I believe that I have every sacramental charism that my brother, a Roman Catholic priest, has. But, the rules in her church don’t allow her to regard the sacraments of the Anglican priesthood. Of course, if only the other priest would come through the door, there would be no dilemma. But, he won’t make it on time. He cannot.

Here was a true-life dilemma. And, although it was not as exciting as potential gunfire, and the action of “24,” it was life and death nonetheless. I believe I can hear her confession, give true Absolution, and reach into my Pyx to give her the real Body of Christ- one last time. I believe I can give her a valid Anointing with oil, and pray with all efficacy. And, her mind is so gone that she can no longer understand the distinction between an Anglican priest and a Roman Catholic priest (not that I had failed to lay my cards on the table. She simply could not think to make sense of any difference). What of the importance of truth? What about high principles of Ecumenical relations? What if she recovers, and her conscience becomes troubled by having received what she might later consider [rightly or wrongly] to have been dubious sacraments?

What, on the other hand, if she dies without Absolution, without a final gesture of faith that might be the difference between entering into life or death when her soul departs? To receive these sacraments for the last time, to have a handle that faith can grasp by turning to God upon her deathbed, might be her lifeline. Maybe God brought me into this room this day. But, no matter what, I am, in someone’s eyes, “damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” What I believed to be the way of charity was all I could rely upon. As she seemed to be slipping away, I ministered the sacraments and prepared her to die.

There is more to this story, and I have told it before. She actually pulled through by the slimmest of chances, and lived for a couple of years (be careful with that anointing and praying. You never quite know if it will spoil a funeral or not). She returned to the Roman Catholic Church (after years of separation), and led her grown children back into her Church as well.

The correspondence of Hell must be very well guarded. Aside from a few letters that were discovered by C.S. Lewis, the devilish mind remains hidden or scrambled. Nonetheless, even without Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood, we could imagine the extent to which diabolical frustration must rise. Try as they might, the forces of Darkness are not able to purge man (in their terms). No matter the degree to which sin distorts the human creature, his evil cannot be pure evil. It is always contaminated by the image of God, and is at best a mere distortion of the goodness of the created world.

Some may believe I did the wrong thing, when I believed she was dying (well, she was dying, and it was expected by the hospital and doctors that she would die). And, to the frustration of the devils who cannot create pure evil in their human “patients,” even if sin was present in some technical sense, so was charity, and the image of God.


Anonymous said...

Things usually change when confronting life and death issues face to face. Man made barriers, of necessity, often become meaningless. Drowning men are not concerned who it is that throws them a life line.
You were there at that moment as God's agent and you had no choice.
My experiences in similar situations are firstly to present a clear identity of who I am. Not once has there been any hesitation in receiving the Sacraments. In one case after being the first person to arrive after a fatal auto accident I administered last rites to a young woman, a college student, who died in my arms. She was a Roman Catholic and I notified her parish priest as soon as was possible. Both her family and her priest were grateful.
These are tragic examples of: "the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions".
Joseph DeHart, ACC priest

poetreader said...

Good work, Father!

While being subject to those over us, even if they be less than perfect, is a Biblical imperative, the fact remains that barriers between Christians are, in the final analysis, man-made barriers and cannot be allowed to stand in such dire circumstances.

Furthermore, even if Rome were correct as to the invalidity of "our" sacraments (a proposition I obviously reject, but ...), even a false sacrament, received in good faith, is of deep spiritual benefit to the recipient. I would hope that woman's priest would have thus assured her.


Anonymous said...

I have never encountered a situation quite this dramatic. But I cannot count the times I have been intercepted in a hospital corridor by someone who saw my Anglican collar and said, "Father, would you come and say a prayer with my husband/dad/family member."

I always make it very clear that I am not a priest of the papal obedience but will be happy to come and pray. RC's seem grateful for pastoral care from almost any source. Their own padres, bless them, are drastically overworked, with too many parishioners to look after with the daily visits our people have come to expect. But I am very scrupulous not to reprsent myself as an RC priest. They have never rejected me and are touching in their gratitude--more grateful sometimes than our own people are.

The Midland Agrarian said...

A moving and profitable post as always, Father.

I feel like sometimes our divisions as Christians are luxuries-we can afford them at times when the church is not under direct persectution. I am always moved by stories about the charitable ecumenicism of such places as communist prisons, concentration camps, or Chrisitans under Islamic rule. We dont have the luxury of our in-house quibbles when we are all in distress together. While a hospital is not a concentration camp, there is the same immediacy in that one must throw certain luxuries aside. I hope if life ever finds me in such circumstances as that woman, an RC ACC or EO priest would do the same for me.

Anonymous said...

I would have taken the 'sacrament' knowing that there was a chance that the Anglican priest had valid orders. I believe that once the ordinal was fixed to include more reference to the sacrificial priesthood and certain bishops went in search of valid apostolic succession, there are some strains of apostolic succession and valid orders within Anglicanism (I'm sure ya'll know that Bishop Carey of London was reordained conditionally when he converted to Catholicism). If I were in a life or death situation, I would ask for a Catholic priest first and if one couldn't be located timely, would ask for an ordthodox priest. In the end, if only an Anglican priest were present, I would accept last rites from him...all the while praying to God that I am doing the right thing and asking for forgiveness of my sins and to be taken up into Heaven. If I survived, I would most certainly be grateful for the Anglican priest's desire to attend to me. My kids go to an Episcopalian school and my daughter was taken my ambulance from the school to the ER (painful injury,but not critical)....the priest gathered people to pray for her as she was driven off...I thanked him, knowing that he wants to help, was concerned for the care and well being of my daughter and was offering up prayers asking for God to assist. You just can't blame a person for that!

Fr William Bauer said...

My niece (a non-practicing Roman) was dying of cervical cancer. She was in a hospice setting. My sister (her mother) told me that the niece was being very angry and bitchy. I went to see her, administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction and told her good-bye. My sister reported that the niece’s total attitude had changed and that she died a few days later in peace. I have wondered since if I had done right.

Carlos said...

At the very least... if they don't believe the sacraments to be valid, you did what you could, and they can at the very least see Christian Charity in the act...

Fr. Robert Hart said...


That was Bishop Graham Leonard, who had been Bishop of London.

Anonymous said...

And Bishop Graham Leonard WAS NOT CONDITIONALLY REORDAINED! He was received in his orders on the basis of his having Old Catholic orders (same as PNC) per the 1930 Bonn Agreement. Amusing whereas most Anglicans also have them. Leonard+ was received in priest orders, not in Episcopal Orders.
Fr. D.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Fr. D.

I am sorry to inform you that you are simply mistaken. He was conditionally ordained. However, that in itself is rather significant from a RC perspective.

Anonymous said...

I meant Graham...I don't know why Carey popped into my head.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I don't know why Carey popped into my head.

Scary images might be caused by indigestion. In the words of Ebenezer Scrooge, "an undigested piece of beef, or part of an underdone potato." It usually takes a sausage pizza, or forgetting my Prylosec, to make Carey pop into my head.

For some reason I do think of him when I am driving behind a truck that is carrying a horse.

poetreader said...

You should be ashamed of yourself!


Anonymous said...

Sirach 31:

20 Sound sleep cometh of moderate eating: he riseth early, and his wits are with him: but the pain of watching, and choler, and pangs of the belly, are with an unsatiable man.

21 And if thou hast been forced to eat, arise, go forth, vomit, and thou shalt have rest.

I prefer Rabeprazole.

Anonymous said...

For me, this story illustrates the urgent need for unity between Roman Catholicism and Catholic Anglicanism. Given that the communions disagree on the validity of Anglican orders, the important issue is not which position is right and which wrong, but what can be done so that these conflicting views are reconciled.

The fact that other Catholic Christians view Anglican orders as invalid should be of no minor concern to Anglicans. Insisting that the Roman Catholic Church is merely wrong, and waiting for the Pope to change church teaching accomplishes nothing. I am confident that such a mutual validation of orders can be accomplished in a way that does not force Anglicans to admit their orders are not valid or force the Holy See to accept that they are in their current state. Clearly there is a problem with the way things are, and it is imperative to the universal church that it be rectified.

A member of the Traditional Anglican Communion, I support the efforts of the TAC to be corporately united to the Roman Catholic Church, and I patiently wait and daily pray for that day.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Sandra McColl wrote:

I prefer Rabeprazole.

Hey, if one Rabeprazole a day keeps the Doc away...(I mean Doc Carey, who pushed women's "ordination" on the C of E), or even visions of him...

Ampney wrote:

The fact that other Catholic Christians view Anglican orders as invalid should be of no minor concern to Anglicans.

Let's face one important fact in all this: If not for women's "ordination" the 1896 Bull on Anglican Orders would have been rescinded by Pope Paul VI in 1976. That is as certain as the fact the sun rose yesterday morning. The question is, why should anything stop them from recognizing our orders, that is Continuing Anglican orders? We have no part in W "O".

John A. Hollister said...

Ampney referred to the prospect of "mutual validation of orders" between the Roman Catholics and (presumably the Continuing) Anglicans.

Such a prospect is not likely to meet with much enthusiasm among Continuing Anglicans, for whom it bears all the red flags of vagantism.

Whenever we hear terms such as "validation", "sharing lines of succession" and the like, we tend to run as fast as possible in the other direction.

On the other hand, I'm sure we would be disposed charitably to accept the Pope's expression of repentence for the Roman Church's going into schism from the Church of England in 1570 and to absolve it from its subsequent irregularity in the matter of its orders....

John A. Hollister+