The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has sometimes been referred to as the “Last Rites.” This means that the Anointing is the last “rite” or ceremony someone would receive before death. While this is true, Anointing is not only for those on the verge of death. Vatican II specifically wanted to correct this understanding of the sacrament. As we learned last week, the Apostle James asked, “Are there any sick among you? Let them call for the priests of the Church…” The Anointing of the Sick is for any baptized Catholic who is facing a serious sickness, not just those on the verge of death. Here is what paragraph 73 of the document on liturgy from Vatican II said about the Anointing of the Sick:
“Extreme unction,” which may also and more fittingly be called “anointing of the sick,” is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one 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 (Sacrosanctum Concilium 73).
The Church hopes that every Catholic who is facing a serious physical illness would be Anointed in these times of difficulty. Far too often, Catholics are hesitant to call a priest until their loved one is on the point of death. Unfortunately, there are times when they do wait too long and their loved one passes before the priest can make it. In addition, it is ideal for a person who is nearing death to also receive the sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist at the time of the Anointing. If a person is unconscious, they cannot receive Reconciliation, although they can sometimes still receive a very small particle of the Eucharist.
It would be helpful if we had a slight shift in our vocabulary regarding Last Rites and the Anointing of the Sick. As the Council said, it is more fitting that we refer to this sacrament as the Anointing of the Sick, rather than Last Rites. This shift in vocabulary would help us as Catholics come to a better understanding and appreciation of this sacrament of healing.
Some people are too intimated to call a priest and ask him for the Anointing of the Sick. This is understandable, but if you don’t want to call, feel free to approach a priest after Sunday Mass and ask him if he has as few minutes to celebrate the Anointing of the Sick. Usually it is no problem, although sometimes the priest may have to be somewhere shortly after Mass. While priests have the reputation for being busy, we are never too busy to give someone the Anointing of the Sick, especially when the situation is urgent, or a new health complication has arisen. If there is an emergency, such as someone having a heart attack or accident in the evening or night-time, the Cathedral rectory has an emergency extension which rings all of the phones in all of the priests’ offices and residences. Typically, at least one of us is home at any given time after-hours.
On Christmas day, I received an emergency call to come to somebody’s home and offer them the Anointing of the Sick. The family was apologetic for “bothering” me on Christmas day, but I did not find it to be a bother at all, and I think almost all priests would agree with me. We do not stop being priests when the office closes, and as Catholics, our sacramental needs are not limited to business hours. We don’t mind being called upon after-hours to celebrate the Anointing of the Sick. (Just please do not use the emergency line for everyday business questions!)
In the coming weeks, I will discuss why it is so good for Catholics to receive the Anointing of the Sick, not only at the point of death, but whenever they are in the face of serious suffering. It is a sacrament of encouragement and healing, which Jesus desires for us to experience!