In this series of essays Father Manny considers the nature of The Sacraments and reflects upon their meaning in our lives.
The Sacrament of the Sick
Recently I was called out to anoint a lady who was dying in a care home for the elderly. Her husband who had been married to her for almost 60 years was also a resident . Fearful of causing him greater distress the family were uncertain as to whether or not he should be present as his beloved wife received the ‘Last rites.’ In the end they decided he should be there. We gathered and I anointed the lady, gave her absolution, the Apostolic Pardon and concluded with the prayer of commendation of the dying saying the words “Go forth Christian soul…” At the end of the prayers the whole family , children and grandchildren were tearful and silent and then the elderly husband broke the silence and simply said, “I thank God for giving me my Catholic faith“. I was deeply moved by this frail and heartbroken husband’s words. They were an extraordinary testimony of faith. A great act of witness to his belief and trust in the Lord, the Church and the sacraments.
Our Rite for the ‘Pastoral Care of the Sick’ is a treasure in the Catholic Church that provides comfort and healing for the sick and the dying. There has been a tendency to regard this sacrament as ‘The Last Rites’, to be reserved only for those who were at the point of death. However the Second Vatican Council made it clear that this was not to be the case. It stated:
“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 to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived”.
As soon as a serious illness is diagnosed then the time for the sacrament has approached. This sacrament is concerned with healing at the deepest level. Its purpose is to bring healing at the physical, spiritual and psychological level. Often when faced with serious sickness a person can be fearful and feel very isolated. They can find prayer difficult and even be tempted to lose faith or despair. The Anointing of the Sick bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit, ‘Our Helper and Friend’ strengthening us in our struggle with suffering and sickness. We need this grace, this help. As a priest I have witnessed its effects in so many situations. Sometimes the sick person is anxious and afraid and upon receiving the sacrament becomes serene and at peace. In certain circumstances it gives them the grace to let go and surrender their lives to God. Occasionally there are remarkable accounts of physical healing.
The Letter of St James provides us with a key scriptural text in regard to this sacrament. It instructs us:
“Are there people sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church, and let the priests pray over them anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick persons, and the Lord will raise them up. If they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them”.
This sacrament saves the whole person, raising them up and forgiving their sins. It brings about reconciliation with God and a peace founded upon our trust in the Crucified and Risen Lord.
As a priest I have found the administration of this sacrament to have been one of the greatest and most rewarding parts of my ministry. Sometimes loved ones delay in contacting the priest either because they don’t want to trouble him or for fear of alarming the sick person. We should never allow this to be the case. It is a privilege for the priest to attend the sick and be assured he is able to do so with sensitivity and diplomacy taking great care not to cause any alarm or fear to the sick person. If we are uncertain, then please err on the side of calling the priest for this is a truly wonderful sacrament and a reason for all of us to thank God for the gift of our Catholic faith.
Rev. Emmanuel Gribben