That evening, at sundown, they brought to [Jesus] all who were sick or possessed with demons. The whole city was gathered together about the door (Mark 1:32-33).
Anyone who has ever experienced illness or sickness before, especially if it’s a chronic illness, could understand the desperation of the crowds who sought out Jesus in hopes that He might heal them. Illness, we know all too well, is one of the unpleasant effects of man’s fall in the Garden. But more than that, if we’re not attentive to it, the suffering caused by illness is also something that can lead to self-absorption, despair and even a rejection of God altogether (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1501).
Because of the serious effects that illness and suffering can have on our relationship with God, healing played a big part in Jesus’ public ministry. This emphasis on the need for healing is something that has continued throughout the history of the Church. We’ve already looked at Confession, the Church’s first Sacrament of Healing. So, this month we’ll look at the second one, Anointing of the Sick.
St. James, in his New Testament letter, describes how this healing Sacrament was administered in the early Church: Are any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters (priests) of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (James 5:14-15).
Our use of the Sacrament of Anointing has developed over the years to be understood as a Sacrament reserved to those who are at the point of death, but it has also been affirmed time and time again, that our use of the Sacrament of Anointing “has never failed to beg the Lord that the sick person may recover his health if it be conducive to his salvation” (Council of Trent, 909).
In the days of the early Church oil was commonly used in the secular realm for instances of physical combat, including wrestling matches; this was because oil made it difficult for one’s opponent to get a strong grip on someone. Thus, the Church applied this meaning to the spiritual realm. Oil blessed or consecrated for Sacramental use was used with the understanding that the grace given through the holy oil made it difficult for the Enemy (Satan) to gain a stronghold on the person.
Since the moments leading up to the time of death can sometimes be filled with moments of intense suffering and pain, through the Sacrament of Anointing, the Church has taken great care to aid and protect the dying during those last difficult moments, especially since pain and suffering can be used by the Enemy to lead souls away from God through despair or even rejection.
This great Sacrament of Anointing is yet another defense against the Enemy’s attacks. The specific grace given by it is to be strengthened and encouraged “to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death” (CCC 1520).
Father Michael Bovino