Many Catholics wear a piece of jewelry that says simply, “I am Catholic; please call a priest.” These seven little words speak volumes about what we profess as Catholics, our trust in Jesus Christ, and the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. In short, it means we believe in miracles.
Anointing of the Sick is the sacrament in which sick or dying persons are anointed and prayed over to fortify them for their journey into the next life. Over the centuries leading up the Second Vatican Council, the sacrament had gradually become known as “Extreme Unction,” as it was usually only administered at the end of a person's life. The Council Fathers properly returned the sacrament to its place as a healing sacrament for those who are gravely ill, as well as those who are near death.
I believe that any catechesis on a sacrament has to begin with the mystery of God's entry into our world. Our Catholic faith is a faith of signs and wonders. To believe in the efficacy of the sacraments is to believe in the presence of God in our universe. He is present in our lives, and He makes His grace available to us through these sacraments.
The Anointing of the Sick is a true wonder: a priest of the Church lays hands upon a sick person, anoints him with oil blessed by a successor to the Apostles, and prays over him. We believe the Holy Spirit acts through these prayers and sacramentals. “This assistance from the Lord by the power of His Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God's will. Furthermore, ‘if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven’” (CCC #1520).
This sacrament shares with the other six the mystery of making the Spirit present to us across space and time, and the action of Christ to accomplish God's plan of salvation. Just as the Eucharist makes the Crucifixion present to us, and Confirmation brings us to the Upper Room, through the Anointing of the Sick a sick person unites his or her suffering with Christ's Passion. Jesus Christ suffered His Passion due to the sins of the world, and similarly, we suffer because of the weakness brought about by fallen nature. Through the sacrament, we join ourselves to Christ, “for if we have grown into union with Him through a death like His, we shall also be united with Him in the resurrection” (Rom 6:5). The joy of Christians is not that we won’t suffer, but that our suffering has value and that our Lord has won the ultimate victory over that suffering to usher us into new life. Because the sacrament unites the sick person's suffering to that of our Lord, that suffering then takes on new meaning. “By the grace of this sacrament the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ's Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior's redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus” (CCC #1521).
Just as we are initiated into the Christian life in Baptism, the Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to Christ. As the Catechism says so beautifully, “it completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life: that of Baptism which sealed the new life in us, and that of Confirmation which strengthened us for the combat of this life. This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father's house” (#1523).
In St. James's Epistle, we read about this sacrament and note that it has remained essentially unchanged since the early Church. St. James exhorts the first Christians to avail themselves of a “miracle for the asking.” “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters 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” (Jas 5:14-15).
Those first Christians probably didn't wear a medal proclaiming “I am Catholic; please call a presbyter,” but they certainly expected the same miracles we do.
Mickey Addison is a career military officer, and has been a catechist at the parish level since 2000. He and his wife have been married for 19 years and they have two children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was previously published on the Rosary Army’s website and is used by permission.