There is probably no sacrament more misunderstood than the Sacrament of
Anointing of the Sick...
Moments of mental or physical illness can be times of crisis. They can mean a time of loss and pain, a time of insight and growth, or anything in between (cf. CCC 1501). Regardless, our loving God wants to be a part of our experience. He wants to share our lives with us, the bad and the good (cf. CCC 1503). But his presence and support often comes in and through the Church—our faith community. The kind words and help that we receive from others are a part of this, for God works through human means. We need to pay attention to how God works through them.
The Church can officially support us through the sacraments. In the case of an illness, that support comes in the form of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick (cf. CCC 1511). And, as the ritual clearly states, the focus is life, health, and well-being. But we must remember that a part of the fullness of life is our spiritual lives with God, which begun at Baptism and will inevitably lead to death and resurrection (cf. CCC 1523).
This sacrament, then, is not to be viewed as the kiss of death as it is often viewed, but one of healing and life.
In What Way is this a Healing Sacrament?
We see Jesus and the Apostles performing many acts of healing in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles. We may be tempted to believe that God no longer heals since physical healings are less frequent these days, but healings still take place in remarkable numbers. Today, they are often done through the mediation of the medical professions.
In the Anointing of the Sick, the focus is on the possibility of a spiritual and/or a physical healing. The prayers address the sick person as a whole, which includes all aspects of our human life. So while a physical or psychological ailment may be the most obvious cause of the person’s suffering, other aspects of the person’s health are also taken into consideration. Many times, the spiritual healing is far more dramatic than the physical. And sometimes this takes the form of an increased ability to accept the physical illness and its suffering.
Does One have to be Dying to Receive it?
Canon law states that anyone who is in some danger of death from an illness or from old age can receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Likewise, should the person’s condition worsen, the sacrament may be repeated (cf. CIC, can. 1004). The code then immediately offers this caveat: If there is any doubt as to the seriousness of the illness or condition, the sacrament is to be received (cf. CIC, can. 1005). The Catechism of the Catholic Church adds that it is also appropriate to receive the sacrament prior to surgery (cf. CCC, 1515).
It must also be remembered that the sacrament is a sacrament of the living. It cannot be offered to one who has already breathed their last breath. But it is appropriate for those near death as it completes our life on earth just as baptism began it (cf. CCC, 1523).
What Actually Happens During this Sacrament?
If circumstances allow, the Sacrament of Reconciliation should be celebrated with the sick person prior to the Sacrament of Anointing. If not, there is a brief penitential rite within the introductory prayers.
The sacrament consists of readings from the Scriptures, the laying on of hands, the blessing of the oil and the anointing on the forehead and hands, the communal recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and the dismissal. If the sick person is able to receive Communion, the Eucharist may be offered just after the Lord’s Prayer.
It is ideal if the family of the sick person can gather for this ritual. If done in a hospital, the staff also may be invited to participate. The presence of others assures us that the Church is present in prayer. If such presence is not possible, the sacrament can be administered with just the sick person and the priest present.
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St. John of God Catholic Church