Archive for Saturday, April 9, 2005

Anointing of the sick

Misunderstood sacrament not a sign of imminent death

April 9, 2005


Gary Campbell has received the Roman Catholic Church's sacrament of the anointing of the sick -- formerly called the last rites or extreme unction -- three times.

  • In 1999, before surgery to remove a benign brain tumor at the base of his skull.
  • In 2001, prior to an operation to remove his enlarged spleen, which was the cause of a low white-blood-cell count.
  • And in 2004, before doctors operated to remove blood clots in his brain that were the result of a motorcycle accident two months earlier.

Why did Campbell, 61, want to receive this sacrament?

"It represents a part of my faith -- doing that, plus requesting prayers of the faithful through the parish," says Campbell, a member of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, 1234 Ky.

"I felt strengthened. I knew that it was in God's hands and that, as a person of faith, I had exercised all options in requesting the sacrament and that the rest of the congregation pray for me."

And each time his priest performed the rite, Campbell drew comfort from it.

The Roman Catholic sacrament of the anointing of the sick uses a
special oil that has been blessed by the bishop. The sacrament is
for those who are seriously ill but not necessarily in their dying

The Roman Catholic sacrament of the anointing of the sick uses a special oil that has been blessed by the bishop. The sacrament is for those who are seriously ill but not necessarily in their dying moments.

"Totally -- way beyond that. I can't really describe it well, but it brought a peace with it," he says.

Campbell is one Catholic who knows from firsthand experience that receiving the sacrament of the anointing of the sick doesn't mean death is imminent -- something many people around the world mistakenly assumed when word leaked last Friday that Pope John Paul II had received the last rites.

In fact, the pontiff lived for one more day.

"There is a whole series of prayers the Church offers for a person who is dying. They're not called "last rites" anymore, although the Vatican (or the media) called it that, didn't they?" says Monsignor Vince Krische, director of St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center, 1631 Crescent Road.

Not only for dying

Media coverage of the pope's rapidly failing health and ultimate death highlights the confusion that surrounds the term "last rites."

The biblical passage James 5:14-16 is considered the basis for the Roman Catholic sacrament of the anointing of the sick, formerly referred to as last rites or extreme unction:"Is there anyone sick among you? He should ask for the presbyters of the church. They in turn are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. This prayer uttered in faith will reclaim the one who is ill, and the Lord will restore him to health. If he has committed any sins, forgiveness will be his. Hence, declare your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may find healing."Source: "Anointing the Sick," the Rev. Alfred McBride, Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Assn., Washington, D.C.

When people invoke that phrase, they're usually referring to something else.

At the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Church leaders recommended calling it the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, because it "is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death" ("Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," No. 73).

Rather, it's for those who are seriously ill, and Viaticum (or "food for the journey") is now the last sacrament administered to the dying.

"I cringed when I heard the commentators talk about the Holy Father being given the last rites -- 40 years behind the current terminology," says Pat Lechtenberg, pastoral associate at St. John.

"There is still a lot of misunderstanding about the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. The short of it is that laying on of hands by presbyters and members of the early Church for the sick was normal and routine" (based on James 5:14-16).

Over hundreds of years, according to Lechtenberg, there developed a mentality that it was a ritual to be used for the dying and came to be referred to in the few hundred years before Vatican II as last rites or extreme unction.

"The Second Vatican Council restored the earlier essentials of the rite and reclaimed an understanding that it was a sacrament for anyone seriously ill in body, mind or spirit," she says.

That means that Catholics don't need to be on their deathbeds in order to receive it.

And, like Campbell, they can receive this sacrament more than once in their lifetimes.

"They always say it's for a (person with) a serious illness. Serious doesn't necessarily mean they're going to die; serious means that it's going to be a hard struggle for the person, in their faith and in their health," says the Rev. John Schmeidler, pastor at St. John.

Giving up control

The sacrament of the anointing of the sick is a fairly straightforward Catholic rite.

To administer it, a priest typically lays his hands over the person's forehead and anoints him or her with holy oil -- in the case of Lawrence-area Catholics, oil that has been blessed by Archbishop Joseph Naumann, of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

Doing so, the priest prays, "Through this holy anointing and his great love and kindness, may the Lord fill you with his Holy Spirit. May the Lord, who frees you from sin, save you and raise you up."

The sacrament is designed to give comfort to the sick and to help them to reconcile themselves to God and the church community, according to "Anointing the Sick," by the Rev. Alfred McBride of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Assn.

It also serves to help the person to have a strong, positive faith attitude and assists in physical, mental and spiritual healing.

And it actually works, according to Krische.

"It's amazing, the times that we administer that sacrament and then the people get better. I've always thought that it must give an inner kind of peace, so a person relaxes or they become more comfortable, less wearisome, less afraid," he says.

"It just seems to have such a wonderful, soothing, consoling power to it. It's built on the fact that Jesus, in his life, really was concerned about the sick and those who were in physical trouble. He showed great concern for that, and this is the Church carrying on that same ministry."

Ann Cooper, a member of St. John, remembers drawing strength from having her priests celebrate this sacrament twice for Paulina, her 6-year-old daughter, as she battled a brain tumor.

Paulina received the sacrament in Aug. 2003 after she was diagnosed with cancer and again the day she died in Sept. 2004.

"The fathers were there, Father John (Schmeidler) and Father Charles (Polifka) ... It just felt that God was in control, that at this point there wasn't anything else that could humanly be done. And that was comforting," Cooper says.

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