What is the anointing of the sick? Is it only used when someone is about to die?
— Anonymous in Coles County
Given that we are still in the throes of the pandemic and the illnesses that often accompany winter, it would be beneficial to discuss the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Better yet, let us clarify the purpose of the sacrament and dispel some of the misconceptions people often hold concerning this sacrament of healing. Let us begin with that: healing.
The sacrament of the anointing of the sick is one of the two sacraments of healing — the other being the sacrament of reconciliation (confession). When someone is sick, they are in need of healing and the Lord has provided for this need. Consider for a moment how often in the Gospels the Lord reached out to those who were sick. This sacrament has a particular scriptural warrant. Chapter 5 of the Letter of James gives explicit warrant for anointing the sick.
Christ provides the Catholic Church with the sacraments to strengthen and sustain his people and in the instance of the anointing, to provide his healing presence. His grace is present in this and all the sacraments, as well as the Lord’s mercy. Unknown to many is the fact that the anointing carries with it the forgiveness of sins (James, Chapter 5).
What about some misconceptions? People commonly refer to this sacrament as “last rights.” That is a bit of an old-fashioned term that does not speak to the real nature of the sacrament. The emphasis is the healing of the person who is sick, whereby the grace they need is given to them, but that same grace can also prepare them, if indeed, the Lord calls them to himself.
People tend to think that the sacrament is only for those who are on death’s doorstep. This is not true. This misunderstanding is also a harmful deterrent for those in need of God’s grace. Priests sometimes encounter people and their family members in the hospital who attempt to turn the priest away thinking that their loved one is not ready to die. We priests are not looking to simply “send them on their way,” rather we seek to see that person receive the grace they need. The anointing is intended to be a source of consolation, peace, and healing, both spiritually and physically. So, if you or a loved one is facing illness, do not hesitate to contact your parish priest to consider how the sacrament of the anointing may be a source of God’s grace.
Father Braden Maher is pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Charleston and chaplain at Eastern Illinois University.