By Fr. Tom Slowinski
From the March 19, 2017 Reporter
Next weekend the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick will be administered at the 4:30 pm Saturday Vigil Mass, and again on Sunday at the 10:00 am and Noon Liturgies. Since it has been quite some time since this sacrament was celebrated in a communal manner it was thought best to provide a brief review and update in regards to Anointing. How has it changed over the years? Who should receive it? How often and when should this experience be done? These are just a few of the questions that usually surface in consideration of this sacrament. Hopefully, what you read here will help you decide as to whether you, or a loved one is a candidate for receiving this sacrament.
It has been 45 years since this sacrament was revised by Pope Paul VI following the reforms of Vatican II. Even though many Catholics today do not even remember the period preceding these changes an antiquated mindset remains. Formerly reserved to those who were critically or seriously ill and/or near death this sacrament was referred to as “Extreme Unction” or the “Last Rites”. Apparently, old habits, or in this case, thinking, lingers. The opportunity to receive this sacrament has been significantly expanded, but more on that later in this article.
Anointing is scripturally based, found in the letter of James 5:14-15, “Are there any who are sick among you? Let them send for 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.”
In addition to anointing those who are seriously ill, the sacrament may also be received by someone “before surgery whenever a serious illness is the reason for the surgery” (General Instruction on the Sacrament, paragraph #10). This introductory section to the sacrament also identifies other possible recipients: the elderly who “have become notably weakened even though no serious illness is present” (#11) and “sick children” who may have “sufficient reason to be strengthened by this sacrament” (#12). Anointing may be repeated not only in the event of a new illness but also if the initial malady returns or becomes more serious.
The instruction also advises when to receive this sacrament, “the faithful should be educated to ask for the sacrament of anointing and, as soon as the right time comes, to receive it with full faith and devotion (#13). Nothing more is further specified or defined by way of “right time” but the wording “full faith and devotion” leads one to conclude that a timely reception, that is sooner than later, would seem to be preferred because it would include a conscious reception of the sacrament. This paragraph also cautions against “the wrongful practice of delaying the sacrament.” Compare this to obtaining the services of a doctor when sick. It is a wise and prudent patient who seeks medical attention in the early stages of any injury or illness. Similarly, the strength that comes from the sacrament is of greatest benefit when the recipient is not only in a state of awareness of all that it can bring but also integrates the sacrament into the experience of suffering, making it part of the journey imposed by illness, wherever that passage may lead. Among many other things, sacraments deepen our relationship to the Giver of these great gifts, so our appreciation and understanding of them are best nurtured over time.
So, what is it that one actually “receives” in the Sacrament of Anointing? First and foremost, it is important to remember that a sacrament is a spiritual reality which means that it is fundamentally both sign and symbol wrapped in mystery that we, as church, trace back to the ministry of Jesus in teaching, practice, or both. Sacraments, as we know and celebrate them did not exist as a ritual action in the ministry of Jesus; rather, it was his response to a perceived need in the human condition: healing, forgiveness, a meal. Sacraments are not tangible commodities that are quantifiable as if divine grace can be measured.
The bestowal of spiritual gifts is understood over time and increased in disbursement. By way of understanding, think of the love you share with someone significant in your life. Recall how this has evolved over time; sometimes ebbing and sometimes flowing, coming into focus as the love is exchanged and experienced. By way of increase, the more one forgives the likelier it is that forgiveness will be received from others. The church teaches that anointing forgives sins, strengthens the soul of the sick person, awakens confidence in divine mercy, helps in the resistance of evil, and assists the recipient in bearing the hardships and trials imposed by sickness. The regaining of physical health is in relation to the support that it brings to the soul. This is a difficult thing for many people to understand. There may very well be a purpose to infirmity that holds a redemptive quality that is elusive to the cognitive understanding of it. Sometimes this peace of mind and sense of acceptance is gained, but in other instances that never happens. It is important that one refrains from qualitatively labeling this condition let alone judging it. The sense of peace and acceptance is a gift and nothing more; it is not a measure of faith or holiness. Some of the greatest saints in our tradition experienced some of the most profound periods of darkness and doubt.
If you have ever experienced a debilitating illness, particularly over an extended period, then you know the loss of independence it imposes. This is counter cultural and avoided by most of us at all costs. Yet, it is in that dependence that we are more prone to surrender to the saving power of God who created us in love and extends that tenderness through the caregivers who minister to us at a time when we are unable to do for ourselves. In acquiescence of our independence we may experience a transformation. Reliance upon the goodwill of others moves us out from and beyond ourselves. Even in the role of caregiver we experience the Spirit of God working through us. This transformative effect lends itself to acceptance of our own frailties, responsibility to others, and peace of mind that alleviates the need for control. The Paschal Mystery saves us from death and not from dying, which is why we have this sacrament and one another.
Finally, the relationship between sin and suffering warrants mention. Throughout history people have thought of suffering as a punishment for sin. This notion is even found in scripture and is all too well and alive today. If it is in scripture, then is it not true? Just because something is in the bible does not necessarily mean that it is historically or even theologically accurate. The bible is also a faith development book. We believe that what is necessary for salvation is free from error, but perceptions, notions, opinions, and theories are not. Besides, as humanity grew in relationship to God that intimacy is reflected in subsequent sophistication in later books. This erudition is evident in both literary and theological composition.
The fact is that God does not punish us for sin. We do that. God does not relate to us on a “reward-punishment” model as we do with each other. This behavior is incompatible with a God who is unconditional love. Judgment is imposed by us to us through the choices we make and the behaviors that come from those decisions. Sin is its own punishment because it separates us from God, one another, and even ourselves. Suffering is not the punishment for sin although sin does cause suffering. The effects of sinful behavior can impact others to bounds beyond knowing. It is for this that healing and reconciliation are needed.
Throughout life opportunities abound for wholeness to the human condition. We are a paradox of forgiveness and sin, communion and alienation, ease and disease, love and loneliness, and life and death. This can be absurd because it is so inconsistent, and so we continually long to bridge this abyss personally, communally, sacramentally, symbolically, and ritually; all in a context that itself is both poverty and prayer. As Christ was anointed priest, prophet, and king so we too share in that anointing; sometimes for our journey, and sometimes because of it.
From the March 12, 2017 Reporter
As indicated in this week’s bulletin, in two weeks the Sacrament of the Sick will be administered at three of our six weekend liturgies. If you wish to receive this sacrament, please plan to attend the 4:30 pm Vigil Mass on Saturday, the 10:00 am, or Noon Mass on Sunday.
If you regularly worship at one of these liturgies please be aware of this additional ritual for your planning purposes. It is difficult to estimate how much longer this rite will require, but it is safe to presume an additional time span of 20 to 25 minutes depending upon, of course, the numbers of people who wish to be anointed.
The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick was formally revised by Pope Paul VI in 1972. Even though it has been four and a half decades since these revisions were instituted it seems to remain one of the best kept secrets in the life of the church.
Questions remain regarding who should be anointed, when this sacrament can be celebrated, can it be repeated, and more. So as to provide something of a guide and direction in preparation for the celebration of this sacrament in two weeks, please read my article in the next week’s bulletin for answers to these questions as well as a background and update of this sacrament. Obviously, only you can decide as to whether or not you should be anointed. Hopefully, the information provided will serve to familiarize you adequately enough so as to aid in your understanding and decision.
This sacrament is most often celebrated privately in homes, hospitals, or other health care institutions. One result of the revisions introduced in 1972 was the celebration of these rites in a communal setting. The intent was to present an experience of support to the recipient of this sacrament. Illness, all too often creates a setting of isolation that fosters an aura of loneliness and even despair. The support known in the experience of community can lift the spirit as it soothes the souls, and prays for the recovery of the body.
I invite and encourage you to read my article next week in preparation for our celebration of the Rites of Anointing as well as to deepen your own understanding of the Lord’s healing presence in our lives.