Throughout the month of October, Respect Life month, I have invited us as a parish to reflect in a special way on our care for the seriously ill. Serious illnesses constitute 9 of the top 10 causes of death in our world today, taking more lives each year than practically all other causes of death combined. Illness touches us all, whether through our own experience or through illnesses suffered by our loved ones, and it demands a response from all who claim to respect life.
As Catholics, we respond to serious illness with faith in the saving power of Christ, who himself suffered and died but ultimately rose again, conquering even death itself, as we hear in today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” Yet, in spite of Christ’s victory, the experience of serious illness, whether our own or that of loved ones, can deliver a devastating blow to our faith, not unlike that of the cross for the Apostles. Christ’s suffering completely unhinged the Apostles: Peter denied him; the others abandoned him. Like them, we need an experience of the Risen Christ to renew our faith. We need a way to know that he is with us, even in our suffering and illness. And he has given us exactly that in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.
Through the anointing of the sick, we encounter the risen Christ in many ways: through the Scripture readings and prayers - expressions of Christ’s healing ministry; through the anointing with blessed oil - a symbol of the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead; and through the presence of the faith community - the Body of Christ, the Church. The priest who ministers the sacrament symbolizes Christ and his Body, but, like any sacrament, the fuller the symbol, the more effective it can become. So, the more members of Christ’s Body that gather to celebrate the sacrament, the more powerful its effects, not only for the person who is anointed, but for those who gather around the person.
The most powerful celebration of the anointing of the sick that I ever participated in took place before I was a priest. As a 4th year student at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, I served my deacon assignment at St. Francis Xavier, a relatively new parish in the growing suburb of Hunt Valley. The founding members of the parish still served in various ministries, and one of those founding members, a retired gentleman, served in nearly all of them. He knew just about everyone at the parish, and just about everyone knew and loved him.
He dedicated his life to his parish until, one day, he informed the pastor that his life was nearing its end. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only months to live. True to form, he wanted to spend those last months with his beloved family of faith, and they wanted to be there for him. And so the pastor arranged to celebrate the anointing of the sick - not alone in the man’s house or in a hospital room at the moment of death, but at Sunday Mass, with a church full of his fellow parishioners. As the man came forward to be anointed and his brothers and sisters silently prayed over him, there wasn’t a dry eye in the church. Yes, the tears flowed from sadness, but they traced a path down people’s cheeks to the upraised corners of peaceful smiles. Not long after, the man died without a single worry, strengthened by his encounter with the risen Christ through the prayer of his fellow parishioners. And those who were there, including me, have gone on to live a fuller faith thanks to the witness shared with us by that man, embodied most fully in the communal celebration of the anointing of the sick.
We will offer an opportunity to celebrate the anointing of the sick in the presence of our faith community at all Masses next weekend. We invite all the seriously ill among us, who are able, to attend. This invitation is not just for those whose illness may be terminal. It is for any baptized Catholic who is seriously ill, in body or in mind. For the purposes of the anointing of the sick, the seriousness of a person’s illness is not primarily determined medically but spiritually by the harm it could do to the person’s relationship with God. This means that the person who is sick, or the person responsible for him or her in the case of mental incapacity, is the one who should decide if he or she would benefit from being anointed.
It must also noted that the illness need not be acute. Chronic illness, such as arthritis or congestive heart failure, or psychological illness, such as recurring depression, can also harm our relationship with God and thus can be a valid reason for being anointed. There is also no limit to the number of times that a person can be anointed. Anytime a person’s illness worsens or leads to struggles in the person’s spiritual life, he or she can be anointed again, right up until the moment of death. At that point, the person no longer needs the anointing of the sick. He or she will see God face to face and will no longer need the medium of sacraments to encounter Christ.
As Catholics, we respond to serious illness with faith in the saving power of the Risen Christ, echoing Paul’s words from today’s second reading: “I can do all things, including battle serious illness, through him who strengthens me.” But we also recall how Paul finishes that thought: “Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.” We strengthen the faith of our sick brothers and sisters, and they ours, when we share in their distress by celebrating the anointing of the sick. Join us in the celebration of the anointing of the sick at Mass next weekend, and be renewed in your faith in the saving power of Christ.