by Father John J. O’Connor, VF, SLL
Annually, on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Church celebrates the World Day of the Sick. It is a day first instituted by John St. Paul II in 1993 to raise awareness for those who are sick among us and to offer them the healing grace of Christ’s redemptive work. In his letter instituting this special observance, John Paul II expresses the hope that this will be “a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one’s suffering for the good of the Church and of reminding everyone to see in his sick brother or sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying and rising, achieved the salvation of mankind” (Letter Instituting the World Day of the Sick, 13 May 1992, n. 3).
This year, Bishop DiMarzio asks that all the churches of the Diocese offer a communal celebration of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. As a pastor, I look forward to the opportunity of celebrating this special rite of healing within the context of the Eucharist. By doing so, it is my hope the wonderful theology of this sacrament will be brought to light, as together we celebrate God’s great gifts of healing and forgiveness.
Anointing of the Sick is a sacramental moment that opens those who are infirmed to a profound encounter with Christ and offers them forgiveness of their sins, spiritual healing and sometimes restoration of physical health or strength. Jesus instituted this sacrament as a great gift to the Church and desired that it be used to render help to the ill and dying. The theology of the Church affirms this teaching whenever it recognizes Christ as the divine physician. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we are reminded that Jesus continues to work the effects of his compassion in two ways. First, in the sacraments, especially in the anointing of the sick, Christ continues to “touch” us to heal us; and secondly, moved by so much suffering, Christ makes our miseries his own. “By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion” (CCC, 1503, 1504).
Today, when the Church celebrates the Sacrament of Anointing, it is responding to the same invitation that Christ gave to the first disciples to share in his ministry of compassion and healing: “So they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (Mk 6:12-13, CCC1506). It is, however, St. James who describes the details of the rite that was used in the apostolic Church. He writes, “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the Church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15). Through the centuries, the Church has recognized and used this simple rite as a sacrament of healing.
Yet, the Church has a very specific understanding of what happens when the sacrament is celebrated. It teaches that the signs, or the Matter and Form of the sacrament, are efficacious and confer the grace they signify because it is Christ who is at work (CCC 1127). The three important elements for the worthy celebration of the sacrament are the prayer over and laying on of hands upon the sick person, the anointing with the oil of the sick on the forehead and hands by a priest, and the accompanying formula, “Through this Holy Anointing, May the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up” (Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution, Sacrament of the Anointing of Sick, 30 November 1972).
Through these sacramental signs, the sick are anointed with blessed oil so that they can receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit and participate more fully in the grace of salvation. The sacrament, therefore, should not be reserved for only the dying. Rather, as a font of grace, that can give both spiritual and physical healing, it needs to be made readily available to all in the community who are gravely ill and find themselves in need of Christ’s compassionate touch.
Father O’Connor is the Director of the Liturgy Office of the Diocese of Brooklyn and pastor of Incarnation Parish, Queens Village.