When Amy’s father, Tim, was dying of cancer, a priest came for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Tim, a lifelong practicing Catholic, an attorney, and a man considered by many as a spiritual leader in his parish, had a question for the priest: “What is heaven like?”
Amy, his adult daughter, knew that her dad didn’t exactly expect the priest to know the answer. Tim understood that the priest no more knew what heaven was like than he did. To Amy, the question represented a piece of what the sacrament can offer to the sick—comfort, reassurance, and God’s grace.
“I saw my dad’s fear and watched a priest at his best as he told my dad to think of the best day of his life,” Amy says. “My dad described a beautiful day and then the priest said, ‘That is not even a fraction of it.’ Even after my dad died, this moment has stayed with me.”
The oil used in anointing of the sick is one of the three oils blessed by every diocesan bishop at the cathedral on Holy Thursday morning. It is olive oil. Like the rest of the sacraments, the anointing of the sick has strong scriptural roots in the New Testament: “Is any one among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters [elders] 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 be in sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15).
The primary purpose of the anointing of the sick is to comfort and strengthen the soul of a sick person. As with all sacraments, anointing offers God’s grace—a grace that quiets anxiety and dissipates fear.
While anointing of the sick used to be known as “last rites” and is often primarily used with those who are gravely ill, the sacrament may be properly used in any case of sickness, regardless of whether death is presumed to be near or not.
When their parish offered anointing of the sick to anyone in the congregation who desired it, Maurita and Mike brought up their daughter Clara, then 3, whom they had recently adopted and who was having trouble speaking.
“Doctors had ordered a brain MRI as a kind of last resort looking for answers,” Maurita remembers. “There was a weekend of waiting for results when the sacrament was being offered. Our family went up, holding Clara in our arms. I remember begging God silently to let her be OK. I’ve never wanted anything more in my life. I’ve never prayed so fervently or felt such an intensity of fear. I was practically sobbing because all I could think of was that this little treasure we’d moved heaven and earth to get in our lives could have something wrong with her that would limit her potential, and how could we possibly come to terms with that?”
When the anointing was over, the family went back to their pew, and Maurita felt tremendous peace. “There I was sitting in the pew blowing my nose and wiping my tears, and all of the fear and dread was gone,” Maurita says. “My beautiful, smiling Clara was just looking around, and everything was OK again. For me it was a clear, living example of turning things over to God.”
As it turned out, doctors found no serious problems with Clara’s brain, and her speaking has improved month by month. She is now in first grade and functions well in a regular classroom. “It’s a very powerful sacrament that can offer indescribable comfort and peace if you let it,” Maurita says. “It healed me more than it healed Clara, and I was unaware of how badly I needed healing.”
—by Annemarie Scobey, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2012 Best in Class award from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past three years running. Here’s a sample issue.
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