We live in a society where there is a great fear of illness and suffering, as demonstrated by the response to the coronavirus and the legalization of assisted suicide in some states. One way to lessen this fear among Catholics is to make them more aware that there is a sacrament that can provide graces to enable a sick person to either be healed or be prepared to die and be with God, according to what God’s will is for him or her. Knowing that the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is available if we become seriously ill should give us confidence that whatever may happen, God will give us the graces we need.
Anointing of the Sick was instituted by Jesus when he gave His Apostles the power to heal people. The Gospel of St. Mark tells us that the Apostles “anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mark 6:13 d). The sacrament was administered in the early Church in a similar way as it is today. In his epistle Saint. James wrote: “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” (James 5: 13-15).
The Church recommends that Catholics receive Anointing of the Sick when in danger of death from illness or old age, or before a serious operation. In each of these situations, a person may feel afraid or anxious. Receiving the sacrament will give him the spiritual healing, increased faith, peace and strength needed to endure suffering. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that: “By the grace of the 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” (1521). Just as the members of the Church are praying for the sick person, he is helping others through his suffering. “By celebrating the sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, through 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” (Catechism,1522).
The sacrament can be received more than once. For example, if the sick person’s health grows worse. If the person will not recover, Anointing of the Sick will prepare him to be with God. If the person is dying, he or she can be given Holy Communion as viaticum. Many priests will give a dying person the Apostolic Pardon after anointing and viaticum. This prayer provides a plenary indulgence that removes temporal punishment of sin.
The Church recommends that Catholics go to confession before receiving Anointing of the Sick if they have committed any mortal sins. It is not meant to be a substitute for the sacrament of Penance. However, if they are unable to make a confession, their sins can be forgiven through the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. A sick person can receive the sacrament at home, in a hospital, in a nursing home, or in the event of an accident or sudden illness such as a heart attack—anywhere a sick person might be. It can also be received in church, as some parishes provide Anointing of the Sick once a month at the end of Mass. Anointing of the Sick can only be administered by priests and bishops. As with the other sacraments, it is Jesus who gives the graces to the person through the words and actions of the priest or bishop. I have witnessed the positive effect of this sacrament on people I love. My mother received Anointing of the Sick on more than one occasion when she was hospitalized for a serious heart condition. Each time, she was healed and also grew in faith and trust in Jesus, even looking forward to the time she would be with Him in Heaven. She received Anointing of the Sick for the last time a few days before she died of pneumonia in 2008. I believe God gave her the grace to die in peace, with the hope of eternal life. One of my spiritual fathers, Father Rooney, received Anointing of the Sick when he developed a serious health problem and received it again on the day that he died. He had great faith, united his suffering to Jesus, and died peacefully. In addition to providing graces to the sick person, I think the sacrament also provides consolation and peace to the person’s family and friends. When my mother received Anointing of the Sick, I felt peace that she was being helped by Jesus and would be healed, and when she received it at the end of her life, I trusted that she would be prepared to be with Him.
Sometimes family members wait to call a priest until the sick person is dying. It is not good to delay because the priest may not be able to come before the person dies or the person may not be conscious (although he or she can still receive the sacrament.) As there are so many benefits to receiving Anointing of the Sick, it is better not to wait too long to request it for oneself or a family member. I think it is a work of mercy for Catholics to help any Catholics they know who are seriously ill or dying to receive Anointing of the Sick. The sick person may be too weak to contact the priest himself, and his family may not understand or believe in the graces of this sacrament, and may not see the necessity of calling a priest. In this circumstance, a relative or friend could contact a priest on behalf of the sick person. If he or she is in the hospital, you can contact the priest who is the hospital’s chaplain. If the hospital does not have a priest chaplain, or if your friend or relative is at home or in a nursing home, you can contact the pastor of his parish. If he does not belong to a parish, you can contact any priest you know, as most priests are happy to be able to bring Jesus’ healing and consolation to the sick through this sacrament.