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Sacrament of Healing
At a Mass I attended recently, a lady collapsed towards the end of the service. Fortunately both a doctor and a nurse were nearby and administered first aid until paramedics arrived.
At one point somebody said: “We should ask Father to anoint her”.
Another bystander stood with arms folded over the prone figure and announced: “Over my dead body! You’ll frighten her!”
Obviously this person had an outmoded understanding of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and was unaware that the patient had attended a recent Mass for the Sick and willingly gone forward to be anointed.
Anointing someone is not “giving them the last rites” or suggesting that they are at death’s door! The sacrament of anointing is a source of healing for the sick rather than the final act of the Church for the dying.
The appropriate recipients for the anointing of the sick are described in paragraphs 8 to 14 of the General Introduction to the rite:
Great care and concern should be taken to see that those of the faithful whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age receive this sacrament.
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.
The sacrament may be repeated is the sick person recovers after being anointed and then again falls ill or if during the same illness the person’s condition becomes more serious.
A sick person may be anointed before surgery whenever a serious illness is the reason for the surgery.
Elderly people may be anointed if they have become notably weakened even though no serious illness is present
Sick children are to be anointed if they have sufficient use of reason to be strengthened by this sacrament. In a case of doubt whether a child has reached the use of reason, the sacrament is to be conferred.
Someone who has lost consciousness or the use of reason may be anointed if they have asked for it when they were in control of their faculties.
This list makes it clear that the anointing is intended for all who are seriously ill, not just for the dying. The proper sacrament for the dying is not anointing but viaticum, or Communion for the dying.
The rite says that all the faithful and those who care for the sick “should be taught the meaning and purpose of the sacrament”. Clearly there is need for on-going catechesis in this area.
People’s reactions in an emergency are interesting. When the priest arrived on the scene, one person instructed the paramedics to move away so that the patient could be anointed. Naturally they refused to do so until their procedures had been completed.
This reminded me of the story of the drowning man who called to God for help but succumbed to the waves after turning away the lifesaver, speedboat and helicopter which came to his rescue!
After the paramedics had stabilised the patient and prepared her for transportation to hospital, she was prayed over and anointed. Happily, the parishioner recovered fully and returned home two days later.