What Every Catholic Should Know about the Anointing of the Sick
Jesus’ ministry on earth was all about healing. In today’s gospel, he heals a man who has been deaf and mute with the word of command: “Ephphatha!” – “Be opened!” And this word – no surprise – is not just about the deaf and mute man. The reason Mark brings it up is because Ephphatha is what Jesus is about. He is about healing, and opening up a way for those who have been at odds with God to be back in relationship with him. So whether the obstacle has been a physical illness or a spiritual one, he commands ephphatha, that the way be opened and the obstacle obliterated, and the illness of the broken one bound up and the way made straight for the person to be in communion with God.
St. James today invites us to take a look at the issue from another angle. Have we pre-judged people who are not like us when they come to the Church, or to us in any way? Do we look down on those who don’t dress like us, or don’t speak like us, or don’t act like us? Do these people have illness that needs to be healed? Or is it we that have the illness, being unable to see them as Christ does, as brothers and sisters and children of God? So whatever the illness is today, whether it is ours or someone else’s, Jesus commands it to be ephphatha that nothing may be an obstacle to the love of God and the healing of Jesus Christ.
Since the readings lead us to a place of healing, I want to take this opportunity to speak of one of the sacraments of healing, namely the Anointing of the Sick. I want to look at it from two angles, first from a personal witness, then from a more catechetical perspective. And I do this because the Anointing of the Sick is incredibly misunderstood, even by faithful Catholics. There are those who do not benefit from the sacrament, because they think it is only for the dying, and there are even those who go without the sacrament because they wait too long and the person dies without benefit of the sacraments. This is not what the Church intends, of course, and it is an extremely serious error.
So this first part is personal witness, and you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I get a little emotional. When I was in my second year of seminary my mother and father were both diagnosed with cancer within about a month of each other. As you can well imagine, this was a very difficult time for our family, but thank God we had the Church to walk with us through their illness. Both of them received the Anointing of the Sick from their pastor before they had surgery. I remember that we gathered in the church, just after Sunday Mass, and he beautifully led them through the rite. It was wonderful for them, of course, but also helpful for us who were grieving their illness with them. The sacraments are never just for one person; they always involve and even benefit the whole community.
After I was ordained a priest for not quite a year, dad’s illness became more serious. One Friday, just after the school mass, one of our parish staff members came to me and told me I had to call mom because dad needed to go to the hospital. He had become rather weak, and unable really to get around without help. We took him to the emergency room, and in the course of the day’s tests, I anointed him. I actually also anointed my Uncle Bob, who had come for tests related to his own heart condition, and had stopped in to check on dad before he went to his appointment. So we all celebrated the sacrament, again, together.
Dad never left the hospital that weekend. By Saturday night, his condition was deteriorating. On Sunday, just after I was done with Mass, I headed to the hospital. On the way, my sister Peggy called to let me know they were moving dad and that I should call when I was closer to the hospital so that I’d know where they were. When I did that, she told me she would just meet me at the door. At that point, I was sure that dad was dying or perhaps had even died, so I brought my sick call kit with me. Both of my sisters met me there and told me he was dying.
So we went to his room, where pretty much all of my family had gathered. Mom, my sisters and brother-in-law, the kids, dad’s brothers and sister, the in-laws, everyone. At that time, I gave dad the Last Rites, which we still do have in the Church. I had given those Last Rites to many people by then, but as you can imagine, this was the hardest time ever. Dad died early the next morning, totally prepared for the journey, ready to meet the Lord. We had all prayed with him and were ready to wish him farewell. It was a difficult, but beautifully prayerful day.
I bring this up because it illustrates three times when a person should be anointed. First, just before serious surgery related to an illness, as both my parents were before their cancer surgery. Second, when health seriously deteriorates, even during the same illness, as when we brought dad to the emergency room. And third, just before death.
The letter of St. James tells us: “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.” (James 5:14-15)
The Anointing of the Sick is the official name for what many people think of, erroneously, as the “Last Rites” or may have traditionally called Extreme unction. The term “Extreme unction” is the Latin for “Last anointing.” And in the days between the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and Vatican II, that was the nature of the sacrament: a last anointing to prepare a person for death.
But Vatican II changed that. Vatican II actually reverted to the more ancient practice of anointing the sick – not just the terminally ill or dying person – which may restore a person to health, aid in their healing and recuperation, or calm their mind and spirit if they are indeed preparing for death. So the sacrament today is broader than just a last anointing.
But the Last Rites do still exist, and it is important for one to receive them if possible. Dad did just before he died. The Last Rites prepare a person for death, when death is immanent. These rites include sacramental penance, the anointing of the sick, and Viaticum.
Viaticum is one’s last Communion. In Latin, Viaticum literally means “bread for the journey.” All Catholics are strongly encouraged to receive Communion when death is immanent, and this is the Church’s way of allowing the dying to be intimately united with the Lord in their last moments. Just before death, sometimes people are not able to take solid food. In that case, they receive spiritual communion and retain the graces of the sacrament. Taken together, the three sacraments prepare us for our eternal life, and help us to be ready to meet our God.
It is important, as you saw in my own personal witness, that the rites for the sick, when possible, be received with the community present. Most often this includes the loved ones of the sick person, but might also include parishioners, neighbors, or even health care workers. The sacraments are always meant to be celebrated in community where possible, and this is a help to both the sick person and to the loved ones.
Indeed, the entire Christian community is involved in the Pastoral Care of the Sick. We are call called to participate in the healing ministry of Christ. Priests are called upon to celebrate the sacraments with the sick with special care so that they may give the sick hope. Lay people are called upon to visit the sick as a corporal work of mercy, and to encourage the sick to receive the sacraments when the time comes. Finally, the sick are called upon to receive the anointing of the sick during their illness, and to faithfully join their sufferings to the passion and death of the Lord, for the well-being of the Church.
This next part is very important, so everyone look at me and hear this, please. It is important that someone from the family notify the Church in the event of illness of a loved one. Current laws in the U.S. do not allow hospitals to easily share such information, as they did in the past, so your phone call may be the only way the priests know your loved one is ill. And if we don’t know they are ill, we can’t care for them or pray for them. The family really has to do this, because due to privacy concerns, we cannot take action (like praying for them at Mass or putting their name on the sick list in the bulletin) based on information from any other person.
Finally, I want to say that we here at St. Petronille are fortunate to have many people ready to bring Communion to the homebound. However, we don’t know of too many people in that kind of need, so many of them have no one to visit at this time. But, during the short time I’ve been here, we have had a number of elderly, home-bound people die, so I know that many more are out there. If you know of a homebound person, please let us know so that we may care for them.
The people who saw what Jesus was doing by healing the sick said, “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” That ministry is now entrusted to us. Let us, too, do it well, so that those who are ill in any way may hear the Lord’s command of Ephphatha! and may come at last into the healing presence of our God.