When should someone receive the Anointing of the Sick?
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.
Although the sacrament began as a ritual of healing, over time the emphasis
shifted to the forgiveness of sins on the deathbed, when such forgiveness
would be the final preparation for heaven. The Second Vatican Council
returned the original meaning to the sacrament by emphasizing that it is not
only for those who are at the point of death, but for anyone who is
seriously ill, including mental or spiritual illness. It also helped move
the Anointing away from a private service and back toward a community-based
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.
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
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