“Take courage, get up, Jesus is calling you.”
These would be wonderfully comforting words to hear in any situation. Who among us does not wish to be called to Jesus? But as joyful as we are to hear these words in good times, they are incredibly comforting in times of sickness and suffering.
“Take courage, get up, Jesus is calling you.”
About four years ago now, just weeks before Christmas, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was frightened, as you can imagine, and we all shared in her grief as she worked through all the details of surgery and treatment. But she came through it relatively well, and we celebrated Christmas with some relief. But just after I returned to the seminary from Christmas break, my sister called to tell me that my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. It was barely a month later, and we were going through it all over again. He had surgery, and treatment which continues even until now.
It was a difficult time certainly for my parents, but really for all of our family too. I myself was unable to even pray about it, because I just didn’t know what to say to God any more. I was blessed to be in a seminary community that reached out to me and prayed me through all of it. Fr. Kevin, our dean of formation, even drove out to Loyola in Maywood during Dad’s long stay there to pray with us. It was a difficult time: two illnesses right in a row really tested our faith, as any kind of ongoing suffering will often do. But the Church knows that, and that’s why we have the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. My parents were both anointed by their pastor before their surgery, and it gave them great comfort and strength to go through all that their illness demanded of them: surgery, chemotherapy, and all the related pain and suffering.
The anointing of the sick is the Church’s way of saying to the sick, “Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.”
Illness and suffering can lead a person to a place where faith, now tested, begins to fail, and the sick person can turn away from God and the Church. It can be easy to blame God for suffering, or at least for not delivering us from it. Illness and suffering are so hard to understand. The Church teaches that God does not will our suffering, not as a punishment or our fate or anything else. However, God does permit suffering and sickness and death in this broken world, where things are far from perfect and sin is always at work. God knows our grief when we cry out in pain, when we call to Jesus like Bartimaeus, “Son of David, have pity on me.”
And so when we are in the midst of serious illness, or weakened by old age, or preparing for surgery because of serious illness, the Church offers us the Anointing of the Sick. The purpose of this great sacrament is to heal our spirits and our minds, and perhaps to heal our bodies too, if God in his providence sees that to be beneficial to our salvation. We should not wait until we are on our death-beds to come to the sacrament, but to ask to receive it whenever we are seriously ill. In the letter of St. James, we are told, “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.”
At this point, I want to make an editorial comment. So often, in every parish where I’ve been, I have heard people complain that during their time in the hospital, no one came to visit them – not a priest or anyone else. And quite frankly, sometimes priests are guilty of neglecting that incredibly important part of their ministry. I know that I can’t get to the hospital every day, but I go when I can, and I go whenever anyone calls and asks me to go.
That said, there was a time when we would just know that someone from our parish was in the hospital. Those days are gone. There are two of us here for 3800 families and that makes it hard for us to know everything we’d like to know in order to minister to you best. But there is also a law called the Health Insurance Privacy Protection Act, most often called “HIPPA.” You know about HIPPA if you have been to the doctor or hospital in the last few years, because you are given a brochure about your rights and have to sign a release that says you know them. But HIPPA also affects our right to know that you are in the hospital. And that may be okay, because sometimes when people are in the hospital for something routine, they don’t necessarily want everyone to know. But if you’re in for something serious, or things turn bad, we still might never know that. When you are admitted, you absolutely have to tell them – every time – that you are a St. Raphael parishioner and that you want us to visit. That will at least put you on the list that we get if we come by and make rounds. But if things are really serious, we ask that you have someone from your family call the office and tell us. Fr. Ted and I take this part of our ministry very seriously, and we want to offer you the help of the Church and the Sacraments in your time of need. But we can’t do that if we don’t know you need them. Please spread the word on that. End of editorial!
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is not the only way that the Church ministers to the sick. Priests are not the only ones responsible for caring for the sick. The entire community bears responsibility in reaching out to the sick, and their loved ones, in time of need. We all must visit the sick and pray for them, easing their burdens in whatever way we can. Every pot of soup brought to a sick member of our community, every ride to the doctor’s office that we offer them, every card sent to the sick is a special act of charity. To reach out to the sick and encourage them with our prayers is one of the corporal works of mercy.
When we reach out to the sick as a community, we are saying, “Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.”
It comes down to this: We stand near the end of another Church year. This is a good time to ask ourselves what this year has been like for us. Have we heard the Scriptures all year long as just some nice stories, or have we really been changed by them? Is our relationship with Jesus merely academic, or simply relegated to Sunday, or have we really grown in our friendship with the Lord?
If this Church year has made any difference to us at all, perhaps we will be more willing to seek out the help of the Church in our times of illness and suffering – because we know that Christ longs to reach out to us through the Church in order to carry on his ministry of healing. If we have come closer to Christ this Church year, we should be now be more willing and able to reach out to the sick through simple acts of kindness, and by encouraging them to receive the sacraments, offering to make the arrangements ourselves if need be.
This Church year we’ve seen Christ over and over again heal the sick and reach out to those in need. Those aren’t meant to be stories we just read or proclaim; they are meant to be an example of how to reach out to our brothers and sisters, encouraging them in the name of the Lord. Because Christ longs to continue his healing ministry in our own day and age, but he needs us to be the agents of that ministry. He needs the clergy to celebrate the sacraments of the sick for those in need. He needs committed lay people to visit the sick and encourage them, reminding them that the community cares for them and seeks their well-being. And he needs the sick to be well-disposed to receive his grace, especially in their time of need.
Unlike those who rebuked Bartimaeus for calling out to the Son of David, we must be a community that encourages one another in our suffering, and brings the sick among us to the Lord for comfort and healing. This community needs to be a place where the sick can hear those wonderful words of comfort:
“Take courage; get up, Jesus is calling you.”