A real thirst for things of the Spirit still exists in our day. People deep down recognize that we do not live by bread alone. In matters of health, particularly in times of crisis, we have to look beyond medicine alone. We are invited to turn to the Lord and the hope and renewal that His love brings.
With an inspired understanding of the unity of the human person – body, mind and spirit – from the beginning the Church has provided a healing balm for the soul in addition to corporal remedies for illness. The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is one especially profound way the Church treats those who are in danger from poor health or infirmity, especially in contemplation and preparation of their making that final journey from this life to the next.
In the Rite of Anointing, the priest leads the others present in prayer in communion with the whole Church that God in his mercy send the power of his Spirit to strengthen those who are seriously sick or ailing and expel all afflictions of spirit, mind and body so as to free them from suffering and sin. The sacramental action itself involves the priest laying hands on the recipient and making the Sign of the Cross with blessed oil on their forehead and hands while saying the formula, “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit” and “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
As a liturgical act, the anointing may take place in the parish church or in a hospital, the family home or elsewhere. In this sense, the Church really is a field hospital where we bring Jesus, the Divine Physician, to people in need wherever they may be. The minister of Anointing is a priest or bishop, who acts in the person of Christ, while family, friends and other faithful are encouraged to be present and assist in the prayers.
Our Catholic faith does not ignore anxiety, pain and suffering. Rather, we are convinced that with God’s grace we can endure and even overcome in a wondrous way these unfortunate realities that are part of the human condition, including death. In particular, through sacramental anointing, by bringing the compassionate presence of Christ into the center of the person’s suffering and more closely uniting them to Jesus in his passion and death, the person is united to him in his glorious resurrection to new life.
In the New Testament, we read how merciful Jesus was toward the sick, which teaches us something of his kingdom and how we too ought to act. He gave sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, made the lame able to walk, cleansed people of disease and even raised the dead. Then the Lord gave his disciples authority to likewise cast out unclean spirits and heal every disease and infirmity, which they then did by the power of God’s grace with prayers and anointing with oil.
Saint James wrote explicitly about this sacramental practice of the early Church (James 5:14-15), and today the Church continues this grace-filled ministry to those baptized persons who are seriously ill, infirm due to age or injury, or otherwise are facing life-threatening situations such as major surgery or incurable disease. The sacrament may be repeated if the person thereafter recovers or if during the same illness the danger becomes more serious.
If the sick or infirm person is still conscious and able, Confession may precede the anointing so that it may be received worthily and with full faith and devotion. When the person is unconscious and thus cannot make a sacramental confession or act of contrition, even if previously in a state of grave sin, if they have at least shown an implicit sign of repentance, such as by asking for a priest or by manifesting a habitual desire to die in Christ, they can receive an anointing which itself will bring the forgiveness of sins.
The sacrament of Anointing may also be accompanied by reception of Holy Communion. The Eucharist has a particular significance and importance when death is near, when it is called “viaticum,” and offered as “the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection” (CCC 1524).
Serious illness and infirmity and the prospect of the end of life can often cause great apprehension, but we need not despair in these trying moments. What a blessing it is to know that Jesus in his compassion suffers with the afflicted and is with them, together with the love of the whole Church, in a special way in the sacrament of Anointing.
To learn more about the Church’s ministry to the sick and at the end of life, please visit the archdiocesan website adw.org/transformfear.
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