Fr Patrick Bridgman
In this series on the Sacraments we have turned our eyes to the Sacraments of Healing; Reconciliation and, in this issue, the Anointing of the Sick. Naturally we are aware that all Sacraments are healing; for wherever the Risen Lord is present healing will be experienced.
‘By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1499.)
Here the Catechism quotes the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium 11. In this introduction to the Anointing of the Sick we can note the twofold nature of the Sacrament. There is prayer to Christ by the Church for the healing of the sick; and there is the encouragement to the sick themselves to minister in turn ‒ even in and through their illness ‒ to the up building of the Reign of God.
Calling upon God to bring healing to the sick has been a cry that has ascended to the heavens throughout the ages of humanity. We see in the Old Testament constant appeal to the loving mercy of God for healing, and indeed when forgiveness and healing came, so would conversion of heart and action.
It may seem unusual in our age with a growing awareness of the physiological aspect of human life to draw any linkage between illness and sin. Yet in the ministry of Jesus the forgiveness of sins and the cure of disease were closely aligned. The theologian, Hugh Lavery, wrote: ‘The sacrament of the sick reveals sickness is evidence of evil in the world. Not moral evil; it is just there like cancer and scars the body of humankind. But sickness is evil and is to be overcome.’ (Sacraments, H. Lavery, p.36). This does mean we recognise there is a time to journey to the ‘House of the Father’; yet, when faced with illness we are to respond with the Christian desire for life, and in the oil and prayer of the Sacrament we are strengthened in our ‘fight’ to overcome, rather than giving way to despair.
Through the history of the Church the practice of anointing the sick came to be known as Extreme Unction; anointing at the time of death, and people would call the priest to administer the last rites. As with all the Sacraments, the Vatican Council II participants called for a revision of this Sacrament, and the result was that it is celebrated today as the Anointing of the Sick: ‘The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given to those who are seriously ill by anointing them on the forehead and hands with duly blessed oil ‒ pressed from olives or from other plants ‒ saying, only once: “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” (Canon, 847).’
Therefore, the Sacrament is not only for those on the point of death, but also for those facing serious sickness or those living with old age. The Sacrament can be celebrated often in a person’s life both as age increases and when illnesses go through the different stages.
The Anointing of the Sick, as for the other Sacraments, is a communal celebration. Whether it is celebrated during a Mass, at home, or in hospital; family, friends and parishioners are encouraged to be present. There is a reading from Scripture, and then the priest, in silence, lays hands on the sick, prays, and anoints with oil, which has been blessed for this sacred purpose at the Chrism Mass (during Holy Week) by the local Bishop.
The Sacrament gifts us with the grace to be strengthened as we face frailty and poor health. It unites us to the suffering passion of Jesus, and it enables the sick to still be united to the community of disciples. In fact, it calls the elderly, the sick, and the dying to recognise they still contribute to the sanctification of the Church. Human life, in every stage, has value and dignity; the Sacrament proclaims!
Today, the Church offers to those who are about to enter eternal life the Eucharist as ‘food for the journey’, Viaticum (CCC, 1524). The life, death, and resurrection of Christ that we celebrate in the Eucharist, becomes the very pattern of life and promise for those who in their life now journey from the earthly pilgrimage to the Father.
In hospital ministry we celebrated the Anointing of the Sick every day, and often gave Viaticum as people approached eternal life. Though occasionally, when offered the Sacrament, a patient looked shocked and exclaimed, ‘I didn’t realise I was that sick! What have the Doctors told you?’ Most faithful today recognise and desire the Word of God, the healing prayers, and ritual action the Church provides as we celebrate the Sacrament.
In the life of the Church the Sacraments meet us as we journey, ‘thus, just as the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist form a unity called “the sacraments of Christian initiation,” so too it can be said that Reconciliation, the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist as Viaticum constitute at the end of Christian life, “the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland” or the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimage.’ (CCC, 1525).