Jesus’ healing ministry continues in the ChurchBy: Fr. David J. Dohogne
As Catholics and in His love for us, Christ provides for all of our spiritual needs in the seven Sacraments of our Faith. The Lord does this in a unique way through the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is often misunderstood. In today’s world, a fair amount of people learn about the Catholic Faith through the media, in particular television. Oftentimes, the information presented about this sacrament in the secular media is not accurate. For example, priests often receive calls from family members requesting “last rites” for a dying loved one, a phrase used quite often on TV and in movies. Let’s look at the two rituals that the Church provides for those who are sick and dying.
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is often “underused” by many of today’s Catholics. Perhaps it falls back to a time when this sacrament was referred to as “Extreme Unction,” meaning the “last anointing” before a person died. However, the Church now approaches this sacrament differently. The Scriptural foundation for it is found in the New Testament letter of St. James: “Are there any who are sick among you? Let them send for the 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 (James 5:14-15).
The purpose of this sacrament is to bring spiritual comfort and strength to someone who is suffering physically, spiritually, or emotionally. The sacrament does not “guarantee” a total healing and recovery, but rather commends the sick to the mercy and healing power of God. In reading the Gospels, we know that Christ spent a large portion of His time and ministry in healing people of a variety of physical and spiritual afflictions. He continues that healing ministry in the Church today through this sacrament. In following the directive given in the Letter of St. James, the forgiveness of venial sins is also received through the grace of this sacrament, which is why only a priest or bishop may celebrate the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Normally, this sacrament is requested by a person prior to surgery or some other serious medical procedure as well as by the elderly who have grown weaker with age. It is also celebrated in case of an emergency (e.g. someone suffering from a heart attack or involved in an accident). This sacrament may be repeated and celebrated again if a person’s condition becomes more grave or if one recovers after being anointed and then falls ill again.
Secondly, if a person is in the process of dying with little or no hope of recovery, the Church provides the celebration of “Viaticum,” which is Latin meaning “with you on the way.” If able to do so, the dying person receives Holy Communion as “food for the passage through death to eternal life,” as Christ, in the Eucharist, is our guide and companion “on the way” to eternal life. In addition, prayers for the commendation of the dying are offered to comfort not only the dying person, but his or her family as well. These are very beautiful and powerful prayers.
When ill and dying, whether it be ourselves or a loved one, we know the comforting power of these prayers of the Church. As pastors, we want to remind the faithful that one only need to request this sacrament of healing in order to bring God’s mercy, healing, and strength to those in need. Viaticum and the Commendation of the Dying are perfect ways to assist and help prepare our loved ones for the great transition of concluding earthly life and entering into eternal life.