RECEIVING THE SACRAMENT OF ANOINTING OF THE SICK IN GOOD TIME
1. Purpose Of This Pastoral Letter
Often, people are disappointed, upset and angry that they cannot find a priest to celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick for a loved one who is dying or is in a critical condition. Some are under the impression that this Sacrament is reserved for those whose death is imminent. By then, the person might not be in a condition to be properly reconciled with God, his fellowmen and himself, or to find peace. To benefit fully from the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the Sacrament is best administered when the person is conscious and sober, so that he can be prepared for any eventuality. “This sacrament is to be conferred on the sick who at least implicitly requested it when they were in control of their faculties.” (Canon 1006)
It is within this context that I wish to address when, and how the Sacrament of the Sick should be celebrated. This pastoral letter is not intended to give an exhaustive explanation of the Sacrament, but simply to encourage the faithful to have their loved ones anointed before they get admitted to hospital, lest they find themselves unable to secure the services of a priest at the last minute.
2. Catholic Understanding Of Illness
Right from the onset, the bible teaches us that no one should suffer in vain. We all seek to be cured when we are sick. The hope to be healed of physical pain and discomfort is a natural desire for all. Praying for the restoration of health is in accord with biblical teaching and the Church’s recommendation for those who are sick. The Church has always prayed for those who are sick to be restored to fullness of health. But health must not be considered in a narrow way, as if it concerns physical health alone. Fullness of health must include the body, the soul and the spirit. St Paul prayed, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Th 5:23)
However, as Christians, it is important that sickness is accepted as a means for us to be purified in love and be united with Christ in His suffering, so that we can encounter God deeply. Our sufferings can help us appreciate our life on earth so that we can live fully each day. It is an occasion for us to share in the cross so that we can share in His resurrection, both by living life to the fullest on earth and later in heaven. When no cure is found, the sick person is called to hope for eternal life. United with Christ, he or she will be able to integrate pain and even death into the whole of his life. Indeed, in Christian faith, suffering and death are not the last words but eternal life and resurrection.
In times of sickness, one need not give up hope and resign oneself to the illness. Rather, we should make ourselves available for healing, whether directly by God or through the instruments God has chosen for us, namely, through the doctors and the use of medication. We must presume that it is God’s desire to make us whole. He came to heal us and to set us free from pain and suffering. Indeed, healings are signs of Christ’s messianic mission, “Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness” (Mt 9:35) His works of healing too, demonstrate the coming of God’s rule and of our spiritual healing.
3. Healing Through The Sacrament Of The Anointing Of The Sick
The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is the primary means by which the Church shows her mercy and compassion to the afflicted. In the Old Rite, it was called the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. This Sacrament was associated with death, rather than healing; and it was celebrated for those who were dying. Instead of seeing the Sacrament as a means to give hope for recovery, it was understood as a sign of gravity and hence was often called the “last rites” to prepare a person for death. As a consequence, many do not make use of this Sacrament till at death’s door. Such an understanding is contrary to the Church’s official teaching; that health could be restored through anointing, and that a person would be healed spiritually, if not also emotionally and physically.
For this reason, in the New Rite, the Sacrament of Extreme Unction is called the Sacrament of the Sick. This is to be understood from the perspective of Christ’s desire to heal the entire person, body, mind and spirit. It is also a privileged means by which a person is reconciled with the Lord, finds peace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and encounters Him through the reception of the Anointing and the Eucharist, with the accompanying assurance of spiritual comfort and healing because of the Divine presence. Through the reception of this Sacrament, the sick person is strengthened; given hope and fortitude to endure the sufferings, overcome the fear of death, freed from anxiety about the future and delivered from depression, despair and the weakening of faith. It is the concrete means by which the Church, together with the Christian community, makes herself present in those receiving the Sacrament.
The letter of James invites us to call the elders to perform the Anointing of the Sick with oil in the name of the Lord. “ Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (Jms 5:13-16) This is in continuity with the Lord’s command to His disciples to anoint the sick with oil (cf Mk 6:13) and lay hands on them. (cf Mk 16:18) In this way, the saving power of Jesus is made present. The Sacrament is always effective in revealing its saving power even when it cannot prevent death because the person’s soul is saved through the forgiveness of sins and his heart is healed through union with the Lord.
Recourse to the Sacrament of the Sick is also a wonderful occasion where the community can support the sick person. Sickness is a crisis in life, both for the individual and also the community. Therefore, whenever possible, members and friends of the sick person should be present for the celebration of the Sacrament. By being present, the prayer of faith will help the sick person to find hope and encouragement in such difficult times. The Sacrament should be celebrated meaningfully and with solemnity. Following the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the sick person and the relatives and friends should celebrate the liturgy of the Word of God so that they could be strengthened in their faith in God’s mercy and healing grace. Nourished with the Eucharist, the sick person will find further strength as he unites himself with the Lord in his suffering and resurrection. In this way, not only will the sick person find hope, but the family members as well. Both the sick and the family members will find healing in the process.
4. Instructions From The Catechism of The Catholic Church And Canon Law
Who should ask for the Sacrament?
“The Anointing of the Sick ‘is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.’” (CCC 1514 cf Canon 1004 §1)
How often should we ask for the Sacrament of Anointing?
“If a sick person who received this anointing recovers his health, he can in the case of another grave illness receive this sacrament again. If during the same illness the person’s condition becomes more serious, the sacrament may be repeated. It is fitting to receive the Anointing of the Sick just prior to a serious operation. The same holds for the elderly whose frailty becomes more pronounced.” (CCC 1515 cf Can. 1004 §2))
In the light of what is said, we would like to encourage those who are sick to seek the Sacrament of Anointing, particularly those who are dangerously ill due to sickness or old age. “Pastors of souls and those close to the sick are to take care that the sick are consoled by this sacrament at the appropriate time.” (Canon 1001)
Those who are going for surgery should make the Sacrament of Reconciliation and ask the priest of the parish for the Sacrament of the Sick before being admitted to the hospital. This will give them confidence in the surgery and allay their fears and anxiety. Most of all, it will give them peace of mind. In this way, it will also pre-empt situations when a priest cannot be found for the Sacrament of the Sick at the last minute. Of course, in times of emergency when the anointing could not be done before hand, they should call up the parish where the sick person belongs, or a parish near the hospital, for a priest to anoint the person if he had not yet received the Sacrament.
Those who are elderly or homebound are advised to make regular confession and receive the sacrament of the sick at least once a year, especially when there is the annual mass for the anointing of the sick held in their parish.
What should one do if death is imminent and no priest is available to administer the Sacrament of the Sick? When no priest is available, a deacon or an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion should be called to give communion (Viaticum) to the dying. (cf Canon 921) This is preferably done when the sick person is still fully conscious. “Holy Viaticum for the sick is not to be delayed too long; those who have the care of souls are to be zealous and vigilant that the sick are nourished by Viaticum while fully conscious.” (Canon 922)
If the sick person wishes to receive communion but is in a state of mortal sin, he or she should make a sincere, or perfect, act of contrition and then receive communion. This does not mean that those who are in mortal sin, even though they may feel contrite, could receive Holy Communion without sacramental confession beforehand. Only when there is a serious reason that prevents them from receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the point of death, such as when no priest is available or they are unable to communicate anymore, then they are to make an act of perfect contrition with the intention that they will confess their serious sins as soon as possible when the opportunity presents itself.
The following provisions given by the Church should allay the fear of those who could not receive the Anointing of the Sick for grave reasons, believing that they would otherwise be condemned. “Anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession, unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, which includes the resolve to go to confession as soon as possible.” (Canon 916) “When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called ‘perfect’ (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible. (CCC 1452 confer 1492)
Dear brothers and sisters, please help us to provide you with the best possible pastoral care for your body and soul, especially in the critical moments of your life. Due to the scarcity of priests serving such a large diocese of more than 380,000 Catholics, I appeal to you to prepare well spiritually by celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly and when in serious illness, to ask for the Anointing of the Sick from your priests in the parish. In this way, you can be assured of the Lord’s healing grace for your body and your soul. May we never lose hope in the Lord but entrust our entire being to Him. “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound[f] and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” (1 Th 5:23f)
Yours devotedly in the Lord,
Most Rev. William Goh
Archbishop of Singapore