Without a doubt, Holy Week is, liturgically speaking, the richest week in the Liturgical Calendar. There is a hidden gem that many people are not aware of and that is the Chrism Mass. These Masses feature the gathering of an entire diocese—bishop, priests, deacons and lay faithful alike—and are the occasion on which the bishop blesses each of the oils that are used in sacramental anointing. Among these is the oil of the infirm that is administered in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. It would seem then that it would be appropriate to offer some reflections on this great Sacrament, especially since very few Catholics seem to understand it.
One of the reasons why this Sacrament is so little understood is because we do not understand the purpose of it. If we examine a familiar episode from Our Lord’s public ministry in Matthew’s Gospel it becomes clearer.
And there people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.’ At that, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said, ‘Why do you harbor evil thoughts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic, ‘Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.’ He rose and went home. When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to men (Mt 9:2-8).
Because, as the Son of Man, He has authority to forgive sins, Jesus also heals the man. Most who read his account do not go any further than that. However Matthew says something very important at the end. Notice that not only does Jesus have the authority to do this, but the people glorify God because He has given the power to forgive sins and to heal “to men.” In other words, what the crowds are struck with awe about is the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
One might say that Jesus did not actually anoint the man. But it is clear that once the Sacrament is implemented by the Apostles anointing becomes the matter of the Sacrament. In his letter, St. James asks:
“Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).
Within these verses we find all the elements of a true Sacrament present. There is the outward sign which consists of anointing with oil (matter) and the prayer of the priest over the sick person (form). There is the inner operation of grace which is expressed through the forgiveness of sins, the saving of the soul from eternal destruction and the raising up from despondency and despair. Finally we see that it has been instituted by Christ, namely it is to be administered “in the Name of the Lord.”
Herein lays the confusion for most Catholics. Most treat it as simply a sacramentalized version of a charismatic healing. But this Sacrament is ordered firstly to the forgiveness of sins and healing of the soul. As the Catechism says, “The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effect…the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance” (CCC 1532).
Some mistakenly think this is like a get out of hell free card and thus do not take the Sacrament seriously. But in order to truly forgive the sins of the recipient and the punishment attached to sin, the person must not only be baptized but have at least an imperfect sorrow for sin (based on a fear of punishment). Certainly if there is any chance of this a priest will administer the Sacrament, but the personal disposition (at least at their last moment of consciousness) matters as to the effect of the Sacrament.
The Sacrament is sometimes abused because it is looked at only as a Sacrament of bodily healing. It assumes that the recipient is capable of sin and therefore has obtained the use of reason. Young children are often mistakenly given the Sacrament. If there is a doubt as to whether the child has obtained the use of reason then certainly it should be given, but in general they should not be given the Sacrament (Canon 1004). There is often a superstition attached to the Sacrament in that people will treat it as a good luck charm before surgery. But the Sacrament should only be given to someone who is in danger of death (Canon 1004). Furthermore, Canon Law states that the “Sacrament is to be conferred upon sick persons who requested it at least implicitly when they were in control of their faculties” (Canon 1006) and not to those “who obstinately persist in manifest serious sin” (Canon 1007).
The second effect of the Sacrament is the “the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age and the preparation for passing over to eternal life” (CCC 1532). This effect is both for the good of the person and for the good of the whole Church. The person is given the right to actual graces to bear their sufferings. But it also offers them protection against the onslaught of the demons during the moments leading up to death. The temptation to despair is never so great as during those last few moments and we are extremely dependent upon grace to persevere. The Council of Trent, in defending the use of the Sacrament of Anointing against the Protestant reformers who would do away with it said that the Sacrament enables us to “resist more easily the temptations of the devil who lies in wait for his heel” (Council of Trent, Canon 14).
While the Church, through the treasury of merits of Jesus, grants these graces in the Sacrament, there is a reciprocity of sorts in that the person who bears their sufferings well also acts upon other members of the Church in a co-redemptive manner. The Catechism describes this ecclesial grace: “the sick who receive this sacrament, ‘by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,’ ‘contribute to the good of the People of God.’ By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father” (CCC 1522).
Because the Sacraments are truly performed by Christ, they produce their effects infallibly. This is why the the third effect of the Sacrament, namely “the restoration of (bodily)health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul” (CCC 1532) can be confusing. It seems as if this effect is conditional. But in truth it is not. The Sacrament will always act as a direct means to the restoration of bodily health, although this particular effect may not be felt until the resurrection of the body. It is only when the restoration to bodily health in this life can be a means to reaching that point will it also be granted now. It is only because we are standing on our heads now that we do not readily see that God’s “grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). It is by grace we are saved and for those who receive the bodily healing at the resurrection, they will know that it was the grace of the Sacrament that helped to save them.
When Jesus forgives the sins and heals the paralytic, the crowd was struck with awe. Perhaps with a greater understanding, we too might be seized with wonder at the awe-some (in the truest sense of the word) power of this Sacrament of mercy.