Anointing of the Sick

Monday, March 01, 2004



I decided to add an article on the anointing of the sick to my articles about the sacraments, solely because it is the only sacrament I have not yet covered. I'm not sure what I can say from a "progressive" perspective that adds insight to the sacrament that is not contained already in The Catechism of the Catholic Church on The Anointing of the Sick.

For non-Catholic readers, perhaps a brief explanation is in order. Catholics believe that sacraments are outward signs of grace operating within a believer. The signs cause grace by signifying what is received. According to the traditional Catholic understanding of Scripture and the practice of the early Church, Catholics beleive that the sacraments were instituted or confirmed by Christ in his earthly ministry.

There are seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Marriage, Ordination, and Anointing of the Sick.

Marriage is the only sacrament that already in place prior to the life-time of Christ on earth. In the case of marriage, Catholics acknowledge that Christ affirmed marriage in his teaching against divorce, in his participation in the wedding feast of Cana, and in his comparisons of the reign of God to a wedding banquet. As God, Christ is the true source of the sacrament.

Baptism may have started with John and even some of the Pharisees, but Christ quickly assumed this sacrament into his own ministry and gave it new meaning.

Each sacrament uses common and simple signs or symbols that combine with special prayers to be effective vehicles for conferring the power of the Holy Spirit upon a believer. For example, the water of Baptism symbolizes cleansing and new birth through an immersion in the death and resurrection of Christ. The oil and laying on of hands in Confirmation seals one among the annointed people with the Messiah. Eucharist is God's self offering to us of his very being as nourishment and food under signs of bread and wine. Reconciliation or Confession affirms the infinite love and forgiveness Christ lived in his earthly life through the words and gestures of a priest. Marriage symbolizes the union between God and humanity achieved in love incarnate. Ordination anoints one for ministry and service in Apostolic succession. The Anointing of the Sick continues Christ's healing ministry through the power of prayer and faith.

In catholic culture, the sacraments occur at key points in our lives that are often turning points in the formation of personhood. Baptism is typicallyreceived by infants. First Communion is received at the age of reason, around the age of seven. Confirmation is typically received as one enters into young adulthood. Marriage or Ordination is reserved for more mature adults. Reconciliation and ongoing reception of Eucharist feed us through life. The Anointing of the Sick is reserved for serious illness or the end of life.

Anointing people with oil is sometimes hard for modern Americans to understand. Perhaps this is because we reflect less on our lives than that the symbolism has lost its inherent meaning entirely. Even in modern life, we use olive oil for cooking and spas have starting using it as a body oil for massages. We continue to use various oils on our own skin when we are out in the sun, though we may use coconut oil more frequently than olive oil. Furthermore, oil often forms the base for various skin care products.

In the hot and arid climate of the middle east in the ancient world, olive oil was a precious commodity deemed to have a healing effect. Soldiers also used oil on their bodies to make it harder for an enemy to grab ahold of them. The rich often purchased perfumed oil. Naturally, a healthy annoiting with the finest oils came to be associated with royalty and priesthood.

The sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick finds its most earliest explicit Scriptural reference in The Epistle of James:
Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters 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. (Jam 5:14-15)
The sacrament is rooted further in the entire healing ministry of Christ, who often used signs such as laying on of hands or even his spit to symbolically act out his prayers for healing.

Over time, the Church began to save the Anointing of the Sick more and more until the end of life, as a preparation for death. Based on the above Scripture reference, the emphasis was placed on Jame's implied reference to the final resurrection of the dead and the forgiveness of sins. The Church also turned to the story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany as recorded in John as a reference to a preparation for death. When Judas questions this costly waste of expensive perfumed oil, Christ responds:
"Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial." (Jn 12:7)
The CCC outlines the effects of the sacrament as follows:
1532 The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects:
- the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church;
- the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age;
- the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance;
- the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul;
- the preparation for passing over to eternal life.
The Sacrament is performed by a ministerial priest or bishop. Special Biblical-Liturgical prayers are recited while the head and hands of an infirm person. The prayers are directed at the effects of the sacrament.

Prior to Vatican II, many Roman Catholics were taught to call the Sacrament "Extreme Unction" or "Last Rites". The emphasis was almost entirely on preparation for death. Catholics often wore a medallion, a bracelet, or carried a card in our wallets saying, "I am a Catholic. Please call a priest."

However, the context of the Scriptural roots of the sacrament and the history of the Sacrament in the first millennium of the Church places more emphasis on the healing aspect of the Sacrament. For this reason, healing Masses with an opportunity for the Sacrament have been restored. Likewise, priests who work or volunteer in hospital ministry are more apt to offer the sacrament to any seriously ill Catholic, even if the person is not dying. Furthermore, those who suffer with a terminal illness are encouraged not to wait to the very last minute to receive the sacrament. Indeed, the sacrament can be received more than once.

There are a few points about the sacrament I would like to share from personal experience during my seminary formation.

First, I recall going to hospitals wearing a clerical collar. I was not yet ordained, but the collar was encouraged to mark me as a minister. I was provided a list of registered parishioners in the hospital and those in the hospital who indicated to the nurses that they were Catholics and who had a home address within the parish boundary. My role was to take communion to the sick and simply offer a listening ear and some prayer. Since I was not ordained, I could not really perform the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

Often, when people saw the collar I was wearing, they became panicked. People who were told by their doctors that they were recovering nicely suddenly believed they were dying.

I tell this story to remind people that a visit in the hospital by a minister does not mean you are dying. Even if I were ordained and carrying holy oils for Anointing, it does not mean you are dying. The Church encourages ministers to visit the sick. This is a corporal work of mercy. Many laypeople join this effort as well, and you may have noticed that lay Eucharistic ministers are provided consecrated hosts to carry out of the Church each Sunday. Part of the visitation by a priest can be the Anointing of the Sick, and because the sacrament is also a prayer for healing, you may receive it even if the threat of death is not immanent.

Second, if a priest offers the sacrament to you while you are in the hospital, I would recommend accepting it. The main reason I say this is that the sacrament is fundamentally a prayer for healing, and what sick Catholic doesn't need some prayer? Yet, another reason I recommend accepting the sacrament is that if you suddenly take a turn for the worse in the hospital, it may be difficult to get the priest back out there in time!

On a related point, I sometimes hear stories from laypeople who are upset with a priest because he would not come immediately to a hospital room for the Anointing of the Sick. I recall that while I lived with priests in Puerto Rico, there was a priest whom bloggers might refer to as "conservative" or "orthodox". He liked to invite me to pray the Rosary with him as we drove to various ministries together, and his theology was very much in line with the Vatican. He was furious one day because he received a call at one o'clock in the morning to go to the hospital to give "Last Rites". He refused to go.

On the surface, this may sound like a horror story to many laypeople. Why would a priest refuse to give Last Rites?

The reason this priest refused had a history, which is the side of the story we seldom hear. This man had been sick for a number of years, and had called this priest in the middle of the night on a number of occasions. This priest also worked twelve hour days, and he had just been to the hospital for the last five days in a row. Each day, he offered this man the sacrament. The sick man refused, saying he is not dying. The priest in question told the man explicitly that he was not coming in the middle night, because he had other responsibilities as a pastor. He encouraged the man to receive the sacrament in the day while he was standing right there. The sick man refused. The priest reminded the sick man that this had happened before, and reiterated that he was not going to come in the middle of the night this time around. So, when the sick man called at one o'clock in the morning, the priest was saying, "I already told you I'm not coming back in the middle of the night. I'll be in tomorrow, and you can receive tomorrow."

What laypeople often do not understand about the ministry of priests is that some of the people to whom a priest ministers are somewhat insane. While I mean no disrespect or lack of charity to those who suffer with neurobiological or emotional disorders, a priest simply cannot afford to try to please such people at all times. Many times, when a priest is doing something that sounds shocking, like refusing Last Rites, it is because of situations like this. If the priest would allow this single parishioner to call him every night in the middle of the night, what would happen to the rest of his ministry? The ministry he normally did the other twelve hours he was working would suffer, and eventually he would burn out.

Paragraph 1516 of the CCC says that "Only priests (bishops and presbyters) are ministers of the Anointing of the Sick." This is rooted in the Scriptural reference to presbyters as the minister of the Sacrament. In Catholic theology, the ministerial priest acts as a spokesperson for the whole Church and has authority granted by Christ to make sacraments efficacious. For a Catholic, the sacraments are central to our self understanding of what it means to be Catholic.

This said, there is no prohibition to other members of Christ's body offering prayers on behalf of the sick, and even laying hands on them or using oil. Where two or three gather in the name of the Lord, Christ is present in their midst. While such prayer may not be a sacrament, it is "sacramental" in the sense that the Rosary or a scapular or indulgence is a "sacramental". All prayers on behalf of the sick are beneficial. While the sacrament is typically reserved for serious illness, we can pray for each other even at times of a common cold.

The sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is one of the most beautiful sacraments of the Church. Even with a post Vatican II understanding of the sacrament, I still carry a card in my wallet that says, "I am a Catholic. Please call a priest." I pray that I will receive the sacrament anytime I am seriously ill, and especially near the hour of death. Hopefully, this article gives some people a better understanding of the meaning of the sacrament.

Peace and Blessings!


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posted by Jcecil3 2:38 PM

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