The coronavirus crisis has upset plans and upturned everyday routines. But perhaps there is an upside to this unprecedented and global health emergency. Will we look back on 2020 as the year of the universal Lent? Certainly, for the world, as for Christians, it has become a time in which to reconsider the value of essential things. For Catholics, among these essential things are the sacraments.
However, there is a mild irony involved here — for even as churches around the country and around the world are discontinuing public celebrations of the Eucharist, the more “private” sacraments of confession and anointing of the sick may become more dear and, it is hoped, more frequented in the days and weeks to come. In this time when the world is affected by concern over the pandemic, it seems appropriate to discuss the theology and practice of the sacrament that most directly addresses both physical and spiritual health: the anointing of the sick.
In the 1964 dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council write: “By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests, the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and crucified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the people of God by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ” (11).
The sacrament of anointing has its origins in the Epistle of James: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (5:14-15).
James the Apostle is reflecting here on the fact that Jesus himself constantly healed the sick and explicitly sent out his apostles to preach; and as they did so, they also “cast out many demons and anointed many with oil that were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13).
Jesus is the Divine Physician, and though this anointing originally reflected physical healing, when Christ physically healed someone, it was merely a sign of a psychological and spiritual healing that might accompany physical illness. The psychological healing would be a strengthening of courage and hope in the face of pain and suffering, and the spiritual healing would be the forgiveness of sins. So the sacrament of anointing was instituted to participate in the healing of “the whole man, soul and body” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1503). Though all the sacraments are ordered to some aspect of this healing of the whole person, Christ also instituted the special sacrament of anointing to deal with those suffering from physical illness. The sacrament is not for people who have some illness like the common cold. Instead, Pope St. Paul VI’s 1972 apostolic constitution Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum points out that, in the Roman Rite, it is “given to those who are seriously ill.” (The accompanying words point out that by this sacrament the sick person is helped by the grace of the Holy Spirit and oriented to both the forgiveness of sins and being raised up.)
It is important to note that the appropriate time to seek the anointing is not the hour of death but any time one has a grave illness. This sacrament can be received many times if the person recovers his health but experiences another illness or a relapse of the same illness. For instance, if a person is having a serious operation or is elderly, he or she may fittingly receive the anointing. This is because being “raised up” in this context refers to the divine indwelling of infused prayer by the Holy Spirit in which the recipient of the grace of baptism has the grace to be able to deal with physical suffering (and the despair that physical pain can cause) from a divine and supernatural point of view. It thus has both a moral and emotional effect that strengthens positive emotions through positive virtues; this combination of divine medicine can and often does aid a person in dealing with sufferings that result from original sin: physical pain and emotional despair. Though Christ could not suffer spiritual despair, it is clear that in his passion and death he preserved the Beatific Vision in his higher intellect. Nonetheless, as the Gospels attest, he suffered greatly from emotional despair and fear, both during the Agony in the Garden and through all the physical suffering of the Passion.
Traditional Catholic teaching maintains that when Christ cried: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” he could not have suffered existential despair on the cross, nor could he vacillate in doing the will of his Father in the agony when he prayed that the cup of suffering could pass him by. Instead, in the former case, he preserved the inner union in his human mind in seeing God while on earth, but lost God’s external protection; and his suffering led to the feeling of despair and fear.
In the latter case, emotionally, he was repulsed by the Passion because he experienced the effects of all the human sins in the history of the human race; yet he obeyed through love by surrendering himself to the will of his enemies without hesitation. In both cases, through obedience and surrender, Christ redeemed us — but not without it taking an emotional toll on Our Lord: “My soul is sorrowful unto death” (Matthew 26:38). All this is applied to a sick person who receives the anointing of the sick. Thus, the main healing is not physical, though this may occur, as well. It is like baptism. In either case, we are not supposed to delay this sacrament when grave illness or the usual maladies of age occur. Baptism is for the beginning of life; anointing is for the onset of illness. The former name for this sacrament was “extreme unction,” which means “last anointing.” The sacrament was also referred to by many as “last rites,” a term still much in use. This has led some to say things like “last rites” is now anointing, but this is not quite accurate.
The sacrament seeks healing on all three levels, physical, emotional and spiritual. It also has a number of effects. The Catechism lists them: the particular gift of the Holy Spirit; union with the passion of Christ; ecclesial grace; and preparation for the final journey from earth to heaven. It, therefore, is but one aspect of the last rites, which should include confession (if conscious) and an anointing with sacred Oil of the Sick (olive oil blessed by the diocesan bishop at the chrism Mass, usually celebrated on Holy Thursday), and conclude with the last reception of the Eucharist, called viaticum, the food for the journey to pass over from death to life.
Since the forgiveness of sins is part of the anointing, it can only be conferred by bishops and priests. They are the only ministers. When Holy Communion is received for the last time, if this is possible, or just the anointing given, this should be accompanied by the apostolic pardon, which confers a plenary indulgence. It is an application of the promise of Christ to Dismas, the Good Thief: “This day you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The text may take one of two forms: “Through the holy mysteries of our redemption may Almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and the life to come. May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you into everlasting joy,” or “By the authority which the Apostolic See has given me, I grant you full pardon and the remission of all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The coronavirus has already had a serious impact on the usual course of our daily lives — especially among those who have either lost a loved one to the disease or experienced its symptoms firsthand. Yet the faithful can take comfort in knowing that, as new and unprecedented as this disease is, the Catholic Church has a proper sacramental response.
The anointing of the sick may perhaps be one of the least known of the sacraments — if only because few of us may have had the opportunity to receive it. Yet, as the world hunkers down this Lent to protect itself from the continued spread of COVID-19, this sacrament, which serves as a powerful channel of the life-giving and life-saving graces of Christ, may become better known. In this way, too, perhaps, the world may come to better know Christ — he who offers life and offers it abundantly.
Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.