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The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 46)

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick

“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 Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15)

We ought to think of the seven sacraments, not so much in terms of a list, but rather as a seven-fold outpouring of God's saving grace, flowing from the self-offering of Christ. For each sacrament upholds, interprets, and fulfills the others. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing the Scripture passage above, treats the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick under a single title: “The Sacraments of Healing” (CCC par. 1420 ff.). For “the Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health [Mark 2:1-12] has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members. This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing...”.

In Holy Scripture sickness serves as a kind of parable of sin, and Christ's power to heal announces his power to forgive. His healing miracles prophesy our final healing in the resurrection of the body—a healing won for us by the grace of God's forgiveness of our sins. This inexplicable, but real, relation of sin and sickness helps us to understand why it is that, for better or for worse, serious illness so readily raises the question of faith.

Illness and suffering have always been among the greatest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death. Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him (CCC par. 1500-1501).

Through the Sacrament of Anointing, the threat of serious illness is transformed into the awareness of God's saving presence, as we learn the meaning of St. Paul's claim: “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

The practice of anointing the sick with blessed oils goes back to the time of the apostles. Through the centuries it was conferred more and more upon those who were at the point of death. This explains the term familiar to previous generations, “Extreme Unction”. But in recent years the Church has revived the most ancient practice. Following the Second Vatican Council, Pope VI formally declared that the anointing of the sick “is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death,” so that “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” (quoted in CCC par. 1514). In an extended illness, or in recurring serious illnesses, the sacrament may be repeated, and preparation for surgery is also an especially appropriate time for anointing (CCC par. 1515).

During a healing mass or in a hospital room, at a bedside at home, or in a private meeting with a priest—with the reading of the Word and with prayers for forgiveness and the laying of hands—the sacrament may be administered. “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.” And healing will be granted, perhaps dramatically, perhaps less so, perhaps in hidden graces, perhaps in new strength to endure. Healing will be granted.

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