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Father Muench Says...

Anointing of the sick


August 2, 2023

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

Today, I would like to consider with you the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. This sacrament has its roots in the New Testament book, the Letter of James. In the fifth chapter of this letter, James writes: “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. 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 Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.”

Many of you will remember that years ago this sacrament was only given to those who were nearing death. In those days, the name we used for this sacrament was “extreme unction,” last anointing. As a rule, the people were urged to call the priest for this sacrament when a person was close to death. I do remember that sometimes in those days, people would wait to call for the priest to come until the very last minute for what we called the last rites. I must admit that some families hesitated to call the priest. They were worried about disturbing the sick person. I remember that people would see a priest enter a hospital and be certain someone had died.

The Second Vatican Council changed so much. The sacrament has continued to be a blessing of support for the dying. Priests still bring the sacraments – Holy Communion and anointing – for those who are near death. However, now the sacrament of anointing can be given much earlier in a person’s illness and can be offered several times, not just at the last minute. Priests, however, still want to be present with a family at the time of death.

The real change came after the Council, so the name of the sacrament was changed. Now it is called the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Now this prayer and blessing and anointing is for many more than just the dying. It’s for those who are seriously ill, for those hospitalized, for those who will be having surgery, for those suffering difficulties due to long-term trials like cancer, but also those suffering from addiction, like drugs or alcohol. This sacrament can now be received many times. We do believe that this is a powerful sacrament of the Lord for many different situations.

Now, parishes offer anointing to groups of parishioners in Church. I remember recently after a parish Mass offering this anointing and having long lines of people coming forward. Of course, I wasn’t exactly certain what was disturbing them. However, they needed God’s support. I consider the challenge of growing old as a good reason to ask for this anointing.

In the message from the Letter of James, there is added the promise, “if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” Of course, we continue to believe this is true of the sacrament of anointing of the sick. This sacrament is a powerful example of our belief in the support of the Lord for the sick and dying through the anointing of the sick and the Lord’s forgiveness.

Anointing of the sick is a healing sacrament. This sacrament of support for the sick and dying brings spiritual healing through the forgiveness of sin. At the same time, this anointing also seeks the help and healing from the Lord who brough healing to so many, as we read in the Gospels. The Church prays that there will be hep and healing for the sick and suffering if it is the will of God. Personally, I know only too well that the Lord does bring healing and help as well as spiritual healing. I have prayed with many seeking the Lord’s healing through this sacrament.

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