The other day I found myself in discussion with a group of parishioners about the Anointing of the Sick. Close to 50 years ago after the reforms of Vatican II were presented, when several of the Sacraments of our Church suddenly had a different title, people were challenged to say the least. Although it has been more than one generation since Vatican II, it might be helpful to briefly review the meaning of this healing sacrament. What we assume is obvious to us priests is not always clear to the good people in the pew.
So, receiving Communion, became celebrating the Eucharist. Going to Confession, became the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Extreme Unction, became the Anointing of the Sick. For now what about that anointing of the sick? What happened to the Last Rites?
Well, the rites didn’t go anywhere but was expanded in its scope and purpose. So, the dying should be anointed in this beautiful sacrament of healing. We as Catholics have a comforting ritual around both death and dying. In the structure of the rite, we find the presence of the Church surrounds us and the Holy Spirit comes as comforter. This ritual around those final hours is not present in most Christian religions. Certainly, Protestant funeral services though appropriate are more testimonials with some scripture and song interspersed.
As well the terminal person should be offered Reconciliation and the Eucharist if possible. In the case of the Eucharist offered to a person near death, it is referred to as Viaticum. This is food for the journey as one passes from this life to the next – that Christ may “go along the way with” (via cum) the dying person to eternity. But it isn’t only for the dying. And this is the greatest change in scope and purpose.
While Extreme Unction was narrowed to application only in “extreme” cases – meaning near death, hence the “last rites,” that same sacrament was renamed Anointing of the Sick which offers the grace of healing to those facing serious surgery, those under treatment for cancer such as chemotherapy patients, those suffering debilitating conditions or chronic pain, those who feel the need for sacramental healing while suffering the aftermath of some traumatic experience. These are some real life examples where the prayers of the simple ritual and the anointing with blessed oil bring comfort and strength.
Some common questions that have come my way and I know other priests receive the same.
Who blesses the Oil? – The local Bishop every year at the Chrism Mass, which is held normally during Holy Week. All the priests are gathered and anyone is of course welcome.
If someone is terminal, near death, when should I call for the priest? If possible, and it normally is possible, family or friends should not wait until the last moment. For one the priest may simply not be available instantly and secondly, the dying person may be unconscious and unable to participate or respond in a meaningful way to the anointing, reconciliation or receive the Eucharist. The best time to call the priest is when the person is still relatively lucid. He/she would be able to communicate with the priest and family and friends around the bedside. How beautiful and comforting a moment that would be for everyone.
Hospice caregivers are particularly sensitive about this in my experience. I often receive a call from a Hospice giver who, at the request of the family, calls the priest for the last rites. The person is “actively dying” which is somewhat of a relative term but hopefully it is not the final breath.
When should I be anointed? We have a wonderful practice here in my parish that folks often ask to be anointed after Mass if they are scheduled for surgery in a day or two beyond that time. In the rite of anointing there is a beautiful prayer for “surgeons and nurses” who will care for the patient and that they will be part of the healing process.
Will I be healed? Well, that of course is left up to the Lord. One thing to remember about all the sacraments is that they are not magic. There is no magical power that will instantly take away illness. Anointing of the sick, like all of our sacraments, is an encounter with the living Christ. They must be received in faith and a spirit of acceptance that we are able to embrace the will of God.
However, I have rather commonly, seen an improvement in the person’s condition. Jesus comes as the Divine Physician, as he does also in the sacrament of reconciliation, to heal and comfort. The person may be healed in the sense that they are on the road to recovery; their faith is strengthened or they find a peace of acceptance as they face death. But, the purpose of the sacrament is to bring healing of body, mind, spirit.
How often can I be anointed and can children be anointed? This sacrament, like that of reconciliation, can be received often. And yes, a child can be anointed as well. While one doesn’t want to just run to the priest every time we get a sniffle or cough, if an individual finds that after a period of improvement, perhaps several months later, they feel the need for the comfort of the sacrament, they can request to be anointed again, especially if the condition turns to be more serious.
If the parents of a child feel that the sacrament will be of comfort to their son/daughter or if an older teenager asks for the sacrament, then surely they should be offered the grace of healing and peace as well. The prayer of the Church, the grace and comfort of the sacrament from the healing Christ, the faith of those receiving is a potent combination towards not only physical health but spiritual and mental as well.
If the priest comes to my house or hospital room, what should I think? As priest I smile at this one a bit but as innocent as it may seem, it bears some response. What it does not mean is that you're about to breathe your last! If Father appears at my hospital room it likely means nothing more than he is there to say “hello” and see how you’re doing. He may have been at the hospital visiting another parishioner and noticed you were there as well. He may be bringing communion to Catholics who would like to receive. So, it is likely nothing more than a compassionate pastoral visit. Unless he was called specifically to come for the anointing of the sick, he may well offer you that sacrament as well. Why not receive it? I remember as a seminarian intern accompanying a hospital chaplain on his morning rounds. He had the policy of offering the anointing of the sick to anyone over the age of 80, regardless of their condition. If they are hospitalized, and in their elderly years, it’s not a bad policy at all.
So, I offer these thoughts from a pastoral perspective on this beautiful sacrament. It’s all in a name as the saying goes – the Anointing of the Sick.
Be at peace as we prepare for the holy season of Lent next week.Reference: Catechism of the Catholic Church - Chapter 2, Articles 4 and 5 on the Sacraments of Healing.
The four Gospels are filled with references to the healing power of the Lord