Home | Spirituality |Topics | Presentations | Sites and Resources | Contact Us | Donate

More on the Anointing of the Sick:
Christ’s Healing Touch

     In the not-too-distant past, the call to the priest was made just before the call to the undertaker. If Father entered your room, you knew you were at death’s door. “Extreme unction” was limited to extreme cases.

     There’s still a remnant of the feeling that getting Father involved is throwing in the towel. But that’s not true. Anointing of the sick isn’t giving up, it’s giving over. It’s handing to God all the fears, the pain, the anxieties, the sins, and receiving his grace in return.

     It is the healing touch of Jesus.

     Just as the Church calls us to help those who are hungry or homeless, we’re called to do the same for those who are sick and suffering. At the heart of that is the unique sacramental call to help people find meaning and dignity in their illness and pain and unite those personal trials with the cross. (See “John Paul II on Suffering.”)

     While sickness and suffering are a part of every life, we have a choice of how we will live with them even when they end in our death. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) points out, illness and suffering can make us feel powerless and limited. They can give us a glimpse of our own mortality.

     They can foster anguish, self-absorption and sometimes despair and a revolt against God. They can also promote maturity, helping us figure out what really matters in our life. It’s not unusual that an illness or a life-threatening accident sparks a search for God and a return to him.

     This sacrament kindles that tiny flame.

Jesus as Healer

     The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus healing countless people. The evangelists are careful to note that he not only cured individuals of their illness or infirmity, but forgave their sins. Jesus came to offer complete healing: body and soul. His preferential love for the sick was so strong he identified himself with them: “I was sick and you visited me” (Mt 25:36) and “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Mt 8:17; cf. Is 53:4).

     Those healings announced one that was even more radical: the victory over sin and death. We will all suffer, we will all die, but suffering and death – ultimately – do not win.

     That’s why, by his passion and death, Jesus has given new meaning to all suffering. From that point on, it can “configure us to him and unite us in his redemptive Passion” (CCC, No. 1505). Christ invites us to follow him by taking up our own cross (Cf. Mt 10:38).

     By following him, we can get a new outlook on our own illness, suffering and pain but also on all illness, suffering and pain. We can get a new outlook on those who are sick and suffering. We can get a truly Christian – a Christ-like – outlook as we imitate the disciples he sent out during his public ministry. They preached repentance, “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (Mk 6:12-13).

     Jesus’ command to “heal the sick” (Mt 10:8) is one that applies to the Church of the 21st century as well as the first. That’s why it “strives to carry it out by taking care of the sick as well as by accompanying them with her prayer and intercession” (CCC, No. 1509).

     The Church believes in the life-giving presence of Christ who remains the physician of souls and bodies. It’s through the sacraments – and in a special way in the Eucharist – that this presence is particularly active. It is always Christ who heals and that can happen on a spiritual, emotional, spiritual and physical level.

     In this sacrament, the Church guarantees there will be healing. (The anointing of the sick, like all the seven sacraments, “efficacious.” It does what it says it will do.) A priest is required because it involves forgiveness of sins. There is emotional healing because an increase of trust, of faith, can free a person from anxiety. Then, too, sometimes that emotional healing involves a relationship that has been bruised or broken. Not infrequently physical healing takes place but that doesn’t mean there is always a physical cure or that death is always delayed.

     Among the seven sacraments, the Church says, it’s anointing of the sick that is especially intended to strengthen those who are being tried by illness. “Are any among you sick? They should call on the elder of the church [the priests] and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up: and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).

Who is This Sacrament For?

     While that liturgical tradition continued, over the centuries the anointing of the sick was conferred more and more exclusively on those at the point of death. That’s how this sacrament received the name “extreme unction.” (“Extreme” – at the very end. “Unction” – an anointing with oil.) Even so, the bishops at the Council of Trent noted, “the liturgy has never failed to beg the Lord that the sick person may recover his health if it would be conducive to his salvation.”

     Four centuries later, the bishops of Vatican II wrote: “[The anointing of the sick] is not for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” 73).

     Today, when teaching about this sacrament, the Church also stresses:

     --If the sick person recovers his health, he can in the case of another grave illness receive it again.

     --If during the same illness his condition becomes more serious, the sacrament can be repeated.

     --It’s fitting to receive the anointing just prior to a serious operation and the same holds true for the elderly whose frailty becomes more pronounced.

     --Someone who is unconscious can be anointed if it’s believed he would have desired the sacrament.

At Home or in a Hospital or Nursing Home

     There may be more uncertainty now among family members about when to “call the priest” or even whether to make that call. As to the whether, yes. God’s grace, Jesus’ touch, awaits. As to the when, any time but it’s never too soon to call and talk to the priest about it. (Go to: “Q & A: How Do We Get Ready for the Priest’s Visit?”)

     The Church tells pastors to encourage the faithful to ask for the sacrament. The persons who are going to receive it should prepare themselves “with good dispositions, assisted by their pastor and the whole ecclesial community, which is invited to surround the sick person in a special way through their prayers and fraternal attention” (CCC, No. 1516).

     Whether celebrated with only the priest and the patient or with others, the anointing of the sick is a liturgical event. It’s communal whether it takes place in a family home, hospital, nursing home or church; whether it’s only one sick person or a whole group.

     The Catechism explains that its “very fitting” to celebrate the Anointing of the Sick within the Eucharist. If possible, it can be preceded by the sacrament of Reconciliation and followed by the Eucharist. “As the sacrament of Christ’s Passover the Eucharist should always be the last sacrament of the earthly journey, the ‘viaticum’ for ‘passing over’ to eternal life” (CCC, No. 1517). ["Viaticum" comes from the Latin for "of or pertaining to a road or a journey." In the Church, it means the final reception of Holy Communion.]

     Just as baptism, confirmation and Eucharist can be called the sacraments of initiation,  so do 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, No. 1525).

     In times past, those three – or reconciliation, anointing and prayers for the dying, and viaticum – were termed “the last rites.” That’s still a common expression.

The Rite Itself

   The actual rite itself is simple. There are the prayers of the Church, the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil. (Typically, the oil that's used was blessed by the bishop during Holy Week.) In the Roman Catholic rite, the forehead and hands are anointed. (In Eastern Rites, other parts of the body are, too.)

     The matter for this sacrament is the anointing with oil. The form is: “Through this holy anointing and his most loving mercy, may the Lord assist you by the grace of the Holy Spirit so that, when you have been freed from your sins, he may save you and in his goodness raise you up.”

     Again, the purpose of this sacrament is healing but that doesn’t always mean a return to robust health. Jesus’ healing touch may mean a longer life. It may mean a more “beautiful death” because – released from fear or anxiety -- one is prepared to see God face to face. It may mean  – with the healing of the soul – he or she will enjoy new life in heaven.


John Paul II on Suffering

     In his 1984 apostolic letter on suffering (“Salvifici Doloris”), Pope John Paul II wrote:

     “Down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace.

     “To this grace many saints, such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and others, owe their profound conversion. A result of such a conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering but above all that he becomes a completely new person. He discovers a new dimension, as it were, of his entire life and vocation.

“This discovery is a particular confirmation of the spiritual greatness which in man surpasses the body in a way that is completely beyond compare. When this body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal.

     “This interior maturity and spiritual greatness in suffering are certainly the result of a particular conversion and cooperation with the grace of the Crucified Redeemer. It is he himself who acts at the heart of human sufferings through his Spirit of truth, through the consoling Spirit. It is he who transforms, in a certain sense, the very substance of the spiritual life, indicating for the person who suffers a place close to himself. It is he—as the interior Master and Guide—who reveals to the suffering brother and sister this wonderful interchange, situated at the very heart of the mystery of the Redemption.

     “Suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil. But Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation. By his suffering on the Cross, Christ reached the very roots of evil, of sin and death. He conquered the author of evil, Satan, and his permanent rebellion against the Creator. To the suffering brother or sister Christ discloses and gradually reveals the horizons of the Kingdom of God: the horizons of a world converted to the Creator, of a world free from sin, a world being built on the saving power of love. And slowly but effectively, Christ leads into this world, into this Kingdom of the Father, suffering man, in a certain sense through the very heart of his suffering.

     “For suffering cannot be transformed and changed by a grace from outside, but from within. And Christ through his own salvific suffering is very much present in every human suffering, and can act from within that suffering by the powers of his Spirit of truth, his consoling Spirit.”

Q. & A.: How Do We Get Ready for the Priest’s Visit?

Q. How do we get ready for the priest’s visit?
A. The most important preparation is spiritual: praying for and with the one who will receive the anointing.

Q. What do we need to have on hand?
A. Nothing. The priest brings the oil with him

Q. What about candles?
A. You don’t need to have any candles

Q. What about one of those special crosses for when the priest comes?
A. It isn’t necessary. At one time, many Catholic homes had a “sick call crucifix.” Two small candles and a bottle for holy water were stored in the cross behind a removable front crucifix. The back could be set on a table to hold the crucifix upright with slots for the candles on each side.

Q. Is a funeral part of the “last rites”?
A. No. It’s a liturgical celebration that can be held in the nursing home, the church or the cemetery. At each there’s the greeting of the community, the liturgy of the Word, the Eucharist (when the celebration takes place in a church) and the farewell.

Q. What’s the “farewell”?
A. It’s saying goodbye to the deceased and his final “commendation to God” by the Church. In the Byzantine tradition, the “kiss of farewell” is expressed this way:

By this final greeting “we sing for his departure from this life and separation from us, but also because there is a communion and a reunion. For even dead, we are not at all separated from one another, because we all run the same course and we will find one another again in the same place. We shall never be separated, for we live in Christ, and how we are united with Christ as we go toward him . . . we shall all be together in Christ.”



Home | Spirituality | Topics | Presentations | Sites and Resources  | Contact Us | Donate
© 2004-2013 Friends of St. John the Caregiver
YourAgingParent.com is a program of the Friends of St. John the Caregiver, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.