One of the great mysteries of our faith is the incarnation, our core belief that the eternal and almighty God became a human being, a man who could and did suffer just as we do.
During his ministry on earth, Jesus had a particular concern for sick people; he healed them not just with a word of power, but also with a human and compassionate touch.
The anointing of the sick, like all sacraments, is one way that the church continues the ministry of Jesus. Through it, Christ continues to touch, heal, and comfort. The Letter of James attests that this practice has always been part of ministry: “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 church” (5:14).
While the sacrament is often administered individually, the church encourages celebrating it within Mass. Many parishes celebrate it on one or more Sundays each year. The sacrament may be received by a baptized person who “begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1514)—seriously ill, but not necessarily near death—so it may not be apparent that someone receiving the sacrament is ill. The communal celebration reminds us that suffering is part of our human condition and may move us to look on each other with the compassion of Christ the healer. Celebrating this sacrament during Mass also helps us unite our sufferings with Christ’s as we recall his body broken and his blood poured out for us.
This sacrament was once called extreme unction (meaning final anointing) because it had, over time, come to be reserved for the dying. The Second Vatican Council renamed it “anointing of the sick” to describe its appropriate place in the life of the Christian faithful: to offer strength and healing in time of serious illness. In the case of anointing a person near death, it is often accompanied by the sacraments of reconciliation (if possible) and viaticum (holy communion for the dying).
Does the sacrament heal? Yes. Is the healing physical? It is certainly what we hope for when we celebrate this sacrament, but we cannot approach it with this expectation. We pray that the Holy Spirit may give strength, peace, and courage to the sick to help them face the difficulties of illness and age with faith and hope.
Sometimes such inner healing results in a physical cure; sometimes it allows medical treatment to be more effective; and sometimes it helps someone face death calmly and hopefully. In each case we are grateful for the compassion of our God.
This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 11, page 44-46).
Image: Roger van der Weyden (c.1400-1464) Extreme Unction (1445)