The Last Word - March 2017

Anointing the Sick

There are frustrations, I am sure, in every line of work.  So, too, in ministry.  I would like to share one of mine with you, if I might.  It is a situation where I know that the Church has provided me with a tool to help people at a most critical time of their life, but despite repeated efforts, large numbers of Catholics fail to take advantage of this tool.  The tool is the sacrament of the sick, alias "last rites," alias "extreme unction."  And those aliases are precisely part of the problem.  They give the impression that the sacrament is only for those who are imminently dying, well beyond the stage when there is any hope for improvement.

The sacrament has these wonderful prayers that are meant to offer support and encouragement to those who are diagnosed with a serious illness or are facing surgery.  They offer hope for healing in both body and soul.  They assure the person that the community of the Church stands with them in their time of need.  But, for reasons mysterious to me, families all too often wait to seek the grace of the sacrament until their loved ones are no longer conscious or alert, able to hear and respond to the comfort this pastoral support can offer them.  I am not suggesting that the sacrament in such cases is meaningless.  Not at all.  But it is somewhat limited.

Near the parishes I serve, there is an inpatient hospice.  I and the other priest serving in these parishes are called there frequently, at least three or more times a week, sometimes more than once in the same day.  I recall one stretch when I was there five days in a row.  I find families are always very grateful for the visit and the prayers.  But often, I leave with the nagging feeling that I could have done more if they had only called me when the patient was still conscious.  So often, the patient is in that sleep-induced state we recognize as a side effect of medication.

I recall cases when the patient specifically asked that a priest be called, but the family nonetheless waited three or four days before doing so because of a mistaken understanding (innocent and well-intentioned I am sure) that the sacrament should not be given too soon.  The opposite is the case.  The Church tells us that the sacrament should be given as soon as one begins to be seriously ill or is at risk because of old age.

Thus, the sacrament could most advantageously be given when the patient first receives a diagnosis of a serious condition.  And, in such cases, the sacrament could be given by the person's own pastor instead of by a stranger.  Furthermore, the sacrament can be repeated at various stages in the progression of the illness, as the Church accompanies the sick person on his or her journey.  And it can then be repeated when the person is in the final stages of life and that may, indeed, be in the hospital or when they are in hospice care.

Now, of course, I know that sometimes terminal illness comes on very suddenly and unexpectedly, as is the case of heart attacks or stroke. In such cases, the anointing has to be when the patient is actively dying.  But that is not the norm.  Most often, there are days, weeks, if not months of advance warning.

I would so love to see the full power of this sacrament made available to the faithful

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal