Tuesday, 10 February 2015

A sacrament for everyone?

Many of the Catholic faithful - certainly if my experience of Catholic life in England and Wales is anything to go by - could be forgiven for thinking that the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament intended to be received by any Catholic whatever their circumstances. This misunderstanding is driven by the practice that will no doubt be seen in many parishes tomorrow of Father inviting anyone who wishes to receive the sacrament to do so, without any discernment as to their individual situations.

The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the annual World Day of Prayer for the Sick, is certainly an appropriate occasion to administer the sacrament - for those for whom it is appropriate.

So, who is the sacrament of Anointing intended for? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church n.1514:
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."
This is qualified in the Code of Canon Law c.1005 by the indication that, in case of doubt, the sacrament should be conferred:
This sacrament is to be administered in a case of doubt whether the sick person has attained the use of reason, is dangerously ill, or is dead.
The Catechism also indicates that it is appropriate to repeat the sacrament if, during an illness a person's condition becomes more serious, or in the case of frailty due to old age that frailty becomes more pronounced, or a person is about to undergo a serious operation.

All of this certainly indicates that a priest should be generous in his interpretation as to when the conditions for receiving the sacrament are met; and for those who suffer a chronic or long lasting illness, that occasions such as the World Day of Prayer for the Sick are an appropriate moment for them to receive the sacrament again.

But it does not justify the practice of anointing all and sundry (and justifying that practice, when justification is offered, on the grounds that "everyone is spiritually sick if they are not physically sick" - a superficial argument if ever there was one).

Pastorally, this question does matter. How can we expect those who are dangerously ill to truly value the sacrament at the point of their serious illness if they have passed a life time of Catholic practice seeing the sacrament being offered to everyone regardless of their being sick or not?

It is interesting, by way of conclusion, to read what the Catechism has to say about the effects of the celebration of the sacrament (Catechism of the Catholic Church nn.1250 - 1523). These effects are offered under three headings:
A particular gift of the Holy Spirit..... This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God's will.135 Furthermore, "if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven".
An 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".... 
A preparation for the final journey. If the sacrament of anointing of the sick is given to all who suffer from serious illness and infirmity, even more rightly is it given to those at the point of departing this life; so it is also called sacramentum exeuntium (the sacrament of those departing). The Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it. It completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life: that of Baptism which sealed the new life in us, and that of Confirmation which strengthened us for the combat of this life. This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father's house. 
Though it is less relevant to the circumstances in which the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick will be conferred tomorrow, this last consideration is perhaps somewhat neglected in our present practice of the sacrament. It offers a certain "hermeneutic of continuity" with the earlier understanding of the sacrament as described here by Fr Tim: The wonderful sacrament of anointing the sick:
So it is a wonderful thing to be called out to visit people who may have neglected the practice of their faith, yet have identified themselves as Catholic and can be assumed to have at least some habitual desire for the sacraments, and as a priest, to minister the sacrament of anointing and the Apostolic blessing with the plenary indulgence, and know that they have been helped on a fast track to heaven.
Or, at a time when I was a lay pastoral visitor in a hospital, to offer a referral for a visit from a Catholic priest that would have provided the occasion for such a "wonderful thing".

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