I recently spent time with someone in the hospital. As this was a serious illness, I arranged for a priest to come to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.
As we read in the Word of God: “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters 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” (James 5:14-15).
This sacrament has been known to bring about total physical healing. A priest told me about administering this sacrament to someone who was hooked up to all kinds of monitors. After receiving this sacrament, this person’s vital signs returned to normal. The doctor, who wasn’t Catholic, said to the priest, “I don’t know what you did — but you are welcome to come back here anytime!”
The Church teaches that one should ask for this sacrament when one begins to encounter danger due to injury, illness or old age. Notice the use of the word begins.
I’ve known many good Catholics who haven’t known to ask for this sacrament — for themselves or their loved ones — until one of them has arrived at death’s door. Usually when I tell newly ailing people about the anointing of the sick, they want to receive it as soon as possible.
Traditionally the sacrament has been called “last rites.” Notice the word last, and it’s not hard to see where the confusion comes from.
Meanwhile, some families fear calling in a priest to administer anointing because they don’t want to make the sick family member think the end must be near. Even worse, families have been known to wait until after the person has died before they call in a priest. But by then it’s too late: You can’t administer sacraments of the living to a dead person.
Further adding to the muddle are healing services in which the person leading the service “anoints” people with oil. This is quite separate and distinct from the sacrament of anointing of the sick.
Whenever I learn about someone’s life being in danger, I always encourage them or their family to ask for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. I remind them that there’s a chance it may cure them. Why go through all those medical treatments when Our Lord just might decide to heal you immediately, through a sacrament?
But the possibility of healing is only the half of it. Always, this sacrament strengthens people through the trials and tribulations, the pain and discouragement, which naturally come with failing health.
Finally, this sacrament washes away the sins of those who are sorry for what they’ve done to offend God — even if they are unconscious at the time of anointing. A couple of seminarians told me they used to visit unconscious hospital patients every day. In one case, a priest came in only once to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. When the patient regained consciousness, he remembered receiving the sacrament — but he had no recollection of the seminarians. I found that interesting.
I certainly believe Jesus can work through physicians. But, when one day I become gravely ill — whether due to injury, illness or old age — I definitely want the Divine Physician working on my case. Don’t you?
Brother John Raymond
is co-founder of the
Community of the Monks of