Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven sacraments of the Church that is often misunderstood. Because it used to be called Extreme Unction and it wasn't celebrated until the person was near death, it can cause some fear and anxiety in people. A priest may be called only when the person is dying, which reinforces the earlier notion that only someone who is near death should receive it. Often a priest will hear words like: "Father, would you come to give my mother Last Rites, she doesn't have much longer to live."
The term "Last Rites" is used to describe the sacramental rituals for the dying which usually include this anointing, but it is not the only sacrament celebrated in Last Rites. There is Reconciliation and especially Viaticum, the final reception of Holy Communion, which is truly the Last Rites. Jesus accompanies the person who is on his or her way home to God. Listen to the words that are used: "Jesus Christ is the food for our journey; he calls us to the heavenly table…May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life."
If the priest is called at the last moment, it is not unusual for the person to be unresponsive and unable to make a confession or receive communion, then the Anointing is the only ritual that can be administered in the Last Rites.
The Church teaches that the Anointing of the Sick is primarily for those who are seriously ill, but not necessarily a sickness that will lead to death. Any sickness that is serious enough to keep a person from performing their normal daily activities is reason enough to request the anointing. The weakness of old age is also a good reason to be anointed. The sacrament of the sick can be repeated for a person who recovers and then falls ill again or when there is a worsening of the illness. A person may also be anointed before surgery, whenever a serious illness is a reason for the surgery. Sick children may be anointed if they have sufficient use of reason to be strengthened by this sacrament.
Just as Christ healed people, giving them health and new life, so Jesus sends forth his apostles to do the same. The words spoken by the priest in the ritual for the Anointing of the Sick speak of its purpose:
In the opening greeting the priest says: "In the name of Jesus the healer we pray that the sick may be restored to health."
In the opening prayer he says: "May all who share in his sufferings find in these sacraments a source of fresh courage and healing."
Again, just prior to the anointing with oil, he says: "Give life and health to our brothers/sisters on whom we lay our hands in your name."
And the actual anointing on the forehead and hands: "Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up."
Finally in one of the closing prayers, he says: "Heal their sickness and forgive their sins; expel all affliction of mind and body; mercifully restore them to full health and enable them to resume their former duties."
When we speak of healings we often think of the miracles that Jesus performed: the cleansing of the leper, giving sight to the blind man, hearing to the deaf man; the raising of Lazarus from the tomb or the raising of Jairus' daughter. We think of these spectacular healings and we pray that our loved ones and friends will be healed that way. We ought to continue to do that because Christ's healing power can indeed work miracles, but we don't want to miss the other less spectacular ones. When someone is anointed, the healing presence of Jesus truly comes to the person. It may be a physical healing, but it also may be the healing of some common effects of sickness, such as, discouragement, fear, anxiety, the feeling of isolation, and hopelessness.
We often underestimate the healing power of the Lord that comes to us as an expression of God's great love for us. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is a powerful encounter with Jesus Christ the healer. Never be afraid to ask your priest to celebrate it with a sick loved one or friend, and do not hesitate to request it for yourself when you are ill too.
For more information, please contact the Parish Office at (860) 872-0200.