Encountering Christ in the sacrament of anointing of the sick
Pope Benedict XVI once said, "...the faith is not a theory, a philosophy, or idea; it is an encounter. An encounter with Jesus." It is this encounter with Jesus in the sacraments that is the focus of this year's Theology 101.
The sacraments are of upmost importance and are central to the life of the Church because the divine life is dispensed to us through the sacraments. Each sacrament confers the grace of the Holy Spirit who “heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.” (CCC #1129)
The challenge of illness
In addition to facing the challenge of sin, we are subject to illness during this earthly life. Illness is so often accompanied by suffering and, if left unchecked, it can carry us to the very threshold of death. The catechism (#1500) aptly notes that illness brings into full relief our utter powerlessness, our limitations and our own mortality.
This reality can lead us down one of two paths. The first path is the path to anguish, self-absorption, despair and even revolt against God – if we blame God for the illness. The second path is the path to a deeper maturity that helps us discern what is truly important in life and that can provoke a more earnest search for and resting in God.
An encounter with Christ
Recognizing the challenge of illness and the seriousness of the choice we face in responding to illness, the Church points to the sacrament called the anointing of the sick. The Church believes Christ instituted this sacrament especially to strengthen us when we are being tried by illness.
Christ is the great physician whose compassion toward the sick is well documented in the Gospels. He even goes so far as to identify himself with the infirm in the Gospel of Matthew (25:36): “I was sick and you visited me.” He asks the sick to believe, he lays his hands upon them and allows them to touch him.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the anointing of the sick, it is this same Jesus who touches us to heal us from sin through the ministry of the priest. This is the most important aspect of the sacrament for, as the catechism (#1505) teaches, Jesus’ healing of the sick announced a more “radical healing: the victory over sin and death,” of which illness is only a consequence.
When we receive the sacrament, we are given the grace “of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age.” (CCC#1520) This grace, a gift of the Holy Spirit, is meant to lead us to the healing of both the soul and body. Consequently, a hoped-for effect is that, if it be God’s will, we will also be delivered from the illness too.
Other effects of the sacrament
This sacrament unites us more closely with the passion of Christ, and thereby makes our suffering a “participation in the saving work of Jesus.” (CCC#1521) In this way, our suffering, which is a consequence of original sin, is transformed and given new meaning.
The celebration of this sacrament, along with all the sacraments, is also an ecclesial act. It is the whole Church, in the communion of saints, who intercedes for us. At the same time, when we unite our suffering with the suffering of Christ, we can actually contribute to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all humanity for whom the Church suffers through Christ. Consequently, it confers an ecclesial grace.
Finally, when the anointing of the sick is given at the end of life, the sacrament completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as baptism began it. It then completes our baptismal anointing which sealed the new life in us. It completes our anointing at confirmation which strengthened us for the combat of this life. It fortifies the end of our earthly life and prepares us for the final journey into our Father’s house.
TRUE OR FALSE: The anointing of the sick is reserved for those who are at the point of death and, like baptism and confirmation, is administered only once.
FALSE. The sacrament is not only for those who are at the point of death. Anyone facing a grave illness or in danger of death due to old age may receive this sacrament. What’s more, if a person recovers his or her health, they may receive the sacrament again should they once again find themselves facing a grave illness. Further, the sacrament may be repeated if the person’s condition worsens. (cf. CCC#1514-1515)
DID YOU KNOW…
When one of us is about to depart this life, the Church offers us the anointing of the sick (also called extreme unction) and the Eucharist as viaticum (“passing over”). As the seed of eternal life and the power of Resurrection, the reception of the Eucharist at the moment of “passing over” to the Father has a particular significance and importance.
Thus, the catechism (#1525) explains that just as the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist form a unity called the sacraments of initiation, the sacraments of penance, the anointing of the sick and the Eucharist as viaticum at the end of Christian life constitute “the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland” or “the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimages.”
THE PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS
The principal elements of the celebration of the anointing of the sick include:
- the priests of the Church (as only priests are ministers of the anointing of the sick);
- the laying on of hands by the priest as he prays over the one receiving the sacrament;
- and the anointing of the person with oil blessed by the bishop. (cf. CCC#1519)