Sacraments: Anointing of the sick is not just for the dying

By Deacon Guadalupe Rodriguez

Guest Columnist

The sacrament of anointing of the sick is the Catholic Church’s best kept secret. To discover this sacrament is to find a treasure of hope, comfort and peace.

For many centuries this sacrament was called "extreme unction" until the Second Vatican Council called it "The Anointing of the Sick." Many may refer to it as "Last Rites" because there was a time when the sacrament was reserved for someone who was near death.

Today the sacrament is reserved for those who are "seriously" sick. The Apostolic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council refers to the sacrament as "Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum," and states, "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 — 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.’"

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states "’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" (1514).

A person with a serious condition may receive the sacrament more than once without regard to his or her age. "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 1515).

Only a priest can administer the Anointing of the Sick. "The celebration of the sacrament includes the following principal elements: the ‘priests of the Church’ — in silence — lay hands on the sick; they pray over them in the faith of the Church — this is the epiclesis (descent of the Holy Spirit) proper to this sacrament" (1519).

Priests may administer the sacrament during Mass, a prayer service, or in the privacy of the parish office or sacristy, visiting the sick at home, or at the hospital. The church recommends that it be preceded by a good confession and followed by holy Communion (if possible).

A parish may hold a "communal celebration" for the Anointing of the Sick (perhaps after a Mass). At these communal celebrations, the priest will usually tell the faithful that this sacrament is for those suffering from physical, emotional or spiritual illness. While the faithful do not have to provide details of their sickness as they come forward to receive the sacrament, the faithful respect that the sacrament is reserved for those with serious illnesses or conditions.

The origin of this sacrament is Jesus’ command, "In my name... they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mk 16:17-18). Further evidence of this sacrament is in the Letter of James, "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 prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven" (5:14-15).

Early church fathers wrote about this sacrament. St. Augustine (d. 430) said he "was accustomed to visit the sick who desired it in order to lay his hands on them and pray at their bedside." The Council of Constantinople II in 553 mentions the Anointing of the Sick as a sacrament. However, the church did not officially declare it as a sacrament until 1551, at the Council of Trent in response to the denial of this sacrament by the Protestants, when it stated, "This sacred anointing of the sick was instituted by Christ our Lord as a true and proper sacrament of the New Testament. It is alluded to indeed by Mark, but is recommended to the faithful and promulgated by James the apostle and brother of the Lord."

As with all seven sacraments, in the Anointing of the Sick, heaven touches earth and we can experience the presence and power of our ever-loving and almighty God. The church encourages all those who are seriously sick to seek the comfort and grace of the anointing of the sick.

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