Thursday, December 15, 2016

Anointing of the Sick

   Last night at evening prayer our community celebrated the Anointing of the Sick.  It was a beautiful ceremony, one that left me feeling a special kind of inner peace. It is also a sacrament that is not understood by many so I thought that I would use this blog post to enlighten my readers on how this sacrament is to be used and understood.

   Many people still think of anointing  as something done only at the time of death.  While it can be done then the Church has reflected on the development of this beautiful sacrament and want us to be annointed as soon as any serious or ongoing disease is detected in us. This is why many parishes now have communal anointing services.  We in the Franciscan Ministry of the Word often do anointing as part of our parish mission and in my friar community, made up mostly of retired friars, we celebrate it  several times during the year. Advent is a particularly good time to do this because the Advent daily readings often tell stories of the healing miracles of Jesus, miracles which are a sign of the future coming of the Reign of God when all sin and sickness and death itself will be overcome.

   Many people grew up when this sacrament was called Extreme Unction.  The word extreme, translated into English from the Latin, does not mean in extreme danger, It refers to the anointing of the extremities because years ago the hands and feet as well as the forehead were anointed.  To clarify this misunderstanding the Church now refers to the sacrament as The Anointing of the Sick.  The forehead and hands are now anointed.

    We often hear the expression Last Rites when speaking about anointing.  Actually the official last rites of the Church are special prayers for the dying and Holy Communion received as Viaticum and when appropriate a final absolution.  These rites may also be given together with the Anointing of the Sick.

   So why do I as well as the other members of my community get anointed?  Among other things one of the criteria for reception of this sacrament is to be feeling the effects of advancing age.  Enough said right there.  Also almost all of us have some condition which is serious but because of modern medicine does not kill us.  I, for example, am diabetic.  Also anyone who is about to undergo surgery or who recently has undergone surgery may present themselves. 

   Some ask if they can be anointed more than once.  The answer is yes and while I have not seen any rigid guideline on frequency I would think that every few months is fine unless a new disease or illness enters the picture, then get anointed right away.

   Over the centuries miracles have occured through the administration of this sacrament.  I have heard some beautiful accounts of outright miracles or of medical procedures that went exceptionally well after anointing.  I would like to stress however that we ought not use this sacrament to get "fixed".  At the deepest level presenting oneself for anointing is a way of affirming that our sufferings are joined to those of Christ, not joined so that we might just wallow in suffering but rather so that we might be transformed and renewed in some way and claim hope in His Resurrection, the great mystery in whgich all suffering will be overcome.  St. Paul, in the second letter to the Corinthians, expresses this wonderfully.  He says, "We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesn (2 Cor. 4: 8-11)

     I have been anointed many times over the last few years.  While I certainly have not had a miracle cure of anything I have received many blessings. To name just a few I have been given the strength to engage in the process of visting doctors, having medical procedures done, and of following the diet and exercise regimens recommended to me. (No, I have not been perfect at the latter, but by placing my health in the Lord's hands, especially through this sacrament I am a lot better at it).  Most importantly I am a growing to be more at peace with the routine of managing illnesses because I am more deeply aware that my life situation is part of a bigger picture.  Also, at age 72, I am feeling young at heart, but likewise am aware that the end of life beckons, hopefully not for a while yet, and I am at peace with that.

   My advice.  If you are young and healthy.  Thank God for that.  Not everyone needs to be anointed.  If, however, you are feeling the effects of advancing age, or if you are dealing with a chronic illnes, or diagnosed with a serious illnes, ask your priest about Anointing of the Sick or participate in a communal anointing if your parish has one.



  1. Yes, yes. I am going to have open heart surgery right after Christmas (a failed aortic valve, happily no blockage or coronary disease), and was anointed at Sunday Mass in my parish a week ago. Besides the wonderful moment of having most of the congregation come forward to lay hands on shoulders and heads in a sort of human prayer huddle, I had the great grace of many people coming over after to tell me of their surgery or of someone they know. It's a real tangible and holy sense of this great crowd of witnesses. And I know there are now lots of people holding me in their hearts. Blessing on blessing on blessing.

  2. Thanks for your reflections,John. I have celebrated this sacrament in many situations, on parish missions, in two prayer & faith sharing groups which are part of Bethany Ministries & with individuals & families. Most recently I anointed a man who is suffering from cancer & can't swallow even liquids. I was able to give him communion as consecrated wine through his feeding tube with the help of his wife who gives him food this way.


Letting the Earth Speak