From the Pastor
ANOINTING OF THE SICK
THEN AND NOW: PART 2
Last week, we looked at the origins of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick in the ancient belief that plant oil had medicinal powers, both physical and spiritual. That belief fit very well into the special care that the early Church showed for those who were sick, modeled after the healing ministry of Christ. Over time, the spiritual healing of the sacrament, particularly the forgiveness of sins, became the primary focus, almost to the exclusion of the physical healing, and the common practice of waiting to have one’s sins forgiven until one was near death in order to avoid having to perform heavy penances led to a change in the theology of the sacrament. This new theology, that anointing was a sacrament for the dying, the primary, though not exclusive, purpose of which was the forgiveness of sins, became official church teaching in the 16th century, as did the new name: extreme unction, or final anointing.
This norm prevailed for the next several centuries until neglect of the sacrament and the liturgical renewal movement led to a renewed understanding and practice. It was very difficult in that time, as it is even today, to predict when someone would die. People waiting until just before death to call on the priest for the anointing would therefore often miss their chance, depriving the dying person of the sacrament. This problem was compounded by the natural hesitation of the dying person and his or her family to call on the priest because to do so was an admission that the person’s death was near. These realities led to widespread neglect of the sacrament.
The liturgical renewal movement of the 20th century led scholars to look back over the historical development of the sacrament in their search for answers to the problems with its celebration. This in turn led to the recovery of the earlier understanding of anointing, that it is not primarily a sacrament for the dying and the forgiveness of sins but is a sacrament for all who are seriously ill and the healing of both soul and body. This renewed understanding was made official at Vatican Council II in the document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, and carried over into a new rite, now called Anointing of the Sick, which itself became part of a much fuller ministry to the seriously ill.
Tune in next week for the final installment of ANOINTING OF THE SICK: THEN AND NOW!
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