May 5, 2013
Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. In the next few weeks our parish will experience several sacraments in a particularly special way: on May 12, next Saturday, our second graders will receive First Holy Communion; on May 22 our eighth graders will receive Confirmation; and on June 8 parishioner Deacon Nick Barnes will receive Holy Orders as he is ordained a priest. (Remember to pray for all them as they prepare). And then there are Baptisms every Sunday, Confessions throughout every week, and Marriages throughout the year. But there is one sacrament most of us tend to forget or know very little about: the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. So let’s review a few things.
Scripture. We see the Sacrament of Anointing clearly referred to in Mark 6: 7, 12, 13: “And he called to him the twelve, and began to send them out …And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.”
This continues to be the apostolic practice, as we read in James 5: 14-15: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”
Note: the Greek word “presbyteroi,” translated here as “elders,” may also be translated as “presbyters,” and is understood to refer to “priests,” so that the sacramental ritual translates this, “let them send for the priests.”
Effects/Purpose of the Sacrament. The primary effect and purpose of the sacrament of Anointing is spiritual healing, which might, in God’s will and plan, involve or require physically healing as well. The Catechism (1532) summarizes the specific effects of the grace of sacrament:
— uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church;
— strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner ones sufferings;
— forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to receive the sacrament of Penance;
— restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul;
— the preparation for passing over to eternal life.
Who may receive the sacrament. Contrary to a popular notion, Anointing is not reserved to those who are on their death bed. On the other hand, it is also not given to those who have just any ailment or weakness, no matter how painful. Rather, it is reserved for those who suffer from an ailment that causes them to “begin to be in danger of death.” In other words, generally speaking, if someone has a something like a bad cold or flu, or muscular back pains, they are not in “danger of death” and so may not be anointed. However, if someone is in the early stages of cancer or heart disease, or any other serious illness that truly does present a real danger of death, even if only the “begin[ning]” thereof, these persons may be anointed.
We should also note that the Sacrament may be given to someone who “begins to be in danger of death” due simply to “old age.” We should be prudent here, neither oversimplifying nor over-restricting the definition of “danger of death.” A healthy 80 year old who jogs 2 miles a day would be treated differently than his twin brother who is weakened from past ailments.
Also, Anointing can be repeated if the person gets worse or has a relapse of the same illness, or comes down with another ailment.
It is also important to remember that the sacrament may only be received by a Catholic who has “reached the use of reason,” i.e., to adults and children over the age of about 7 years old. Some are surprised, even angered, when they hear that a very young child cannot be anointed. But we must remember that the primary purpose of the sacrament is the spiritual well-being of the person. Before the age of reason, a child cannot be guilty of sin (he can commit sinful acts, but he is not culpable/guilty), and so, after Baptism, is in no need of spiritual healing and the Anointing. Many argue, “but we want the physical healing of the sacrament.” This is understandable, but it is not in God’s plan for the sacrament, so the act of anointing would be ineffective even if given. But remember, if it is in God’s will to give spiritual healing, He will bring that about in His own way and time.
Finally, other important restrictions should also be noted. Anointing can only be given to those who: are alive; at least implicitly asked for it when they were able to; and do not “obstinately persist in a manifestly grave sin.”
Now, the Church and her priests never want to deny the sacraments to those who may receive them. So we follow the rule: “If there is any doubt as to whether the sick person has reached the age of reason, or is dangerously ill, or is dead, this sacrament is to be administered” [Can. 1005]. So, for example:
— priests will often anoint a body that appears dead, since there is doubt as to exactly when death occurs;
–priests will sometimes anoint a 5 or 6 year old if there is doubt as to their use of reason;
–some argue that a person with a non-deadly ailment may be anointed before going into surgery with general anesthesia because the anesthesia endangers their lives (this is a dubious argument, but remains unaddressed by the magisterium, so it is often followed in practice).
The Sacrament of Anointing is a great source of grace for the sick. While it should not be abused or taken for granted, it should also not be ignored or neglected. So, if you or someone you take care of is in need of the sacrament, please don’t hesitate to follow the instruction of St. James: “Let them send for the priests of the Church, and let the priests pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles