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Waiting in Joyful Hope

How Jesus heals today

Very often, when we approach the Lord for a healing what we are really looking for is a cure. If that is our desire, we may find ourselves disappointed and even in despair. But there is no sacrament, for example, that can stave off death inevitably. The only way the disease of death will ever be cured will be by the glorious coming of Christ. Until then, though, we all called to live in Hope, not in despair. This is what a healing brings. A cure delays death, but still leaves us with the same fear. A healing, on the other hand, comes in such a way that it brings hope, even if death follows shortly after.

I remember once when I was called to anoint an elderly woman dying of pneumonia. She was unconscious, and her breathing was very laboured. Her daughter was there, very sad, and she asked me to give her mom the "last rites". I explained to her that we don't actually have "last rites" in the Church, and that this sacrament was really for healing. After the prayer, something moved me inside to say to the daughter, "Look for the healing. It might not be what you expect — it might not be a cure — but look for the healing that brings hope."

A couple of days later I saw a death announcement in the newspaper. I visited the funeral home, and tapped on the shoulder of the daughter, expecting her to turn to me with great sadness on her face. Instead, her face lit up when she saw me and she said, "FATHER! When you said to look for the healing, you weren't kidding!"

Astonished, I asked her what she meant. She explained that she left her mother's hospital room later that night to get some sleep at home, hoping that her mom would still be there when she got back the next morning. Not only was mom still alive, though, she was sitting up in bed, totally conscious! They had a lovely conversation, said many beautiful things to each other, and then her mom decided to take a nap. She died peacefully in her sleep.

Was there a cure? No. Her mom still died. But was there a healing? You bet. A new life was given to that elderly woman, even if only for a time, and just enough to open everyone up to the possibility of hope. And that is how Jesus continues to heal us today.

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 yet...so 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.

Health vs. Healing

Classic "health" ministry is like the pastoral care provided in hospitals. The doctors take care of tending to the body, while the pastoral care people take care of tending to the soul. We listen, we journey with people as they suffer. We let them know they are not alone, and that God has not abandoned them either. We help them find meaning, if possible, in their suffering. These are all good things.

A "healing" ministry, though, is different. It is about using pastoral care to tend to the body as well. It is predicated on the belief that it is possible for God's power to intervene, and on a fairly regular basis, to effect physical healings. Our first duty is to pray, and to pray with boldness, and to pray as a community.

I see the difference between the two in the attitude each approach takes to so-called "miraculous" cures. From the "health" perspective, Jesus and the apostles really did do these things, but they are now very exceptional and now the ordinary way God works is through us, and the care we can provide. The focus (again, I like this emphasis) is to remember to communicate God's love at the same time as we ministry to people's bodies and minds.

On the other hand, the "healing" perspective sees no reason why the source of those healings accomplished in ancient times need to have dried up. There is nothing wrong with seeking medical care, but first and foremost we need to place our illness at Jesus' feet and ask him to continue the work he so often did when he walked the Earth.

The "healing" people think the "health" perspective lacks faith. The "health" people think the "healing" perspective can build false hopes, which then get dashed and people are hurt even more. And granted, sometimes the "healing" ministry is done by people who are borderline personalities. But then again, the "health" people sometimes suffer from the arrogance that medicine can treat anything, and when it can't they have nothing else to offer except to call the priest for the last anointing.

Can the two sides meet? I think so. Each side opposes the other, I think, because of differing visions of suffering. But what is their vision of health? I think that is where common ground can be found....in the development of a theology of health. Not of health care, but of health itself. What does it mean to "be healthy"?