“Can a blind person guide a blind person?” Lots of blind leading the blind when we consider the Sacrament of the Sick. Old theology is perpetuated from one generation to the next.
Before Vatican II the Sacrament was called “Extreme Unction”—the last anointing. A person had to be seriously ill and at death’s door for the priest to be called. So if the person didn’t know that he or she was dying, when they saw the priest, then they were sure. The ritual was quite different from what we have. The priest would anoint the person’s feet, the hands, the eyes, the mouth—all major body parts with which sins had been committed. Now only the head and the hands are anointed. [I was called to the hospital to visit a patient who was ill and when I got there the family didn’t want me to enter the room. “Father you’ll scare him”, they said. I replied, “I don’t think I’m that ugly.” “No, if he sees you then he’ll know that he’s dying.” Fact is that we are all dying. There is no reason for any of us to be afraid. Death is when we wake up, when we start to really live. God is all-merciful. God is going to take care of us, with or without the priest. Our salvation does not depend on us but on God’s love. A life-long relationship with the Lord helps us to make sense of the brokenness, the pain, the feeling of helplessness that death brings. However, many remember that they are Catholic at the last minute and want to get their foot in the door. There is noting magical in the Anointing of the Sick, a Sacrament of healing. Although miracles have happened. Sometimes folks can be on their last breath and after the Sacrament has been administered, the person bounces back to good health. We should not wait until a loved one is about to die. We get a call and the family says, “Father, come now because the doctor has said that my uncle has only a few hours left.” “How long has your uncle been in the hospital?” “About three weeks.” Don’t wait until the last minute.
Often people want to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which goes hand in hand with the Anointing of the Sick. But if the person is no longer conscious, Confession is not possible. Yet, with God, we always win. In the Anointing, all sins are forgiven. So we get a “freebie”. That’s the reason that only a priest or a bishop can administer this Sacrament and not a deacon. Absolution is given during the prayer. As the priest puts the oil on the forehead and hands he says, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy aide you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord ho frees you from your sins save you and raise you up.’”
If possible the Eucharist is given as “viaticum”—a going with—a Passover into eternal life. The ideal is for Reconciliation to be celebrated before the anointing followed by Holy Communion. Apart from Confession, the family can be present and rejoice with the person who is about to meet Christ. Folks can say farewell, ask forgiveness, recall memories—precious moments before death should not be full of anxiety. We never know when the Lord will call us home. But if we are at the “jumping off place” then we need to be ready. Consider that everyone over 75 years old is at the “jumping off place.” If surgery is in our future, we need to ask for the Anointing before we go to the hospital. Before or after Holy Mass on the weekends is a good time. Go to the hospital ready for whatever happens. The Sacrament of the Sick will never hurt us, can only help. The Divine Physician is still in charge.
Illness reminds us of our frailty. The more relaxed we are, the more trusting we are, when we are willing to surrender to Divine Providence, then the doctors and nurses will have an easier time being agents healing. We are all in God’s hands.