The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is administered both to the dying and to those who are gravely ill or are about to undergo a serious operation, for the recovery of their health and for spiritual strength.
To speak to someone about having a priest visit a sick or dying relative or friend, please call the parish office.
Father Tom Snodgrass
Imagine being asked to compose a summary of the three-year public life of Jesus. No doubt all of us would find this to be a daunting task. Questions would race through our minds. “Where should I begin?” “What should I include?” “What should I omit?” “But, what if I omit something crucial? Jesus did and said so much and did and said it all so well.”
One possibility is to turn to St. Peter for guidance. The inauguration of his mission to the Gentiles began with some misgivings (Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 10). Summoned to the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion who lived in Caesarea, Peter quickly left Joppa with some of the brothers. The Holy Spirit’s inspiration led him to make the journey. When Peter arrived he was greeted by a group of Gentiles who had assembled in Cornelius’ home. Cornelius was “…an upright and God-fearing man, respected by the whole Jewish nation… (Acts 10:22).”
While Peter was addressing the assembly on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the Holy Spirit “…fell upon all who were listening to the word (Acts 10:44).” Peter’s presentation in Cornelius’ home can be summarized in his own words: “He went about doing good… (Acts 10:38).”
Among the “good” Jesus did was to prepare his community for the day his earthly ministry would come to an end. Although Jesus appeared over the course of forty days after his resurrection, even those marvelous visits would cease. Before Jesus ascended into heaven he entrusted to his community seven special signs that were and continue to be moments in which his followers come face-to-face with Him. Those special moments occur each time any of the seven sacraments is celebrated. A special moment occurs when a person is baptized. A special moment occurs when someone is anointed with the Oil of the Sick. A special moment occurs when the other five sacraments are celebrated as well. Jesus was indeed faithful to his promise to be with us till the end of time, that he would not leave us orphans.
Many readers of this article recall the days when the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was called Extreme Unction, literally “last anointing.” This sacrament was also called “the last rites.” More often than not this sacrament was not celebrated until a Catholic was literally lying on his or her deathbed. This led to a fear of the sacrament. Relatives would whisper, “We should call for the priest now” so the dying person would not be alarmed.
Recommendations emerging from Vatican Council II included the celebration of the sacraments in the vernacular and also to provide greater awareness that each of the sacraments is an encounter with Jesus. And Jesus is kind and compassionate, not someone to be feared. He touches us when we are in need, including times of serious illness. After all, who would want to live for endless days with someone who arouses fear? That reasoning helps explain the 1972 change in title from Extreme Unction to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
When composing our individual summaries of the life of Jesus we may include at least one healing story. Most of the people whom Jesus healed were not at the threshold of death. Many ran off, filled with joy, announcing their wonderful, healing encounter with Jesus.
Anointing of the Sick can be celebrated when someone is facing surgery. Sometimes the physical burden of passing years becomes difficult to carry. A person carrying that burden may want to be anointed. Any serious illness or debilitating condition is an occasion for Jesus to reach out to us in our time of vulnerability. The sacrament helps to restore a person to health if that is God’s will or prepares the recipient of the sacrament for the final journey home to heaven. The desire to hold tightly to life is instilled in us by God. As death approaches that desire is heightened. The sacrament helps to lessen that anxiety. Whenever the sacrament is celebrated sins are forgiven. Very often the person receives Holy Communion.
Anointing of the Sick takes place in a service tailored to the individual situation. If other believers are present they are asked to participate in the ceremony. If the recipient wishes to confess, the others leave the room temporarily. However, auricular confession is not required. Even if a person is unconscious, that individual’s sins are forgiven.
The Oil of the Sick blessed by Archbishop Schnurr at the Chrism Mass on Tuesday of Holy Week is used to anoint the person’s forehead and the palms of the hands. The priest says while anointing the forehead, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.” And while anointing the palms of the hands, “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
The celebration of the sacrament includes many options for readings and other prayers. One of my favorite prayers occurs after the anointing. “Father in heaven, through this holy anointing grant N (person’s name) comfort in his/her suffering. When he/she is afraid, give him/her courage, when afflicted, give him/her patience, when dejected, afford him/her hope, and when alone, assure him/her of the support of your holy people. We ask this through Christ our Lord.” Amen. The presence of the compassionate and loving Lord is clearly evident.
Although forty years has passed since the revision of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick the former understanding remains. I must include a personal experience as I conclude this article. About six years ago I was being treated for atrial fibrillation. Visits to the Good Samaritan emergency room were frequent. On one occasion my heart would not go back into rhythm following the usual procedures. An orderly was dispatched to bring me to the cath lab so my heart could be shocked into rhythm while I was under general anesthetic. Just then, Father Jerry Niklas, longtime chaplain, arrived and asked me if I wanted to be anointed. Tears formed in my eyes when I began to consider the possibility I might die. Only a couple of people were aware that I had been taken to the hospital. I had no opportunity to tell anyone one goodbye. I was sure I wasn’t ready to die but then realized Jesus was reaching out to me to calm my fears and prepare me to accept his will. My suspicion is there will always be some anxiety surrounding the celebration of the Anointing of the Sick. I experienced it. However, may that fear be alleviated for all those whom Jesus comes to visit in their time of need.