The Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven sacraments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a succinct definition for this sacrament -- a definition worth contemplating. "The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick has as its purpose the conferral of a special grace on the Christian experiencing the difficulties inherent in the condition of grave illness or old age" (CCC 1527).

One of the Scriptures that provides background to the Anointing of the Sick is found in the Letter of James: "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of the faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he as committed sins, he will be forgiven" (Jas 5:14-15).

The sacrament is for anyone who is seriously ill. The prayers of this sacrament certainly ask for healing. The minister of the sacrament, a priest or bishop, prays that the Lord would "save" and "raise up" the ill person. That healing may be physical, but the prayer also has a more profound meaning. Ultimately the "saving" that is most necessary is the salvation that leads to eternal life with God. The "raising up" that is most necessary is that which is joined with the resurrection of Jesus and leads the soul of the individual into the eternal kingdom of God.

Since sin is the barrier that stands between the sick person and union with God, prayer are offered for the forgiveness of sin.

Whenever possible, two other sacraments are offered to the sick person, especially if the individual is gravely ill and in danger of death. The priest will offer the person the opportunity to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation. Again, freedom from sin opens the door to grace and life.

In addition, the priest will make Communion available to the person if the individual is physically able to receive our Eucharistic Lord. Communion given to a dying person is referred to as "Viaticum." It is food for that final journey from transitory life to eternal life through the conduit of death. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

"Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of "passing over" to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (Jn 6:54). The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father (cf. Jn 13:1)." CCC 1524

Since Vatican II there has been a renewed emphasis on the communal nature of this sacrament. Anyone who is present during the anointing is invited to also pray for the person who is sick. The prayers of those present are united with the prayers of the entire Body of Christ, especially those of the saint (cf. CCC 1516, 1522).

The definition of a sacrament, which began our discussion, states that grace is made present for the person who receives the sacrament.

The grace particular to this sacrament is "one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness." The Holy Spirit also aids the recipient by a renewed "trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death" (cf. Heb 2:15) (CCC 1520).

The person who receives the sacrament is not to be passive. The fruit of the Anointing is in proportion to the openness and disposition of the individual. So, the individual should join his sufferings to those of Christ, seeing in this union with the suffering and death of Christ the sure path to resurrection. As a person yields to grace and actively places himself into the arms of Christ, th Church itself benefits. The sting of death is blunted in the light of the truth of Christ. Death, which had been used as a tool of Satan, is transformed into a door that will open to the home prepared for us by Christ.

The Church is present at the beginning of the physical life of the person and offers Baptism -- entrance into the family of God. In the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the Church is also present as physical life draws to an end and offers this anointing to prepare the soul for life with the Heavenly Father.

From the Catechism:

By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ (LG 11; cf. Jas 5:14-16; Rom 8:17; Col 1:24; 2 Tim 2:11-12; 1 Pet 4:13). CCC 1499

For personal consideration

1. Have you ever participated in the Anointing of the Sick? Did you find comfort and support in the sacrament?

2. The Church identifies the Anointing of the Sick as a "communal celebration" even if it is celebrated in a "family home" (CCC 1517). Why does the Church emphasize this communal aspect?

Copyright © 2012 Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
Excerpted from Last Things First.