Merry Christmas, and Happy Feast of St. John! What follows is a blog post that I've been slowly working on for several weeks now. During my Theology of Healing class this fall, we studied the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and went over how this is often a misunderstood sacrament. So, without further ado, here we go!
When I was young, I would look through different religion textbooks and workbooks for my age level. When discussing Anointing of the Sick, these books would commonly state something like “Anointing of the Sick—also called Extreme Unction.” Oftentimes, there would also be included a picture of an old person on his or her hospital bed.
On different occasions in my life, I’ve come across this image in the form of a common mentality among Catholics: Anointing of the Sick is for the elderly, those who are so sick that they are on their deathbed, and for those about to die.
But this picture is incomplete. Where are the addicts in this picture? Where are the people with mental illnesses? Where are the people with extreme depression? Because people who fall into these groups have just as much cause for sacramental anointing as the old people do. I would venture to say that there’s a high number of Catholics out there who can and should approach a priest as candidates for this sacrament—but they don’t know it. When Jesus walked the Earth, He preached, worked miracles, and healed people. And the people that Christ healed didn’t just have a host of broken legs and arms; some needed mental and spiritual healing.
“And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” (Matt 8:14-17)
Christ and the Church aren’t just concerned about the externals of an individual, but the holistic health of each human being. Let’s look at what the Catechism says about the Anointing of the Sick:
“The Apostolic Constitution Sacram unctionem infirmorum, following upon the Second Vatican Council, established that henceforth, in the Roman Rite, the following be observed:
The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given to those who are seriously ill by anointing them on the forehead and hands with duly blessed oil - pressed from olives or from other plants - saying, only once: "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."” (CCC 1513)
Dr. Puppo, my awesome Theology of Healing instructor, mentioned that “serious illness” points to the illness’s ability to cause death if it isn’t treated. Again, let’s look at the Catechism:
“The Anointing of the Sick "is not a sacrament 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."
"If a sick person who received this anointing recovers his health, he can in the case of another grave illness receive this sacrament again. If during the same illness the person's condition becomes more serious, the sacrament may be repeated. It is fitting to receive the Anointing of the Sick just prior to a serious operation. The same holds for the elderly whose frailty becomes more pronounced.” (CCC 1514-1515)
The death doesn’t have to be proximate (fairly soon) but could be remote; and “death” doesn’t just mean a physical reality, but a separation of soul and body: a spiritual death (So even if you may not think of people with addictions falling into the category of “candidate for anointing,” think again. If someone suffering from addiction does not find healing, he or she will die spiritually).
In the Sacram unctionem infirmorum, there are multiple rites that can be used for different people. Anointing is not just for those near death. Vatican II established some special rites for those who are dying, but there are also rites for a sick person, children, persons with disabilities, a person who has a month or so to live, and a person who has days to live.
Sacramental anointing brings healing and pulls the sick person back into the loving community of the Church. This is awesome, because a sick person is always removed from others in some way. As the Catechism states, “Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God” (CCC 1501). Obviously, a person with a contagious, dangerous disease cannot be physically near others. People who suffer from addictions also suffer a lack in full communion with others. Addictions control one’s life and affect one’s actions, and if someone is addicted, he or she is preferring (whether they like it or not) the satiation of a disordered desire to the true fulfillment that God offers them in interpersonal relationships. An illness of any kind affects a person’s whole being and the other members of a community.
So, Anointing of the Sick does not just bring healing to the sick person, but to a family, a parish, and the whole Church. Awesome effects of sacramental anointing (taken from CCC 1520-1523) include:
1. A particular gift of the Holy Spirit. The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age.
2. Union with the passion of Christ.
3. An ecclesial grace. The sick who receive this sacrament, “by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,” “contribute to the good of the People of God.” By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father.
4. A preparation for the final journey. If the sacrament of anointing of the sick is given to all who suffer from serious illness and infirmity, even more rightly is it given to those at the point of departing this life; so it is also called sacramentum exeuntium (the sacrament of those departing).
Anointing of the Sick is a necessary sacrament, and people must realize that it is available to them in time of need. Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament for the living; it is to bring people salvation and some form of healing in God’s eyes. In this sacrament, God brings all of these people into the fullness of holistic health and community.
In my Theology of Healing class, Dr. Puppo told us the following story: one year, a student in her class approached her during or after the unit on Anointing of the Sick. The student mentioned how his mom suffered from depression. The student was able to bring this message of hope to his mother, who then found that she was a worthy candidate for this sacrament. Through the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, God brought this woman incredible healing, and she continued to then lead a group in her parish for people who were suffering with depression. God wants to heal His people—and He does!
There doesn’t seem to be much discussion about Anointing of the Sick and dealing with illnesses in the various Catholic circles I’ve bounced around in. I’ve received this sacrament, and I’ve witnessed someone else receive Anointing. But does the Church really talk about it? I’ve never really heard much talk about it.
MINDBLOWN. Holy Mother Church has talked about the care of the sick a lot. Here are just a few instances over recent years:
In 1921, Pope Benedict XV said that priests “should make every effort in order that those who are in their last crisis may not delay the reception of the viaticum and the extreme unction till they are about to lose their consciousness. On the contrary, according to the teaching and the precepts of the Church, they should be strengthened by these sacraments as soon as their condition worsens, and one may prudently judge that there is danger of death.” (Pope Benedict XV, Sodalitatem Nostrae Dominae)
And take a look what Pope Pius XI said in 1923: “For it is not necessary either for the validity or the liceity of the sacrament that death be feared as something proximate; rather, it is enough that there be a prudent or probably judgment of danger. And if in such conditions unction ought to be given, in the same conditions it surely can be given.” (Pope Pius XI, Explorata Res)
|The holy oils!|
In the document Lumen Gentium, from Vatican II, it was declared:
“By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of her priests the whole Church commends the sick to the suffering and glorified Lord, asking that He may lighten their suffering and save them;(106) she exhorts them, moreover, to contribute to the welfare of the whole people of God by associating themselves freely with the passion and death of Christ” (Lumen Gentium 11)
St. John Paul II later said:
“In fact, illness and suffering are not experiences which concern only man's physical substance, but man in his entirety and in his somatic-spiritual unity. For that matter, it is known how often the illness which is manifested in the body has its origins and its true cause in the recesses of' the human psyche.” (St. John Paul II, Dolentium Hominum #2)
St. John Paul II also spoke much about the need to reverence those with mental disabilities:
“The experience of certain Christian communities has shown that an intense and stimulating community life, continuous and discreet educational support, the fostering of friendly contacts with properly trained people, the habit of channelling instincts and developing a healthy sense of modesty as respect for their own personal privacy, often succeeds in restoring the emotional balance of persons with mental disabilities and can lead them to live enriching, fruitful and satisfying interpersonal relationships. To show disabled persons that we love them means showing them that we value them. Attentive listening, understanding their needs, sharing their suffering, patience in guidance, are some of the ways to introduce the disabled into a human relationship of communion, to enable them to perceive their own value and make them aware of their capacity for receiving and giving love.” (St. John Paul II, International Symposium on the Dignity and Rights of the Mentally Disabled Person #5)
With a huge presence of severe depression, addiction to pornography and masturbation, and mental illnesses among the faithful, we need to recognize the importance and necessity of the Anointing of the Sick. We are surrounded by people who suffer in these ways, and perhaps we ourselves suffer in these ways. We desperately need to bring a greater awareness of this sacrament into our parishes and communities, so that people know that the Church has provided a loving, compassionate, healing option for them in their time of illness. Church doesn’t stop there, though. There are other awesome, non-sacramental ways that Catholics can pray for healing. Dr. Puppo also told us that recently, her parish had a “Rosary for Recovery,” which was being prayed specifically for those suffering from addictions (and their families). The “Book of Blessings” has multitudes of awesome prayers and blessings that priests can use for a variety of circumstances and people. Also, I highly recommend picking up the book Understanding Sacramental Healing, by John Kascza, because it’s awesome. We read this book in our Theology of Healing Class, and it was very eye-opening (it’s also a solidly Catholic, orthodox book).
There are two extremes that I’ve encountered or heard about in our modern Catholic society, regarding Anointing of the Sick: only anoint the people who have the strong potentiality of near physical death, or anoint everybody. Neither extreme is a good or healthy understanding of sacramental healing. So let’s talk about the Anointing of the Sick. Let’s get a better understanding of this awesome sacrament. Let’s make it known that this sacrament is here for those who need it.