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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Who should be anointed?

The sacrament of the sick is an important part of priestly ministry, which means the question of who should be anointed is not merely theoretical — every so often every priest is confronted with a situation where he has to make a judgement call "to anoint, or not to anoint". The usual conclusion is to anoint, simply because there isn't enough time to do a complete theological-pastoral-medical analysis on the spot. While I am comfortable with the idea of having to make these kind of judgement calls — after all, the Lord gave each of us a brain for a reason — I do think that there is a subsequent responsibility to reflect on what just happened, to see if the judgement call was the right one. These kinds of decisions need to be made as a "function of something," and that is where theological reflection comes in.

Let's start with the easy stuff. To receive this sacrament there are at least 3 conditions that have to be met:

  1. You have to be alive. This one sounds obvious, but often enough a priest gets called to administer the sacrament even after a person has died. Sacraments, however, are meant for the living, not the dead. It is possible to administer the sacrament conditionally if death has seemingly just occurred and we are not 100% sure if the person is alive or dead, but if it is clear that the person has died then the sacrament makes no sense. It's the sacrament of the *sick*, not the sacrament of the dead.
  2. You have to be baptised. Every sacrament, apart from baptism, is meant to involve a renewal and strengthening of the grace received at baptism. If a person hasn't actually been baptised (whether in the Catholic Church or another Christian denomination that has valid baptism) then the sacrament makes little sense. In such cases I would most certainly pray with the sick person for healing and strength, and I would even offer them a blessing if they wished, but to offer the sacrament of the sick in such cases would go contrary to the truth of the sacrament itself.
  3. You have to be sick. Again, this one sounds obvious, but again priests often enough encounter people who want the sacrament who are not, in fact, sick. A few times I've visited the hospital to anoint someone and the relatives nearby wanted the anointing as well, just out of solidarity with the sick person. I've also had people come for the anointing in order to receive the forgiveness of sins — partly because they didn't want to go to confession! But while a person needs to be sick to be anointed, how sick do you have to be?

Prior to Vatican II the Anointing of the Sick was called Extreme Unction, and it was administered to those who were dying. There was actually a bias in some cases to administering the sacrament in the very last hours (or even minutes) of someone's life, which gives rise to the image of the priest being called to the bedside of the sick person to administer the "last rites".

Vatican II addressed this situation as follows:

"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, no. 73)

The phrase "in danger of death" would mean that the sickness in question does not, in fact, need to be actually deadly, but that it would be if it continues its natural course. For example, a person can have an operable but cancerous tumour. If the tumour were allowed to continue to grow according to its natural inclination, the person would eventually die from cancer. In my estimation this makes the person a candidate for the anointing even though the person is soon scheduled for an operation to have the tumour removed.

What is particularly interesting about the passage from Sacrosanctum Concilium is the inclusion of old age as a reason for the anointing. You see, old age is not a disease! No one actually dies of "old age". With time, however, age brings a certain frailty which makes it harder to heal and to fight off infections. It is this frailty that is the real question — there is no "magic birthday" after which a person can start to receive the anointing. Theoretically a person could be much younger, but if they are experiencing a frailty which parallels the frailty of old age they could very well be anointed as well.

When the ritual book for the pastoral care of the sick was issued in 1972, it added a couple of circumstances for possible anointing. One was prior to surgery, which is also interesting because, while surgery can be a dangerous time, the person has not actually gone under the knife what, exactly, are they receiving the anointing for? The underlying disease? But if so, why have a special prayer for cases of surgery?

The second circumstance that the ritual added was for "certain serious mental illnesses". This is also very interesting, because the ritual leaves these illnesses undefined. To be sure there are mental illnesses which have a physical component — caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, for example — but what about illnesses that are purely psychological in origin?

Finally, when the ritual was translated into English, the Latin phrase "dangerously ill" (used to refer to how sick one needed to be) was translated as "seriously ill", with a special footnote added to indicate that this was a purposeful choice ADD REASONS. This opens up the question of "anointable illness" to a whole new level. What if someone has a chronic but non-fatal illness, such as arthritis? What if a person is born with a severe but non-fatal genetic disorder, such as Down's Syndrome? What if a person suffers from not a disease but from a handicap, such as loss of an eye in an accident?

The Council of Trent declared that "This sacrament should be given only to the sick of whose death there is fear." (Decree for the Armenians, 1439). Vatican II never really went beyond this, simply reminding us that we can anoint at the start of that reasonable fear, not just at the end of it. It is possible that the translators of the ritual book are leading the Church in an authentic development of doctrine, but this is difficult to say. Without a doubt, however, the prevailing theological movement has been to expand the use of the sacrament. The real question is whether or not such a move is legitimate — and to be honest, I am not sure.

It seems to me that what is at stake here is our understanding of the place of sickness (and of health!) in God's plan. How are we live our part in that spiritual drama? My experience of the prayers for healing of the Charismatic Renewal has led me to believe that, if nothing else, we need more prayers for healing as part of our devotional life. I suspect part of the pressure to place so much on the sacrament of Anointing comes from a lack sources of confident non-sacramental prayer for healing — we seem to have little confidence in our own prayer, so we turn to something "ex opere operato" in the hopes that healing can happen. My pastoral contribution to the theological debate, therefore, is to encourage prayers for healing in its many forms — perhaps by placing the sacrament of the anointing in a wider context of devotions and sacramentals, we can truly discern its proper place.

The Assumption matters!

Normally I meditate on the Glorious Mysteries when I pray the Rosary on a Wednesday. Today I saw a new dimension of the mystery of the Assumption of Mary that I never noticed before.

First, a quick recap on what the dogma of the Assumption actually is. It is a dogma of Catholic faith that "the Immaculate Virgin...on the completion of her earthly sojourn, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory". (Lumen Gentium, no. 59) For the rest of us, when we die our soul may go the Heaven but our body goes into the ground to await the general resurrection of the dead. For Mary, however, her body was *also* "assumed" into Heaven.

This dogma is not universally held among Christians. The Orthodox generally agree with it, but they prefer to emphasize the "dormition" of Mary, i.e. the fact and manner of her death. The Protestants, however, do not accept the dogma of the Assumption. The "Biblical" Protestants (like the Evangelicals) usually outright deny the dogma, while the Anglicans often have a more neutral stance. For both groups, however, the rationale is based on the fact that the Assumption, as such, is not mentioned in the Bible. For them, this means one of two things: either the Assumption never happened, or it doesn't matter even if it did happen.

I'll be honest, I can sympathize with the difficulties of the Protestants. As a Catholic I have no problem believing in the existence of an extra-biblical Tradition that complements Scripture and perfects our knowledge of it, so the fact of the Assumption I do not doubt. But there is that whole "so what" factor that is harder to deal with. It's very nice that Mary's body was assumed into Heaven — good for her — but does it really matter?

As it turns out, yes. The dogma of the Assumption reminds us of a very important element of Christian faith — our resurrection. I don't mean the resurrection of Jesus, I mean our own resurrection at the end of time. There are many people today who consider themselves Christian but who, in practical terms, do not believe in a personal resurrection from the dead. Sure, Jesus rose from the dead, but this is not seen as having any universal impact or dimension for us. It turns out that there were some early Christians who thought the same way, and St. Paul had to correct them:

Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Cor 15: 12-23)

The Assumption, if it is real, is a direct challenge to those persons who think Jesus' resurrection was unique to him. Mary, while she is the perfect disciple, is nevertheless just as human as you and me. If the power of the resurrection can extend beyond Jesus to include her, and not just in her soul but in her body, then there is no reason why it can't extend to the rest of us as well.

The Holy of Holies

A few years ago my friend Johnny was visiting from Texas, and I was taking him on a tour of a church. He wasn't very familiar with the details of the Catholic faith, so I explained things as best I could as we walked through the building. When we got to the tabernacle, though, I found myself a bit speechless (probably a good thing, if you think about it). After all, how do you explain the Real Presence to someone who has never heard of it before? After fumbling around a bit, I finished by saying, "Johnny, the bottom line is, if the Catholic faith is correct, you are, at this very moment, standing 10 feet away from Almighty God." To which he replied, "I'm surprised I haven't burst into flames yet!"

We had a good laugh, but he made a good point. The Real Presence of God in the Eucharist is hard to grasp, partly because it juxtaposes the grandeur of the Lord — who performs a genuine miracle every time the Eucharist is consecrated — with the humility of the Lord, who continues, in a way, to "empty himself". Jesus came to us to serve, and in the Eucharist I see Jesus continuing this great ministry of mercy. One day he will come in glory — and I am Waiting in Joyful Hope for that Day — but for now, and without taking anything away from His majesty, he comes to us under the most simple of forms.

I had the chance to visit a Hindu temple a number of years ago, and be given a tour by the wife of one of the temple elders. As we approached the central place of worship, I saw the idol of the deity Ganesh being unveiled and washed by the priest. The idol was kept in a small structure topped by a dome, and when I asked what that was the woman replied "the sanctum sanctorum". Excuse me? Latin in a Hindu temple? Yep. To my surprise, I learned that these Hindus turned to Catholic terminology to explain their doctrine in English. It was the Catholic faith that provided the words to translate their concepts.

I asked her about the worship of this statue, and she replied that it wasn't really worship of a statue, but of the presence of the deity in the statue. She was fumbling a bit to explain this, however, because she wanted to make clear that, once the statue had been specially blessed by the Hindu priest, the presence of the deity was not "mixed with" the statue or "inhabiting" the statue, but that the statue, while still having all the characteristics of a granite statue, was now truly the deity Ganesh. I said, "So it's a real presence, taking the place of the substance of the statue while keeping all the external characteristics." "Exactly!" was her enthusiastic response. This is what transformed the statue into a proper idol, worthy of true worship and not mere veneration.

Hmmmm...prayers of consecration said by a priest (and only by a priest) over specially designated substances meant to bring about a Real Presence of a divine person, normally kept hidden in a special container but which, when exposed, was an object of adoration and worship...this sounded amazingly familiar. So I told her we Catholics had something similar.

"Really?" she asked. "Is that what your statues in churches are for?"

"No," I replied, "those are just reminders of Jesus or of the saints. They are not objects of true worship. Our object of worship isn't made of wood or stone."

"What is your object of worship made out of?" she wanted to know.

"Well, food, actually."


"Yes, food. Bread and wine, to be specific."

(Now keep in mind, they use granite statues. These last forever, while food rots over time. I could tell she wasn't sure food was a very appropriate initial substance for the divine presence.)

"What do you do with this food once it has become God?" she pressed on.

"Actually, we eat it!"

"You eat it."

"Yes, we eat it."

And then, after a bit of a pause, she said something I'll never forget. "I guess, then, this make YOU the sanctum sanctorum."

Amazing. A Hindu who had never been to a single catechism class in her life understood the Eucharist better than so many Catholics, include the transformative impact receiving communion is meant to have in our lives.