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A conduit for God's action: Anointing of the sick is source of strength, comfort

by Father Ron Hutchinson
 
I cannot count the number of times I have walked down the halls of area  hospitals on my way to a patient’s room, or driven to a home in the neighborhood, or joined a parishioner in the chapel with the oil of the infirmed and a copy of Pastoral Care of the Sick in my hand. Whether in a hospital, a parishioner’s home, an emergency or before surgery, the sacrament of the anointing of the sick can be a source of strength and hope. Through the prayers of the Church and a sacred anointing, we commend those who are sick to Christ, and the sick person receives the Holy Spirit’s gifts of strength, faith, peace and courage in the midst of their suffering. They are invited to unite their suffering with Christ for the building up of the Church. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 152-23)
 
Whenever I celebrate this sacrament, it is an opportunity for me to witness God’s ability to comfort and
strengthen individuals facing surgery, illness or weakness. Often, I have seen the worry, agitation and fear on an individual’s face and in their hearts melt away as they experience the power of God’s promise
to be with them and give them what they need during this difficult time. It is possible for the sacrament
to bring about physical healing, but the anointing of the sick primarily brings about the healing of the person’s spirit. It gives them hope and also helps to give suffering a new meaning. Rather than to suffer
for suffering’s sake, the anointing of the sick allows the individual to unite their suffering with that of Christ and thus participate in the saving work of Jesus for the good of the whole Church. I often invite individuals to offer their suffering for specific intentions or individuals in need of the redemptive power
of God. Something so simple gives purpose to the person’s life at a time when they feel helpless and their life seems without meaning.
 
This sacrament is often referred to wrongly as “last rites” by people who associate it with its pre-Vatican II name of extreme unction. Prior to the revision of the rites of this sacrament after the Second Vatican
Council, this anointing was reserved for the period prior to a person’s death and was to be the last sacrament a Catholic received. Now this sacrament is seen as a reflection of Christ’s great compassion toward the sick, as well as a share in his preferential love for the sick and suffering. Thus, it can be received without limit during a person’s lifetime and is mental and spiritual, as well as physical, illness.
 
As an aspect of my ministry within the parish, the sacrament of the anointing of the sick has been a way for me to make visiting the sick, which is one of the corporal works of mercy, a regular part of my weekly
schedule. Whenever I visit the sick or homebound, it is my hope that family members will be present, so the celebration of this sacrament can be an opportunity for them to pray and experience the comfort of the Church’s ritual words and actions. It has been my custom to make the family a part of the ritual by inviting them to pray over their ill relative prior to the sacramental anointing. In a sense, it is their
opportunity to “anoint” their loved one via their support and prayers.
 
Sometimes the person being anointed is conscious; other times, they may be semi-conscious or  unconscious. I have come to believe that, in all these cases, the celebration of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is a comfort to them, regardless of whether it can be expressed to me verbally. In either case, it brings me comfort knowing that God is giving them what they need in that moment for their health and well-being – and that I have been a conduit for God’s action on their behalf.
 
Father Ronald Hutchinson is director of priestly vocations for the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids. Contact Father Hutchinson at rhutchinson@dioceseofgrandrapids.org.