"It's just for old people."
"You can only receive it if you're really
sick with something like cancer."
"You get it right before you die."
If you, like these teens, think the Anointing
of the Sick is just for the extremely old or the critically
ill, or if you assume the only time you can receive it is
at the moment of death, you aren't alone. Most Catholics still
think of the sacrament that way.
"I didn't know anything about it before
I received it," says Bridget, a high school sophomore
who was anointed while struggling with anorexia. "I thought
it was for older people or people who were dying. I'd never
seen a kid get it before."
While it's true the Anointing of the Sick is
one of the ways the Church helps prepare us for death, it's
much more than that. It's a celebration of Jesus' promise
that we will have life and have it abundantly. It's the sign
of Christ's healing presence in the world. And, as Bridget
shows us, it's not just for the elderly.
Anyone, regardless of age, can receive the sacrament
if his or her health is seriously impaired. It can also be
administered before surgery and, contrary to many people's
belief, it can be received more than once if the original
illness gets worse or if another serious sickness is diagnosed.
In fact, as Bridget's illness grew more critical, she received
the sacrament again.
In this Youth Update, we're going to
take a closer look at the Sacrament of the Anointing of the
Sick. While you may not have any reason to experience the
sacrament yourself, you may have elderly grandparents or relatives
who will. Or you may have a friend who becomes critically
ill or who is in a serious accident. By knowing a little about
the sacrament, you'll be able to participate more fully in
its graces when you have the chance.
What's Going On?
In the letter of James in the Bible, he writes,
"Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters
[those who have authority] of the Church, and they should
pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the
Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and
the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins,
he will be forgiven" (5:14-15).
The words St. James wrote are still true today.
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is our way of continuing
the healing work Jesus began 2,000 years ago.
You might be asking yourself, "Does that
mean people who receive the Sacrament of the Sick are really
going to get well, even if they have something serious like
cancer?" Yesand no.
While we can say with confidence that healing
always occurs during the Anointing of the Sick, it isn't always
the kind of healing we might expect.
"At first I thought it would cure me and
I was disappointed when I wasn't cured right away," says
Bridget. "Then it became clearer the healing had to come
from within me. The healing wasn't an immediate recovery.
I had to be open; to let things happen. I couldn't expect
Even after we've been anointed, God may allow
us to continue to be physically ill, but he also gives us
his word that healing will take place on one level or another.
We may be healed emotionally or spiritually rather than physically.
While we often assume getting physically well is the best
thing for us, God may know we need to come to a greater awareness
of the divine and may choose to heal some area of our spirit
or emotions instead of our body.
"I learned if you don't go looking for
healing, it will be revealed in some other way," Bridget
We should also remember the sacrament complements
medical treatment; it doesn't replace it. Just because someone
gets better with the help of surgery or modern drugs doesn't
mean the sacrament didn't play a part in the healing. God
uses the skill of doctors and nurses as well as modern medical
techniques to restore health.
If all that sounds like so much double-talk,
it might help to remember the sacrament isn't magic. It doesn't
promise that those who receive it will be cured of all physical
sickness. It doesn't promise that someone who is 99 will live
another 30 years. What it does promise is that God will heal
the broken areas of our life if we approach with faith and
While it isn't common, immediate physical healing
can happen. I know of at least one instance in my own family
when medical tests administered after the person was anointed
showed no trace of the previous illness. The very real possibility
of a physical cure is one reason the Church doesn't want us
to wait until we are at death's door before asking for the
In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,
the Church says, "As soon as one of the faithful begins
to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the appropriate
time to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived."
In other words, along with appropriate medical treatment,
we should give God the opportunity to help cure our serious
"What happened was that I began to want
to change," says Bridget. "It was something I wasn't
expecting. Before the sacrament, I wasn't open to letting
God in my life. I needed something to put him back in my life.
When I received the Sacrament of Anointing, I realized how
important he is," she says.
The Rite of Anointing
Despite its potential for drama, the Anointing
of the Sick may be the most low-key of all the sacraments.
"After it was all over, I thought, 'This is it? Now I'm
supposed to be healed?"' says Bridget. "I felt kind
of empty after the process, like I was waiting for a flashing
light or something."
Her reaction is common. The first time I saw
an anointing, I was surprised at how short and unexciting
the ceremony was. All the priest did was say a few prayers
and read a Scripture passage. Then he placed his hands on
the person's head and prayed silently. Finally, he took out
some holy oil and rubbed a little on the person's forehead
and palms. The whole event took less than 10 minutes.
Those two elementsprayer and anointing
with oilare the essence of the sacrament, the parts
that must be performed for it to be valid. What else happens
depends on how much time is available, the condition of the
patient and individual desire. The priest may distribute Communion
to the person being anointed and anyone else who wants to
receive. Finally, he may merely end the service with a simple
prayer and blessing.
Normally the priest brings everything he needs,
but 20 or 30 years ago, most families owned a "sick call
set"a crucifix with a sliding lid which contained
a bottle of holy water and candlesso the priest wouldn't
have to gather all the supplies if he were called in the middle
of the night.
Since the sacrament requires little in the way
of space or materials, it can be administered almost anywhere
people need the healing touch of Christ from bedrooms to battlefields,
from living rooms to ambulances. Some parishes now offer a
communal Anointing once or twice a year, inviting all parishioners
who are ill to participate.
"I'm glad I received it," Bridget
says. "Kids worry about their image and don't like to
be known as being religious, but I don't feel embarrassed
to have had the sacrament. I feel really thankful. If priests
had the anointing for youth at a youth Mass, maybe more would
come. You feel really out of place when everyone who goes
up to the altar is 60 years old."
Jesus, the Healer
The Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament which
certainly mirrors the actions of Jesus when he walked the
earth, spending much of his time healing the sick. In fact,
most of his miracles involved curing some kind of illness.
From the beginning of his ministry, his reputation as a healer
spread rapidly. At times so many people wanted him to perform
miracles of healing, he could hardly get out of the house.
Staying inside didn't help. In his Gospel, Luke tells us about
some people who were so anxious to have Jesus cure their paralyzed
friend that they cut a hole in the roof of the house and lowered
the sick man down to him (see Luke 5:18-19)! Although people
made what seem like unreasonable demands on him and his time,
we don't have any record of Jesus turning down someone who
came to him for help. When John the Baptist sent his followers
to ask Jesus if he were the Messiah, he answered, "Go
and tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind regain
their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf
hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed
to them" (Luke 7:22). Jesus showed himself to be the
long-awaited Savior by becoming a healer.
After his death and resurrection, Jesus' disciples
continued to heal the sick. In Chapter Three of the Book of
Acts, a man who had been crippled from birth asked Peter for
some money. Peter said he didn't have any gold or silver,
but he said he would give the crippled man something betterthe
ability to walk. Then, we are told, Peter helped him up and
the newly-cured man began to jump around, praising God (see
Acts 3:1-9). While we are sometimes a little skeptical, the
early Church took it for granted God would answer prayers
Church Continues Jesus' Work
If the whole purpose of the sacrament is to
help heal people and continue the work Jesus did when he was
on earth, how did it become so linked with death, dying and
old age? Why did a sacrament of healing become known as "Extreme
Unction" or "Last Rites"?
One reason for the change may be that when medical
science was first developing, it was as likely to kill as
to cure, so people put off calling a doctor until they were
nearly dead and thus had little to lose. The same may have
held true for doctors of the soul, with people waiting until
the last minutes of life to call for a priest. Today, even
though medical practices have improved and people are willing
to call a medical doctor, the superstition that Anointing
should be the last action before death seems to have stuck.
Another reason Anointing was seen as the last
step in life's journey may be because people began to think
of the sacrament as the final chance to reconcile with God
before death. Because Anointing of the Sick has the power
to forgive sin as well as heal, people waited until they were
sure they were dying to ask for it. If possible, a dying person
would go to Confession, receive Communion and then receive
the Last Rites. If he or she were already so near death that
Confession and Communion weren't possible, then they had the
heavenly insurance, so to speak, of receiving forgiveness
through the Last Rites.
If physical healing did take placeas it
sometimes didit came as quite a surprise to everyone,
including the anointed person who equated the rites with certain
death. In some places, in fact, the erroneous teaching arose
that if you were physically cured, you would have to remain
celibate the rest of your life! With that in mind, it's not
surprising people were reluctant to call the priest too early
in an illness.
The difficulty with all this is that while Anointing
is a way to have your sins forgiven, it isn't supposed to
take the place of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession).
Because Anointing was in danger of becoming just another form
of confession at the time of death, Vatican II changed the
prayers accompanying the anointing to reemphasize its healing
character. The emphasis returned to prayers for recovery of
physical, mental or spiritual health.
But lots of Catholics don't understand the changes.
"In religion class we mostly talked about
how it used to be associated with death," says Bridget.
"Now that I've received it, I think it ought to be emphasized
it's not just for the dying. It's for any form of illnessemotional
or physical." If that illness places a person in danger
of death, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is most
Sacrament of Health
Anointing of the Sick is the way we as Catholics
call on the healing, restoring power of Jesus when we are
at our lowest and most vulnerable. It's a way we can gain
the strength to bear suffering with patience and dignity.
And it's a way of reminding ourselves that no matter what
happens in life or death, Jesus will be there beside us and
the people we love.
While it isn't intended to be used for our everyday
aches and pains, sniffles and sneezes, it should be requested
in those times of serious illness when we need a special sign
of God's love and care.
"It was a renewal," says Bridget.
"It was like I had another chance to start over. Having
that reassurance from God helped me get well."
Angie Hebert, 15; Anie Makyadath, 17;
Wendy Norris, 18; Brian Phillips, 16; Tim Retford, 18; and
Angie Setzler, 15, of St. Mary Parish in Eugene, Oregon, met
with author Woodeene Koenig-Bricker to review this article.
George Helbling, youth minister at the parish, also joined
them. The six teens wanted to know all the scriptural sources
(now included) and asked the three questions for which we
all have some answers now.