Anointing of the sick is one of the Church’s seven sacraments, but it tends to be the forgotten one.
In the midst of celebrating baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and healing through reconciliation, Catholics must face human frailty and mortality most poignantly in anointing.
According to the “Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum,” priests need to make sure only those whose health is “seriously impaired” receive the sacrament. It goes on to state, “A prudent or reasonably sure judgment, without scruple, is sufficient for deciding on the seriousness of an illness; if necessary a doctor may be consulted.”
It can be administered to Catholics who face a serious risk through long-term physical or mental illness, the elderly or even those who have a surgery coming up, who meet that criteria. In short, it is not reserved for only those on their deathbed.
“If you drank a bottle of poison and there’s an antidote sitting there and you just don’t utilize it, it’s a missed opportunity. It’s like God gives you all of these gifts and it’s like leaving some of the gifts unwrapped,” said Father Nobert Rappold, pastor at St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Mountain Home, of why Catholics should receive the sacrament.
The present-day practice of anointing of the sick, making it clear that anointing was not reserved for the dying, was decided in Vatican II, closely following the Epistle of St. James (5:14-15). It was previously known as Extreme Unction, or Final Anointing.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, during the anointing of the sick, the “Holy Spirit’s gifts of strength, faith, peace and courage, and his or her suffering is united with the suffering of Christ for the building up of the Church.” (1520-23)
Anointing of the sick, which can only be given by a priest or bishop, can consist of three parts: anointing with oil of the sick (blessed each year at the diocese’s Chrism Mass), confession and receiving the Eucharist. However, anointing can take place without confession or Communion.
If a person is dying, the sacrament is considered “last rites.” Communion is referred to as “viaticum,” known as “food for the journey.”
Those who are unconscious at the moment of death can receive the anointing as well as an apostolic pardon, offering forgiveness.
“We trust in the mercy of God and the authority that God has given to the Church so we try to take full advantage of that in the moment of death for that person,” said Father Erik Pohlmeier, diocesan director of faith formation.
A person who has died cannot receive a sacrament; however there are prayers for the dead in the “Pastoral Care” rite.
The initial purpose of anointing of the sick is to pray for physical healing.
“I always pray for the healing and especially if they come to me prior to the surgery, ‘Lord (let it) be your will when the doctors go in there,” nothing bad will be found, Father Rappold said. “I always ask for the miraculous type healing. I’ve had multiple people come back and say, ‘Your prayer worked and it wasn’t malignant’ or ‘it wasn’t this’” or doctors couldn’t find what they thought was making the person sick.
Those with long-term illnesses, physical or mental, and people age 65 or older — “if they have become notably weakened” according to ‘Pastoral Care’ rite — can receive anointing of the sick multiple times a year if there is a notable decline in their condition.
“We don’t anoint somebody for a pimple or a cut,” Father Rappold said, adding he has held healing services for parishioners to receive a blessing rather than anointing.
A person can only receive anointing of the sick once in regard to a particular illness or procedure, so if there are no notable changes, anointing cannot be given again.
In the case of surgery, if a person receives anointing of the sick prior to a surgery and a new health crisis develops or if there are complications, anointing of the sick can be received again in a short time span. Father Pohlmeier said because there are many “gray” areas when it comes to determining the severity of a person’s ongoing illness and surgery, as there are inherent risks with being put under for anesthesia even if the surgery itself is not major. Anyone who is unclear if they should receive the sacrament or instead a healing blessing should consult their pastor.
“The ministry of the Church is committed to the ministry of healing and that takes different forms,” Father Pohlmeier said. “Anointing of the sick is a sacramental form, but then there’s also a reality of praying for healing, which we do every time we have Mass.”
Many people do not know that fallen-away Catholics or those not in good standing with the Church can also receive anointing of the sick at the point of death if they choose.
Father Norman McFall, chaplain at Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith, said one poignant memory was anointing a man who had not been to confession in 50 years and didn’t believe he could receive the sacraments.
“It was a great joy to celebrate all those things with the patient. It was a very powerful experience, I think for him too. He was just so overjoyed; he was weeping and could barely get the words out, ‘Thank you, Father, for coming, thank you so much.’ It was amazing to me, I still think about that,” he said.
The “Pastoral Care” rites take into account several variables regarding anointing, including versions for locations such as in a hospital, in emergencies and even ones for a sick child.
There are also times when priests have minutes to get to a hospital, as Father Pohlmeier recalled anointing a person who had shot himself in an attempted suicide, but was still living. Amid the chaotic scene of medical professionals trying to save the person’s life, they told him, “Father, do what you need to do.”
“So I found a spot in the corner with all the commotion to say the prayers and then when it came time for the anointing, just kind of reached around the other people, the medical personnel and anointed wherever I could get a spot to anoint and then stepped out,” he said. “So it was a powerful experience just because of the craziness of it, but also an understanding that in the middle of all that and even with a suicide, that the Church is present and that there’s a trust in the power of God to make a difference in the life of that person.”
Julie Session, 48, was officially diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) brain cancer four years ago in January. Life expectancy can range from about 18 to 24 months.
“Just in Morrilton alone we’ve had seven people in the last five years with GBM and I’m the only one that’s still alive,” said the Sacred Heart parishioner. “Four of them didn’t make it a year. It’s the most aggressive, fastest growing and the most reoccurring brain cancer there is.”
She received anointing of the sick the evening before surgery in December 2013 to remove an apple-sized tumor from her brain, which allowed for an official diagnosis.
“It gave me a little bit of peace about it,” she said.
Today, on regular chemotherapy, she said of anointing, “I’d recommend it because you really don’t know what you’re facing a lot of times.”
For Tricia Gentry of Little Rock, seeing her mother Rose Marie Bartsch anointed by vicar general Msgr. Scott Friend for the last time before her death Jan. 13 was powerful.
“It was beautiful, my mother was very calm; we were all around her, she knew she was getting toward the end. Whenever she received the sacraments she looked at the priests like she was looking at Christ,” Gentry said.
Bartsch received anointing of the sick several times with each worsening condition, from multiple sclerosis to cancer. At the end, “It made her so strong … it was a very sacred thing. It was a gift to watch that as a daughter and to see that go on and walk her through that journey of death; it’s a blessing and a gift to be able to do that,” Gentry said.
As with all sacraments, anointing of the sick is another way Jesus touches the lives of his children.
“It’s a way that we model the ministry of Jesus in the fact that it involves prayers, touch when you anoint the forehead and palms of the hands,” Father McFall said. “It’s a place of grace. It’s a place where we can become more deeply aware that Christ is closer to us than our own skin.”
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