Christians also know that Christ loved the sick and often during his life healed them. Sickness, while it is related to fallen human nature, cannot be considered as a punishment for personal sins (See John 9:3). Christ Himself was sinless and yet he bore all the sufferings of his passion and understood human sorrow.
Anointing of the sick is a Sacrament of Faith - faith in the minister of the sacrament and faith for the one who receives it. The kernel of the Sacramental celebration consists of the Priest's Prayer and the Anointing. The formula used, in keeping with the promise made by Christ through St James in his Apostolic letter, stresses not only prayers for a sick person's forgiveness but also for 'raising up' and salvation.
'Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.'
'May the Lord, who frees you from sin, save you and raise you up. Amen.'
Thus is expressed the care of Christ and the Church for sick people. Christ is working again through the Sacrament with his sympathy and healing, as he did when he was on earth.
Sickness and sin go together. This does not mean that a person's personal sins are always punished by sickness, or that those who are sick are more sinful than others. Yet ill health was introduced into the world by sin and is part of the sinful condition of fallen humanity. It not only weakens God's gift of natural life, but also makes it more difficult for a person to live the supernatural life and hinders people in their attempt to lift themselves above the things of the world. It can nevertheless be turned to good account. If borne with fortitude it strengthens the human spirit and if it is meekly accepted and offered up in union with the sufferings of Christ, it makes the Christian more like the Master, gives a fuller share of his life and helps to make amends for sin.
Christ came to eliminate suffering. He came to give fullness of life, both natural and supernatural. It is true that his main purpose was to give supernatural life, but he intends us to enjoy fullness of natural life also. When he was on earth he cured the sick and sent his Apostles out to do the same in his name. When we come to enjoy the full fruits of Redemption in the world to come, there will be no more sickness or death. 'Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away' (Rev. 21, 4).
Christ still continues his ministry to the sick. He does it now chiefly through the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, but it is a special work of many religious men and women - think of the Catholic hospitals. The sacrament helps those who are seriously ill to bear their sickness and gives a new injection of his life so that they may lift up mind and heart to God in spite of pain and weakness.
The Sacrament In Sacred Scripture
The fifth chapter of St James' letter describes the sacrament:
'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' (James 5, 14-15).
Here is implied the whole teaching of the Church about this sacrament. It was instituted by Jesus Christ for the benefit of those, not necessarily dying, but at least in some danger of death through sickness. It is administered by a priest who, in the name of Christ, prays over the sick person and anoints with oil the forehead and the hands. Until recently, the five senses were anointed, he prays that the sins of the sick person will be forgiven and that, if such be the will of God, bodily health will be restored.
This sacrament, like the other six, gives an extra injection of Christ's life to enable the patient to face the danger of serious illness and make a special effort to pray and love God at a time when ill-health renders the person weak.
As in the other sacraments, the sign used indicates the effects. Oil gives strength. The athlete anoints the limbs with it to strengthen them for the 'agony,' or contest. In this sacrament, the soul is anointed by the Spirit to enable it to face up bravely to illness and, perhaps, the last agony. Oil also has a healing effect. The sacrament is intended primarily to soothe and heal the spirit, but frequently the spiritual effects flow into the body. The strength given enables the person to throw off depression, worry and lethargy and, as a result, the body becomes relaxed and better able to respond to medical attention.
Priests of long experience will testify that some physical improvement is to be expected after the anointing of the sick, and full recovery is not infrequent. Nevertheless, the sacrament is not faith-healing. Its primary purpose is not to restore physical health but to give a new share of supernatural life.
On the Thursday before Easter at a special mass in the diocesan cathedral, called the Mass of the Holy Oils, the bishop consecrates the oil to be used in the anointing of the sick, and the prayer he uses on that occasion indicates the purpose of the sacrament:
'O God, please send down from heaven the Holy Spirit into this rich oil, which you so kindly produce from the greenwood for the restoring of mind and body. Through thy blessing, may all who are anointed with this heavenly medicine be protected in mind and body. May all pain of mind and body, all weakness and sickness, be removed.'
When a member of the family is seriously ill, Catholics are as anxious to send for the priest as for the doctor. They know that they should not leave it to the last moment to ask for the anointing to be administered. It is best done when the patient is conscious, able to co-operate with the priest as he prays and administers the sacrament, and with Christ who gives strength through it.
When St Matthew, the tax collector, received the call to follow his Master, he invited many of his friends to a farewell party, and Jesus was the chief guest. The Pharisees were shocked and said to his disciples: 'Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?' When Jesus heard of this, he said, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick'(Matt. 9, 11-12).
Sin is the sickness of the human spirit. It distresses it and makes it restless, weakens and even quenches supernatural life. Christ removes sin and gives new vigour in the sacrament of Penance. In the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick he soothes with the sweet balm of the Holy Spirit, giving comfort and strength at a time when it is badly needed.
He said, 'I came that they may have life and have it abundantly' (John 10, 10). He longs to give it to all and extends to all the tender invitation:
'Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest'(Matt. 11, 28).
This material was originally published by Catholic Enquiry Centre, Australia, revised 1991. Copyright ©