About the time I decided to become Catholic, I was at a charity dinner party with my wife and her parents. It was a fairly upscale event where everyone dressed in a nice suit or elegant evening dress and enjoyed a multiple course meal. We were having an especially good time, because Lindsay and I had learned only a few weeks earlier that we were going to be parents.
And then suddenly, between courses, everything changed.
Lindsay began to show signs of a miscarriage. Her parents rushed us to the emergency room where doctors and nurses descended upon us. They drew blood, gave Lindsay a sonogram, and put her in a small room, where we all waited for the news—good or bad. It was the longest wait of my life.
During that time, both my parents arrived as did family friends, but it wasn’t until our Priest arrived that I finally started to feel some relief — though I really can’t explain why. I wasn’t Catholic yet. I hadn’t attended a catechism class, and I certainly had no idea of what I was about to experience.
Father Bryan had been at the same charity dinner party, but didn’t learn of our hasty departure until the event was over. He scolded us for not grabbing him on our way out — but honestly, we were all so scared, we left in a rushed daze. As soon as Father found out about it, he came straight to the hospital. When he walked in the room, he went to Lindsay and asked if she wanted to be anointed. “Yes,” she said. “Please.”
I watched, slightly confused, as Father used holy oil to make a sign of the cross on Lindsay’s forehead.
“Through the holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Father then anointed her hands and said, “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” He asked all of us to gather around Lindsay and put a hand on her as he began to pray over her. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was now officially participating in a Sacrament — my first one — Anointing of the Sick.
Anointing of the Sick, like every other sacrament, was instituted by Christ during his time on Earth. In the sixth chapter of Mark we read where Christ sent his apostles to preach, cast out demons, and heal the sick.
“So they went off and preached repentance. They drove out demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
But perhaps the most significant scriptural affirmation of the sacrament can be found in 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 faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven”
There are many graces that come with this sacrament, but it should be understood that Anointing of the Sick doesn’t guarantee bodily healing from whatever is ailing us. We certainly believe in the healing power of God, but this isn’t a magic spell or secret cure-all reserved for Catholics. However, just because those who receive aren’t always physically cured by it doesn’t mean the sacrament is any less effective. As Christians, we have to accept that there is value in suffering. Sometimes God can allow us to undergo sickness as a form of discipline or training. These trials can be essential to our spiritual life. Like Paul said, “Three time I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’”
So when we find ourselves struggling with a serious illness, or injury, Anointing of the Sick fills us with the grace of our Father, so that through our suffering we become closer to him. It may not always heal us physically, but it does so spiritually. It humbles us. It gives us the strength to weather our pain while allowing us to completely submit ourselves to God. The most grace-laden part of the sacrament, in a similar way to receiving the Eucharist, can cleanse us of sin.
It used to be that only those who were near death could receive an Anointing and it was combined with two other Sacraments — Reconciliation (Confession) and the Eucharist. In the case of near death, the Eucharist is referred to as “viaticum” which means “food for the journey.” In those last moments, these sacraments prepare us for death, and help us to accept the reality of what is unfolding and face whatever is next for us—be it purgatory or Heaven.
After Vatican II in the 1970’s, the Anointing is not only done for those who are dying — but also those who are sick or are preparing for surgery. There have been few times in my life when I have felt the presence of God as strongly as I did that night in the emergency room. Now that I understand what took place, I feel blessed to have such a strong memory tied to my first experience with this Sacrament. Not only did God’s grace give Lindsay and I the comfort we needed, but I believe it kept our son safe in the womb until he came into this world — seven months later — a perfect and healthy baby boy.
“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.”—The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1499.