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Anointing of the Sick: A Changed Sacrament With Many Graces
By Barbara Beckwith
Catholics have embraced Vatican II’s emphasis on Anointing as a sacrament for healing the sick and aged, as well as comforting the dying.

Q U I C K S C A N

Three Parts to the Sacrament
Jesus the Healer
Experiences of This Sacrament
Strength for the Journey Ahead
An Evolving Sacrament


PHOTO BY GENE PLAISTED, O.S.C.

MY MOTHER had a stroke three and a half years ago and, somehow in all the confusion, received the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick four times in as many days. Now 87, she survived—her mind intact but the left side of her body frozen. She now lives in a nursing home. I asked her recently if she remembers being anointed. “Yes,” she said. “What do you remember?” “I lived.”

The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick used to be called “the Last Rites” or “Extreme Unction” because the usual recipient was a dying person. Many Catholics still carry cards or wear medals so that, if they are in an accident, a priest is called to administer the sacrament.

But since the Second Vatican Council, the sacrament is not just for those in imminent danger of death, but for all Catholics whose “health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age” (Rite, #99). It’s usually not held simply with the priest and the person to be anointed, but is often celebrated in parish settings, homes and nursing homes, with family and friends in attendance. It’s now focused on trust in God—for whatever happens—and on healing—in whatever form that may take.

Three Parts to the Sacrament

The sacrament itself has three distinct parts: the prayer of faith, the laying-on of hands and the anointing with oil.

In the prayer of faith, it is the whole community, the People of God, who pray for God’s help for the sick person. And if one member suffers, all share in those sufferings. This community aspect is why parishes now often hold communal celebrations of the sacrament. Sometimes it is combined with a Mass for healing. (There are also prayer services for healing that do not involve the sacrament.)

The laying-on of hands recalls Jesus’ manner of healing: “They brought the sick with various diseases to him; and he laid hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:40). The gesture indicates that this particular person is the object of the Church’s prayer of faith. It is a sign of blessing and an invocation for the coming of the Spirit.

Anointing with oil signifies healing, strengthening and the presence of the Holy Spirit. In biblical times, oil was used to massage athletes to fortify them for the race ahead. In the sacrament, the forehead and hands are anointed, and sometimes additional parts of the body, such as the area of pain or injury. (The pre-Vatican II ritual used also to anoint the feet, but that’s been omitted.)

After the disciples were first sent out by the Lord to continue his healing ministry, “They anointed many sick people with oil and cured them” (Mark 6:13).

The early Church continued this practice (James 5:14-15). As the ritual for Anointing outside of Mass says:

“My dear friends, we are gathered here in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ who is present among us. As the gospels relate, the sick came to him for healing: moreover, he loves us so much that he died for our sake. Through the apostle James, he has commanded us: ‘Are there any who are sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church, and let the priests pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick persons, and the Lord will raise them up; and if they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them’” (Rite, #117).

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Throughout the ritual there is an emphasis on Jesus the healer, the forgiver of sins and the source of all strength to accept and endure whatever comes. God is addressed as “God of all consolation.” One of the readings that may be used is Matthew 11:25-30, which asks us to have childlike confidence in the goodness of God that will bring us the “rest” that only Jesus can give. The healing prayed for is “in body, in soul and in spirit,” and for delivery “from every affliction.” When the priest anoints a person’s forehead with blessed oil, he prays: “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.” When the hands are anointed, he says: “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” Both of these call for an “Amen” response.

The most beautiful prayer from the ritual may be the one used after the anointing: “Father in heaven, through this holy anointing grant N. comfort in his/her suffering. When he/she is afraid, give him/her courage, when afflicted, give him/her patience, when dejected, afford him/her hope, and when alone, assure him/her of the support of your holy people” (Rite, #125A).

Some of the alternates are wonderful, too. For example, the prayer for advanced old age asks: “God of mercy, look kindly on your servant who has grown weak under the burden of years.... Keep him/her firm in faith and serene in hope, that he/she may give us all an example of patience and joyfully witness to the power of your love” (Rite, #125D).

And the prayer for anointing a child is poignant: “Caress him/her, shelter him/her, and keep him/her in your tender care” (Rite, #125F).

This is usually followed by the Our Father, that most perfect prayer of trust in God, in which all present join in.

And the ritual’s concluding blessing asks the God who gives consolation and healing to “fill your heart with peace and lead you to eternal life’ (Rite, #130C).

Our request that you readers share how this sacrament has touched your life got an overwhelming response, many of which are posted on our Web site.

You wrote from the deathbeds of dying parents, from your preparation for surgery now and from 28 years after nearly dying of childbirth complications. You spoke of the comfort of the Church’s presence in the person of the priest, of the peace the sacrament gifted the recipient with and the blessing the sacrament was to all attending.

Not all your responses could be used here, so more are posted on our Web site. We at St. Anthony Messenger thank you for all these moving stories of faith. If you wish to add your experiences, please do so there.

Anointing Brought Me Peace

“I suffered a heart attack on December 11, 2008, and an operation placed two stents into my heart. Initially, my recovery went well but about 30 hours later, while in the ICU ward of Scott and White Hospital, Temple, Texas, I began to experience total cardiac arrest and received defibrillation shocks to revive me.

“After approximately seven of these episodes, over a four-hour time frame, I asked for a priest to visit me. In the presence of another chaplain and my wife, the priest anointed me and laid hands on me. I remember feeling relief and very content while I received the sacrament. My fears left me.

“Afterward, I went on to suffer four more cardiac arrest episodes/defibrillation shocks, and a second operation installed two additional stents into my heart.

“I quickly began recovery again the evening of December 12 and was discharged from the hospital on December 16. I am still recovering well as of this writing.

“I firmly believe that the peace and contentment I received during the anointing saved my life.”

Bill, Texas

Lifted the Burden of Fear

“In 2006 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I went to our parish’s monthly healing Mass to receive the Sacrament of the Sick.

“I felt the burden fall from me as Father Drew was anointing me in my parish church. The sacrament helped me to face bravely the unknown. I still had to have the recommended surgery and follow it up with radiation, but I was able to pursue my physical healing with the burden of fear lifted from my shoulders.

“I am celebrating every day of being a cancer survivor!”

Name withheld, Texas

My Father’s Amazing Recovery

“My story begins back in 2003 with my father having his third heart attack. He had been in a coma for about 65 hours when the doctors told us that there was nothing else to do for him and he needed to be taken off life support.

“Before doing so, I asked my parish priest to come and give my father his final sacrament. Father David was honored and came immediately. We had a family prayer and the priest administered the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

“About hour 70, my father was removed from support. His life was slipping away slowly. Then suddenly around hour 72, he fluttered his eyes, then moved his arm. Next, he opened his eyes and looked all around.

“The neurosurgeons said my father was nothing short of a miracle. They were amazed with his recovery. After two months of therapy, he was able to come home. The only aftereffect was some short- and long-term memory loss.

“Now fast-forward five years: My father has severe CHF [congestive heart failure] and the doctors say he could pass at any time. So once again I’ve called on the priest to give my father this great sacrament. I hope and pray things will work out as well as five years ago. Please pray for us.”

Robin, Pennsylvania

A Family Celebration

“We gathered at my daughter Nancy and her husband Brett’s home. Our five daughters and sons-in-law, five grandchildren (the oldest was four), our friend Mary Jo (who had brought Communion to Nancy and Brett every Sunday) and our parish priest, Father Ed, were there.

“Nancy had found a lump in her breast during a self-exam and the cancer was now spreading to her bones. A kindergarten teacher, she had never let cancer define who she was. She said the diagnosis of cancer was ‘a gift to my life.’

“Through the course of chemo and radiation, she missed only four days of teaching. She taught the children more than academics. She taught them that people do get sick, but they are still the same as before. Every young person has had someone in their family who has gotten ill, but Nancy taught them to love them just the same. She stopped teaching when she could no longer bend over to work with students, but became an advocate for breast-cancer awareness.

“For the Anointing, Nancy sat in her special chair and we sat around her. She beamed her special smile, although she was in pain almost constantly.

“Father Ed began by reminding us of our family camping vacations, and asked everyone to share their memories. Then he said that sometimes the best part of the journey is going home, where we felt secure, peaceful and serene.

“Father then anointed Nancy and blessed all of us. As her mother, I prayed that Nancy would walk with the Lord daily, lean on him when she is weary, talk with him in sad times and glad times. ‘Dear Lord,...she is your dear child whom you love so much and she feels that love.’

“The four older grandchildren were trying to be quiet, but that didn’t happen. They were playing with a box of toys Aunt Nancy always had for them and making us laugh, too. Nancy later said it was wonderful to have them there, so it wasn’t too solemn. She said that by having everyone there she felt so loved and cared for.

“Nancy died 11 days later at the age of 29.”

Lois, Kentucky

My Mom, My Guardian, My Friend

“As we sit by her side waiting for the inevitable to take place, listening for her last breath and letting her know how much we love her every time she jolts up out of silence, I can’t help but think back only 28 hours ago.

“Doctors, what do they know? I was persuaded to release my mother from life support with a potential for her to live only 5-10 minutes beyond. I told them that I wanted my priest here first and they understood.

“Father Rauzard spent 30 minutes with me, my wife and my dying mother. I felt better for her, knowing that she would be O.K. walking down that road alone to the afterlife.

“The shocking and most heartbreaking part brings me back to the present, right now, appreciating every additional minute I have with her.

“My answer to your question of whether I have participated in an Anointing of the Sick from which there was a healing: Only time will tell.”

Rick, Florida

God Has Me Here for a Reason

“Three years ago, I worked in a sporting-goods department. I was returning to the shelf weights that a customer had put together. In a freak accident, the two gentlemen helping me lost control of the remaining 120 pounds, which came crashing down on the back of my skull.

“I must include this part of the story. I wear a brown scapular and venerate it. It is promised through Our Lady that you will not die a sudden death without having received the sacraments (as you well know). I was going to 5 o’clock Mass that night, but I did not make it.

“The barbell did heavy damage to my skull. By the time the paramedics arrived, I was down to three breaths per minute; by the time I reached the hospital, my blood pressure had escalated to 298/198.

“The hospital called all my family in. I was not going to make it. My oldest daughter called our parish priest, Father Bill (Precious Blood Parish), to give me Anointing of the Sick. He arrived at the hospital immediately and Anointing of the Sick was given to me.

“Within the hour, I started to make a comeback. Within 24 hours, I was off the ventilator. Within 72 hours, my blood pressure stabilized—all without surgery. The swelling of my brain was putting pressure on the brain stem, but this started to recede.

“I was in therapy for months. All my memories of that period were taken from me, but God has me here for a reason. It has been two years and I still have some serious problems from the accident. God has not shown me yet the purpose for my being here, but he will in all due time.”

Catherine, Ohio

Grandmaman Reminisces About a Special Sacrament

“In a post-Vatican II Church when ‘Extreme Unction’ was replaced by ‘Anointing of the Sick,’ I welcomed the opportunity to receive this blessing and prayer of the whole Church.

“At the time I felt especially powerless and struggling to accept God’s will for me. The sacramental reminder of the communion of saints wherein my suffering and anguish, united to Christ’s passion and death, could be used for the good of others gave purpose to my life. This was during a time when medicines, machines and skilled health care were constant reminders of my limitations, lack of control and near-death experience which sapped my energy.

“As I faced two major surgeries to be done at the same time this past summer, it was time again to recognize what was essential in my life and to give thanks for the years I’d been granted. I was able to face death, if necessary, knowing that if God gave me more years my work on earth was not done.

“It was my faith in this Anointing, as well as that of the whole Church, which would strengthen me against temptations to anguish and discouragement, as well as give me peace and courage to face the actual operation and the possibly long and painful recovery.

“As I recovered this past summer, I again recognized how helpful and meaningful both the Anointing and the frequent opportunity to receive the Eucharist were.”

Claudette, Alabama

Vatican II teaches: “’Extreme Unction,’ which may also and more fittingly be called ‘Anointing of the Sick,’ is not a sacrament intended only for those who are at the point of death. Hence, it is certain that as soon as any of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, this is already a suitable time for them to receive this sacrament” (Liturgy, #73).

More often, the person being anointed is now also able to confess and to receive Holy Communion. The revised prayers assume that relatives and friends will be present for an anointing. These prayers also reflect “the varying conditions of the sick people who receive the sacrament” (#75). The revised rite is introduced in 1972.

—P.M.

Sacrament Restored Me to Life

“In 1981, I had just given birth and nursed my healthy new son. Tired but still looking forward to going home, I was wheeled into the recovery room for observation. Suddenly, I felt a warm flow gushing along my legs. The nurse called the obstetrician, “Doctor, you need to come in here now!” Her alarm was not exaggerated. I was hemorrhaging. All the coagulating factors in my blood were exhausted. I was not only bleeding into the bed but into my lungs. I was dying and everyone in the room knew it.

“The obstetrician leaned over me, choosing his words carefully: ‘We need to stop the bleeding. We’re going to perform a D&C.’ They rolled me back into the delivery room and prepped me for surgery. I remember nothing but my prayers as I lost consciousness.

“With skill and the latest technology, the hospital staff worked mightily to save my life. Despite their efforts and many pints of blood, I turned gray and could not be revived. The doctors could do no more.

“During the crisis, the hospital telephoned my husband. He immediately called Sister Pat and Father Richard to meet him at the hospital and administer the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

“At no other time in my life has the power of prayer and sacrament been so profoundly merged. Although I was unconscious, my sense memory recorded the sensations of warmth from an open hand laid on my forehead. The image that best describes such a feeling comes from Psalm 133: ‘Like fine oil on the head...running down.’ I experienced the flow of restored life from the top of my head to the soles of my feet.

“Complications kept me hospitalized for four more weeks. Yet years later, the effects of the sacrament continue to bless me with peace and a conversion to gratitude.”

Sharon, Ohio

What a Beautiful Consolation!

“Some years ago, my mother was admitted to the hospital with minor symptoms which could not be ignored because she was a diabetic. When I visited her two days later, worried nurses informed me she had suffered a severe stroke and was now in the intensive care unit (ICU).

“I stayed with my mother in the ICU and prayed fervently for her recovery. Late that afternoon, Father Anthony Moore, O.F.M., entered the room and gently told me that he was there to administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to my mother. I don’t know if he was called by the caring nurses or if it was just his usual rounds, but I thanked God for his coming.

“My mother was unconscious, but Father anointed her and administered this beautiful sacrament. At its conclusion, he made the Sign of the Cross and, to my amazement, my mother raised her right hand and made the Sign of the Cross with him.

“God called my mother home early the next morning. What a beautiful consolation it was to know that her last act was to participate in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick!”

Jeanne, New York

15 Years After Malignant Brain Tumor Removed

“In December of 1993 I was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, admitted on January 1 and had surgery on the 3rd. At that time I was 28, a commercial pilot who thought he was invincible and not too concerned about the sacraments. But my parents were. They had the priest from St. Agnes come to the hospital so that I could receive the sacrament. They also arranged that I would receive Holy Communion. I also attended a healing Mass at the Solanus Casey Center.

“That was 15 years ago. Another young man whom I met during my radiation treatments who was admitted with the same diagnosis passed away shortly after finishing his treatment.”

Jim, Michigan

A Care Coordinator Sees Love

“I have witnessed many occasions in which the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick resulted in a healing—not only a healing of the body, but a healing of the mind.

“People are more at peace when they have had a blessing said over them and with all their loved ones and family near. When you know you are going to die very soon, love will overtake the air you breathe and you can feel the love...and love is really the biggest healer of all.”

Kimberly, a hospice caregiver, California

And I can attest that participating in the Sacrament of Anointing with my mother has strengthened me and other members of our family in these trying days.

I know that the many times Mother has received the Sacrament of Anointing have fortified her for the suffering and helplessness she feels these days.

Sometimes my mother is angry at God for not having called her home yet, she’s admitted to me. I keep telling her that God knows what he’s doing—even if we don’t.

 

Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of this publication.


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