Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
“Is anyone among you sick?” That question is raised in the fifth chapter of the Letter of St. James. The frustration of sickness is common and not surprisingly we often find someone sick among us. St. James goes on to write, if so, we “should summon the priests of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of the faithful will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he would be forgiven.”
As we read the Scriptures we quickly understand that Jesus had great compassion for the sick. People knew this and they frequently brought those who were afflicted to Jesus. Right at the beginning of St. Mark’s gospel we read how four men brought a paralytic friend to Jesus by climbing to the roof of the house where he was teaching, opening a hole in it and lowering their friend to the place where Jesus was preaching. They obviously believed the man’s encounter with the Lord would make a difference. And it did. After forgiving his sins, Jesus told the man, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat and go home.” And the man rose and went home.
Our church is entrusted with the continuation of Christ’s healing ministry among God’s people. Many religious communities established Catholic hospitals to take care of the physical and spiritual needs of the sick. Church-sponsored hospice care has grown among us as a vehicle for the ministry of healing. People travel to shrines like Lourdes, Fatima and Guadalupe, seeking physical cures and spiritual healing as they deal with serious illness. During the process of canonization the church requires healing miracles of an individual before declaring his or her sainthood.
The Anointing of the Sick is one of the church’s seven sacraments. Unfortunately, too many people still think it’s a sacrament only for those who are at the point of death. In fact, whenever an illness is of a serious nature this sacrament should be requested. It is one of those sacraments that can be received often. It may be repeated if the sick person recovers after the anointing and becomes well once again. It also may be conferred during the same illness if a person’s condition grows worse. Furthermore, before serious surgery, a person should be anointed. Old people may also be anointed when they are in a weak condition even though no dangerous illness is present. Putting off the reception of this sacrament during a time of illness is wrong.
Only ordained bishops and priests may be ministers of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. It is only fitting that relatives and friends pray with the priest during the time the sacrament is being administered. The priest lays his hands on the head of the sick person and then proceeds to anoint the forehead and hands of this person with the blessed Oil of the Sick. He prays “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
The Anointing of the Sick is one of the sacraments that helps us prepare for eternal life with God. So too do the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. When a person has already recently been anointed, as death approaches, the church through her ministers, ordained and lay, provides the Eucharist as Viaticum (food for the journey). A priest may not be readily available as death draws near but Viaticum should be ministered to the dying person. The reception of the sacrament gives the person an opportunity to unite his or her own suffering and dying to that of Christ with the hope of life eternal.
When the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is administered, it is the sincere hope of the church that the person will be physically healed of illness. But the primary effect of this sacrament is always spiritual healing. The church prays that the Holy Spirit will impart to the individual the gift of peace and courage to deal with all the difficulties that inevitably accompany serious illness or the frailty of old age. The Evil One is ready to pounce when he senses discouragement or despair in the face of suffering and death. The holy anointing is the Lord’s vehicle for strengthening and encouraging us in these difficult times. In addition, through this sacrament, a sick person’s sins are forgiven if he or she is not able to go to Confession. Some have wondered why deacons cannot administer this sacrament. Sacramental Reconciliation is administered only by bishops and priests and so the same is true for the Anointing of the Sick.
This coming Saturday, Sept. 15, is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Here in Portland we are blessed to have in our midst the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother. This national sanctuary, more commonly known among us as The Grotto, draws large crowds every first Saturday when the St. Peregrine Mass is celebrated and the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is made available to those chronically or seriously ill. Communal celebrations of this sacrament, like the ones at The Grotto, can also be provided in a parish church. Because serious illness and old age are not uncommon among us, parishes would do well to provide an opportunity for a number of parishioners to receive this sacrament on regular occasions. When the sick and their caregivers come together for such a liturgy, the faith of the community is strengthened and the compassion of Jesus inspires people when they grow weary from the many demands that may confront them as they attempt to comfort those entrusted to their care.
The Year of Faith is fast approaching. It begins on October 11th of this year and ends on the feast of Christ the King, November 24th, 2013. Faith is a matter of relationships, with God and with our sisters and brothers in faith. Hopefully through the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick the bond of compassionate friendship will be strengthened in a more meaningful way as we turn to the Lord with hope in our hearts and trust in His healing goodness throughout the coming year.