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The Most Misunderstood Sacrament

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Of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, none is used as infrequently or approached with as much confusion as the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick More times than not, people don’t even get the name right: “Last rites” and anointing of the sick are not the same thing

Which is a shame, because it’s a truly wonderful sacrament that could benefit so many more people… if they just knew about it So, what is the anointing of the sick and how is it different from Last Rites? This is Catholicism in Focus Of all the many miracles that Jesus performed—turning water into wine, feeding 5000, walking on water— the most frequent aspect of his ministry was healing the sick By one count, Jesus performed 37 distinct miracles in the Gospels… 24 of them related healing After his ascension, the apostles continued this ministry

Acts 3 recounts the details of Peter healing a crippled beggar, and Acts 5 shows that this was not an uncommon practice: in the early Church, the sick were brought to the apostles for healing The sense that Christ could heal people through his appointed ministers was so accepted among the faithful, in fact, that St James even commands it in his letter He writes, And so, for 2000 years, the Church has done just that, encouraging the sick to call upon the priests of the Church to pray over them and anoint them Now, if you were to ask the average Catholic why we do this, the majority of them would undoubtedly say that it is a preparation for death, the last thing one does as a forgiveness of sins before dying

And given that, for many year, it was called “extreme unction” literally “final anointing,” I think that’s fairly understandable But the Church doesn’t use that term anymore, at least not officially At the Second Vatican Council, the bishops, seeking to restore a greater sense of the original purpose of the sacrament found in scripture, wrote, In referring to the sacrament as the “anointing of the sick” rather than “extreme unction,” the Church restored a more comprehensive understanding of God’s desire to heal us, opening the door to more frequent use and greater appreciation of the sacrament Today, the Church continues to teach that the anointing of the sick serves as a preparation for the final journey, but it also teaches that the sacrament bestows three other indispensable gifts It connects the sick with the communion of saints, contributing to the sanctification of the Church; unites the sick, through redemptive suffering, to the passion of Christ, and most important of all, bestows the grace of the Holy Spirit, “one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties” of sickness and old age

The Catechism teaches, If you are sick, especially if you are facing serious danger, these are the sort of gifts that you would want Shortly after the council, the rites were updated to reflect this mindset Three variations were developed for celebrating in different situations, and the prayers themselves became more expansive, focusing not on one’s passage into eternal life, but on physical and spiritual healing There are prayers, of course, for a dying person, but also for those preparing for surgery, for children, for people in advanced age, and general prayers for facing affliction What’s notable about this prayer and the others like it, is that there is not a single mention of death or passing

Its focus is not on preparing the sick person for new life, but on healing them in this one, a prayer, one would expect, that would be far more comforting prior to surgery than one about preparing for heaven While dying and entering heaven is always possible, it is not necessarily always the hope of our prayer What’s also notable is that the rites themselves are highly participatory, including time for the sick person to offer an act of contrition, inviting them to respond to prayers, receive nourishment from Word and instruction, and even receive communion The fullest expression of the rite clearly assumes that the sick person is conscious and in good enough health to eat and drink Which is obviously not a problem for those preparing for surgery or having received a serious but not immediately fatal diagnosis, but can definitely pose a problem for those who truly are preparing to pass from this life to the next

While the sacrament can certainly be conferred on an unconscious person close to death, waiting until the moment before someone dies is not ideal Besides the fact that a priest may not be available at that exact moment and the person might die before being anointed, doing so limits the amount of the rite that can actually be celebrated, and deprives the sick of the grace needed to deal with suffering while still alive If the sacrament gives all that it does— why would you wait until person is already unconscious and close to death to receive it? For some, there is still an ingrained sense that the sacrament is meant to be the last thing someone does, a sign of passing, and so put it off because they don’t want to accept that the end is near Others think that it can’t be received more than once, and so you should wait until you’re sure they're about to die Unfortunately, neither of these things are true

If the sick person receives the sacrament and then recovers or ends up living substantially longer than expected, that is a good thing It means that they were able to benefit from God’s grace for far longer, and in the end, the sacrament can be celebrated again if necessary Please Don’t wait until the very last minute to call the priest As soon as grandma goes into the hospital, as soon as grandpa goes to hospice, call the priest, and let the Holy Spirit bless them with the strength they need to endure their final days

And then, when the end truly is near, a day or so before they’re expected to die but while they’re still conscious, celebrate what is popularly known as Last Rites Officially, the term “Last Rites” does not appear in the Catechism or the Code of Canon Law, and no such liturgical prayer exists by that name What it refers to are the sacraments of penance, anointing, and Eucharist as viaticum, sacraments that “complete the earthly pilgrimage” and "prepare for our heavenly homeland” Chief among these rites is that of Eucharist by viaticum From the Latin word for way or road, Viaticum is the final reception of the Eucharist of a dying person, nourishment given for their “passing over” to eternal life

The rite can be celebrated within or outside of mass, with a couple of unique features Instead of the profession of faith, the sick person is given an opportunity to renew their baptismal promises Although not required, the sign of peace can be given special attention, not simply as a preparation for eucharist, but as a final farewell At the time to present communion to the sick, the priest may say the ordinary, “This is the lamb of God” of the communion rite, but two other options are given: And finally, once the dying Christian receives their final eucharist, preferably under both species, the priest responds, “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life,” emphasizing the final nature of this Eucharistic meal Assuming that the other two sacraments were already celebrated days before when the person became gravely ill, this final rite completes a threefold sacramental unity: mirroring how baptism, confirmation, and eucharist initiate one into earthly life, penance, anointing, and eucharist initiate the sick into heavenly life

But… you know what they say about assumptions… Because people are prone to call the priest at the very last moment, or because a sudden illness or accident has prevented the dying from celebrating the fullness of these sacraments separately, this is not always possible, and so the Church offers a combined rite of all three sacraments to be used in exceptional circumstances Although far less ideal than experiencing the fullness of each sacrament separately, it’s obvious to see how celebrating these sacraments, even if abbreviated, would be the absolute best way to end one’s life Which is why I’ll say it again: please, do not wait until grandma is unconscious or unable to consume food It is so much more beneficial for the sick to take part in these rites Do not wait until the last second and miss this opportunity

As much as Christ wants us to prepare us for passage from this life to the next, and we should most certainly take that seriously, we know from Scripture that Christ also wants to heal us—physically, emotionally, spiritually To reduce this sacrament to a final rite of dying, to limit its reception to one’s deathbed, misses out on many opportunities for the suffering faithful to encounter Christ If you take one thing from this video, remember that the sacraments are for the living—they are meant to strengthen us, give us hope, and brings us closer to God so that we can continue to live faithful lives As soon someone finds themselves in need, they should be given the spiritual help Christ offers Even if you are not close to dying—especially if you are not—call a priest, and ask to be anointed

It is a gift that we too often fail to see, or outright deny

Source: Youtube

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