Often when the anointing of the sick is requested, the phone conversation tends to go like this: “Hello Father, this is [employee of stated healthcare facility], can you come and give last rites to…..” Indeed, when we speak of anointing of the sick, we rightly acknowledge the importance of this sacrament near the time of death or in being hospitalized. And yet, this sacrament is so much more than end of life or emergency care. In this installment, several fitting moments for reception of this sacrament will be identified, minding that this sacrament is meant to help us in this life to be more closely united to Jesus Christ and to be more aware of His strength in the moments of illness and suffering, even onto healing.
First, it is important to acknowledge that the giving of “last rites” (as they are often called by older generations), is truly one of the key moments for the anointing of the sick. In the time near death this sacrament makes available graces for final perseverance in faith, forgiveness of sins, and deeper awareness of Christ’s presence with the person who is dying. However, in some ways it is more fitting (though not often acted upon) that a person receive it at the time of diagnosis with a terminal illness. For as a sacrament that is meant to strengthen one in faith, to receive it soon after a diagnosis of a terminal illness offers that person increased grace from Jesus to courageously witness to faith in the midst of sufferings that may lie ahead. Likewise, such anointing is good preparation to rely more upon Jesus and less upon oneself – as only on Jesus Christ do we enter eternal life.
Another moment that many are not aware of as right time for anointing is prior to a surgery. Whether the surgery be in an emergency or as a planned surgery (such as for a joint replacement), to anoint prior to surgery invites the person to be united with Christ in a clearer way through whatever trials and sufferings may await. Likewise, these moments can give peace of mind and heart when one is anxious over the surgical procedure and its risks.
While anointing of the sick is not meant for common colds or in the onset of influenza, a third moment which is quite common but often overlooked (sometimes even by priests) is the opportunity to anoint those who are elderly and have grown weaker simply through aging. In fact, it is legitimate for priests to periodically (perhaps one time per year) to offer anointing of the sick within Mass at long-term care facilities to all the Catholic patients in order to offer them the increase of grace to persevere through chronic weakness or pain. Similarly, such Masses with anointing can be offered at the parish – minding that each who is receiving the anointing is to be of the proper state, which may include the elderly or those with chronic pain or other regular symptoms.
As a conclusion and as food for further thought, I give you a lengthy quote from Pope Francis, who spoke about anointing of the sick at the regular Wednesday Papal Audience on February 26, 2014 and said this:
“When someone is sick, we at times think: “let’s call for the priest to come”; “no, then he will bring bad luck, let’s not call him”, or “he will scare the sick person”. Why do we think this? Because the idea is floating about that the undertakers arrive after the priest. And this is not true. The priest comes to help the sick or elderly person; that is why the priest’s visit to the sick is so important; we ought to call the priest to the sick person’s side and say: “come, give him the anointing, bless him”. It is Jesus himself who comes to relieve the sick person, to give him strength, to give him hope, to help him; and also to forgive his sins. And this is very beautiful!”