Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

27 October 2018

Anointing of the Sick: Send for Me

The experience of illness is that of a privation (lack) of a good that ought to be present but is not, viz., wellness, integrity of body and soul. In particular areas, or even in general, we know that ”something’s not right!” Every illness is a prelude to death, the total and final dissolution of the body (CCC 1500).

What happens in the body has its inevitable effects on the soul, and vice versa. An unusually high level of attention to bodily ailments can translate into self-absorption, despair, or revolt against God, or it can promote a more mature appreciation of life’s essentials (1501). Suffering can make us bitter, or better! 

At any point on life’s journey, while we still have our faculties, we can decide in what we call “redemptive suffering” to unite our physical, emotional, and spiritual hardships with Christ’s own—which included ours and everyone else’s anyhow. It is good to make a point of connecting those hardships repeatedly and prayerfully, even when tears and shouts accompany our prayers. We can pray that someone, somewhere, somehow might be assisted by our offering, though we may never get to learn of it on earth.

One of the most noteworthy developments since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) occurred in the practice of the Anointing of the Sick. No longer is this sacrament intended solely for the deathbed: when a person is beset by serious illness or the frailty of old age, the time is ripe for anointing. It is also generally indicated before any serious surgery that requires general anesthesia.

Everyone used to call the Sacrament “Last Rites,” and many still do. The pedant in me sometimes gently corrects the misnomer, because I think of opportunities for instruction like a drunk drinks: never pass one up. I often hear talk of having people’s Last Rites “read to” them, as if we were police officers reading Miranda Rights to someone we’ve just arrested. It’s a curious confusion. Since the Sacrament can be repeated when illness returns or intensifies, I say it’s their “Last” Rites only when it’s the actual last time they’ve received it.

But then there’s CCC 1525, which makes a poignant comparison:

Thus, just as the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist form a unity called “the sacraments of Christian initiation,” so too it can be said that Penance, the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist as viaticum constitute at the end of Christian life “the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland” or the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimage.

Since the Church’s coup de grace (literally, “blow of mercy,” used here in that gentle sense) is said here with convincing pedigree to include Anointing, the precedent for retaining the term “Last Rites” is not bad after all.

In the case of the terminally and gravely ill, Anointing of the Sick ideally takes place alongside Confession and Viaticum (the final reception of Holy Communion). The unfortunate trend has been to wait until the patient/family member is “actively dying,” at which point he or she is often unable to make even a general Confession or ingest the Eucharistic species. While I say the sooner, the better, there is no better time than the present.

I do very much appreciate that families, especially those personally opposed or indifferent to religion, respect the religious and spiritual practices of their elders enough to request Anointing for their loved ones. It’s a spiritual work of justice, and who knows what good it will effect.

As for the Anointing of the Actively Dying, we proceed with the faith that the God Who knows and loves us better than we ever could know or love ourselves can sort out their interior state. The Communion of Saints is on high alert whenever someone “sends for the priests of the Church” (Anointing ritual; cf. James 5:14); it’s like the airing of the bat symbol that moves the Caped Crusader to a dude or damsel in distress. Yes, even at 2:17 AM.

Although the topic of death can be difficult to broach with anyone, let alone a gravely ill person, it can lead to valuable self-reflection (presuming that hasn’t been going on already) and, when necessary, interpersonal healing and reconciliation. Don’t allow fear to unduly delay this graceful activity.

“Their sins will be forgiven” (James 5:15): Anointing of the Sick does forgive venial sins when the recipient is properly disposed to that forgiveness (i.e., sorry). In this life, the forgiveness of mortal sins is reserved to the Sacrament of Penance; amid the need of that forgiveness, Confession is an appropriate complement to Anointing. Be not afraid to do the work of self-examination and to be open to the grace of repentance that Confession requires!

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