Yesterday our parish held a Healing Prayer Service -- a communal Anointing of the Sick. We attended with our son Michael, who has chronic eczema, asthma, and life-threatening food allergies. As I had never attended a communal Anointing, I was very surprised to see almost exclusively elderly people attending. This sacrament, which used to be called Last Rites and is still called Extreme Unction, is really not exclusively for the very sick and dying any more. It is also for anyone with a chronic severe illness, or anyone undergoing serious surgery.
I have, for at least a year, thought about medical healing for Michael. While eczema, asthma and allergies are not immediately life threatening, and can be controlled to some extent with medication, they can certainly become life-threatening at any time. They are nothing any parents want their child to have. So, why not ask for God to heal him? As we told Michael, if we don't ask God to heal us, we haven't done everything we can.
Which is why I was so surprised to see a handful of people at the service, and of those there, they were almost exclusively elderly. We are members of a large parish. I imagine that those with cancer alone would fill three long pews. And there are so many serious illnesses. Why don't more people ask for this sacrament?
I can only imagine that it is because most Catholics still believe Anointing of the Sick to be a death bed sacrament. So, today I use my blog to help educate my fellow Catholics about this truly wonderful sacrament.
From Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., Th.D. published on americancatholic.org
"The practice of administering Extreme Unction to those who were at the point of death brought with it a certain privatization of the sacrament. While we have become accustomed to the sacrament's new name, many Catholics still think of it as a private sacrament, administered by a priest to a single individual.
If I asked you to close your eyes and picture the Sacrament of Anointing, what image would come to your mind? I think many Catholics would picture a priest standing at a hospital bedside. For an increasing number of Catholics, however, the mental picture would be different. They would picture a parish gathered for Sunday Eucharist, with 30 or so people—some visibly ill, some apparently perfectly healthy—coming up the aisle to be anointed, some with their spouses or caregivers.
That public, communal sacrament is the sacrament celebrated to its fullest. One of the general principles of the Council's renewal of Catholic worship states: 'Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations belonging to the Church....Therefore liturgical services involve the whole Body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it;�..Whenever rites...make provision for communal celebration involving the presence and active participation of the faithful, it is to be stressed that this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, as far as possible, to a celebration that is individual and, so to speak, private' (Liturgy, #26-27).
When I first learned about Extreme Unction and about how sick one would have to be in order to be anointed, I thought of 'sickness' exclusively in terms of bodily illness. I never thought that there might be serious illnesses whose principal causes or manifestations were not physical. Nor did I realize as I do now the holistic unity of body, soul and spirit.
I should have known. For years I suffered from a colon disorder which the doctors said was caused by my unreasonable desire to make straight A's in every possible subject in school. That experience alone should have made me aware of the intimate relation of mind and body, but I never thought of 'perfectionism' as a disease. Nor did I think of alcoholism as a disease; and I never even heard of codependency (a description of unhealthy relationships in a family affected by addiction). I was unaware of the way in which the actions of one member of a family can cause serious physical, mental and spiritual illness in other members of the family.
Today one does not have to be a doctor to know that physical health is related to mental and spiritual health. We all know how a divorce can cause ulcers; how being overworked and run-down can make one more susceptible to the flu. Often a person who decides to withdraw from an addiction experiences not only physical pain but also suffers from anxiety and depression. Mothers have told me of how, after the physical trauma of childbirth, the joy of having a baby can be completely covered over by the hormonally induced postpartum depression that sometimes follows.
Today we are all aware that tensions, fear and anxiety about the future affect not only our mind but our body as well. These illnesses can be serious. They can move us to ask for the healing touch of Christ in the Sacrament of Anointing.
Persons with the disease of alcoholism or persons suffering from other addictions can be anointed. So can those who suffer from various mental disorders. The anxiety before exploratory surgery to determine if cancer is present is a situation in which Christ's power can be invoked in the sacrament. Often the spouse or the principal caregiver of the person who is seriously ill also asks to be anointed when he or she, too, is seriously affected by the illness—the debilitating fear of an elderly husband ("How will I be able to live if she dies?"); the anguish of young parents whose child is dying ("How can a just and loving God allow this to happen?").
Our pastoral experience of the revised rite and the Church's desire for wider availability of the sacrament has helped pastors realize that serious mental and spiritual illnesses are also opportunities to celebrate this sacrament.
In these cases the person does not have to wait until the illness is so grave that he or she is in the hospital or institutionalized to celebrate the sacrament. Sacraments, after all, are community celebrations. It is preferable to celebrate them in the context of family and parish even before going to the hospital. The sick person has a better opportunity to appreciate the prayers and symbols of the rite when in her or his customary worshiping community.
There are times when old age and the fears and isolation that can sometimes accompany it need to be brought to the healing and comforting touch of Christ in this sacrament. It is a powerful sign for a parish community to see their senior members place their limitations and dependence in the hands of Christ, who accepted human limitation and freely embraced suffering and even death itself.
The Anointing of the Sick is a different kind of healing than a chemical placed into our body as medicine or a surgical intervention to cut out diseased tissue. Sacraments are acts of faith; they grace the whole person—body, soul and spirit. The blessing over the oil for anointing asks God to 'send the power of your Holy Spirit, the Consoler, into this precious oil. Make this oil a remedy for all who are anointed with it; heal them in body, in soul and in spirit, and deliver them from every affliction" (Pastoral Care of the Sick, #123).' "
Though the Anointing service we attended was not part of the Mass, we had some of the same prayers that are a part of the Mass, a Gospel reading, and a homily. Then, all who were receiving the sacrament went forward, just as in Communion, and received the Anointing. This is what Father did:
"The priest makes the Sign of the Cross with the blessed oil on the sick person's forehead, saying: 'Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.' Then the priest anoints the palms of the sick one's hands with the Sign of the Cross: 'May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.' "
CCC 1532 The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects:
- the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church;
- the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age;
- the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance;
- the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul;
- the preparation for passing over to eternal life.