January 23 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Sacrament gives strength and comfort to all

In light of his research, DEACON HENRY McKenna provides a detailed insight into the importance of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick ahead of the World Day of the Sick on February 11

Ordained to the permanent diaconate in September 2012 and with the approval of my bishop I was fortunate in being allowed to further develop my studies. However, having completed my studies is not as important as the knowledge I have gained from my studies. My thesis consisted of researching deeper into hospital ministry and the importance of the Sacrament of ‘Anointing the Sick.’

The research gave me an insight into hospital ministry and in dealing with families who were experiencing the difficulties of having their loved ones hospitalised. For families the news of a loved one having to be taken into hospital or being

diagnosed with an illness serious or not can come as a huge shock. Whilst the hospital staff and the doctors are marvellous in the care they provide, where does the responsibility of the family come in?

The Catholic Church has in place an important Sacrament to help the sick and the family during these difficult times. Among the Church’s seven Sacraments, the ‘Anointing of the Sick’ is especially meant to strengthen those who are being tried by

illness both physically and spiritually. This Sacrament is often the last Sacrament received by a Christian during their lifetime. The summary and conclusion of my studies pointed to the need to educate families of the importance and the proper time to have their loved one receive the Sacrament of ‘Anointing.’

The Church has always shown great concern for this Sacrament and has never ceased to celebrate the importance and existence of the Sacrament towards its members. Pope Francis’ message of the 23rd World Day of the Sick reinforces our Christian vocation to care for the sick when he reminds us of our Christian vocation. He calls this sapientia cordis meaning the ‘wisdom of the heart.’

“Occasionally our world forgets the special value of time spent at the bedside of the sick, since we are in such a rush; caught up as we are in a frenzy of doing, of producing, we forget about giving ourselves freely, taking care of others, being responsible for others,” the Holy Father said. “Behind this attitude there is often a lukewarm faith which has forgotten the Lord’s words: “You did it unto me’ “(Matthew 25:40). This ‘sapientia cordis,’ which is a gift of God, is a compendium of the fruits of the World Day of the Sick.”

The Second Vatican Council under the authority of Pope Paul VI declared that: “In public and private Catechesis, the Faithful should be educated to ask for the Sacrament of anointing and as soon as the right time comes, to receive it with full faith and devotion. They should not follow the wrongful practice of delaying the reception of the Sacrament. Indeed, all who care for the sick should be taught the meaning and purpose of the Sacrament. However, it may not be given indiscriminately or to any person, whose health is not seriously impaired, therefore without scruple, a prudent and reasonable sure judgement is sufficient for deciding on the seriousness of an illness and if necessary a doctor may be consulted.”

It is never easy for a person to experience the reality of an illness or to be hospitalised, however having now been a hospital chaplain for the past six months, my experience to date is one of concern as there is a clear need to educate families of the meaning and the proper time to receive the Sacrament of ‘Anointing the Sick.’ This has become apparent because of the sick who are—on occasions—not receiving this Sacrament. Perhaps this is because belief among Christians is that the Sacrament is only intended for those who are at the point of death, which, in spite of not being reserved for those near death, is sometimes mistakenly supposed to be what is meant by ‘the

last rites.’


Hospital ministry is both fulfilling and rewarding as it allows me the opportunity and privilege to journey with the sick person and their families throughout their illness. It is a very humbling experience to be a part of someone’s life especially as they experience the emotions of fear, anxiety, and vulnerability and in some cases death. To pray with a family at the bedside of someone who is in danger of death is indeed a very humbling experience.

My research topic consisted of exploring how Catholic hospital chaplains maintain committed spiritual lives in the light of the pressures and

emotional demands made on them. These emotions are highlighted when dealing with illness, tragedy, suffering, death, especially children and the demands they may find themselves facing. ‘Anointing of the Sick’ can only be administered by a bishop or priest when the sick are in danger of death, however the Sacrament has a deeper meaning and can and should be administered as a means of strength and recovery for the sick person.

This research topic interested me because of the experience my family faced. My dad unexpectedly became ill and was admitted into hospital a few years ago and my parish priest came along to the hospital and administered the Sacrament of ‘Anointing the Sick.’ Sadly that same day my father passed away, however the comfort my family received from knowing that my father had been fortified by the Rites of the Catholic Church gave us the comfort of knowing that he would share in the Eternal banquet of the Lord and that he will rise on the last day. We believe as Christians that those who receive this Sacrament have their sins forgiven and are prepared to face death knowing that they have the food for their journey.

This is especially important if the sick person is near death because the sacrament of the sick is preparation for the final journey and ‘completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as our Baptism began it.” (CCC1523) This Sacrament is also called Sacramentum Exeuntium translated as ‘The Sacrament of those departing.’

Pope Paul VI in his Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium 73 clarifies that the proper time for receiving this holy anointing has certainly arrived when the believer begins to be in danger of death because of illness or old age. It also clarifies in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1529 that each time a Christian falls seriously ill, they may receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and in fact the Sacrament can be administered again and again. The Sacrament has as its purpose the conferral of a grace which may indeed have the result that the sick person fully recovers.


This Sacrament is a particular gift of the Holy Spirit. The first grace of this Sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage 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 in us, 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. This assistance from the Lord by the power of His Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will. Furthermore, if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

Whilst the staff employed in hospitals are caring professional people and have the information at hand to contact a priest for the sick that are close to death, families have the responsibility to ensure that the time to administer the Sacrament is not lost. The time to administer the Sacrament has arrived each time the Christian falls seriously ill or when ever someone is to go into hospital, this can be simply for a routine operation or a means whereby the

person has the added grace of the Sacrament (right) to strengthen them to recover. This Sacrament is not solely for those who are in imminent danger of death, but indeed for people who are suffering from sickness and old age. The Sacrament can be given to the sick, before an operation, a life threatening illness or before it became necessary.

All hospitals reserve the right of confidentiality towards their patients and this can be an obstacle for the priest or deacon when visiting the sick. The nature of confidentiality whilst is an important aspect of protecting those who are hospitalised, can also lessen the opportunity for the sick to receive Holy Communion when the priest or deacon are visiting. Families should at the earliest opportunity make the priest or deacon aware of their loved ones being

hospitalised in order that the sick receive a visit and more importantly they have the opportunity to receive the ‘Anointing of the Sick.’

The Catechism also affirms the power and effects of the Sacrament in the form of a special grace. The special grace of the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick has as its effects; uniting the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church, to give courage and strengthen the sick person during their sufferings, to forgive their sins, the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of their soul and in preparation for passing over to eternal life.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1527 emphasises the power of this grace, the Sacrament of anointing the sick has as its purpose the conferral of a special grace on the Christian experiencing the difficulties inherent in the condition of grave illness or old age.

After the Council of Florence had described the essential elements of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the Council of Trent in 1551 declared that it was of divine institution and made true the Doctrine of ‘Anointing the Sick’ that Christ instituted as a Sacrament based on Sacred Scripture as intimated in Mark’s Gospel (6:13) and made visible in James. The Second Vatican Council added ‘Extreme Unction’ or properly called ‘anointing of the sick’ is not solely a Sacrament for those at the point of death.

We read in Sacred Scripture from James 5:14-15 of the importance that Jesus Himself lays on the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick and to those who can validly administer the Sacrament. This Sacrament was instituted by Christ and is attested by St James: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the

presbyters 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.” As the Sacrament is intended for the well being of the Christian it is imperative that the Faithful come to understand its importance and indeed the proper time to have the Sacrament administered.


In addition to the Anointing of the Sick, the Church offers those who are about to leave this life the Eucharist as Viaticum, translated in Latin as ‘provision for the journey.’ Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of ‘passing over’ to the Father, has a particular

significance and importance. It is the seed of Eternal life and the power of the Resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day.” The Sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the

Sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father.

Pope Paul VI summarises the graces conferred by this Sacrament, which are described in the introduction to the Rite of Anointing. The Prayer of absolution contains a Trinitarian and Ecclesiology dimension whereby the Paschal Mystery and the dignity of the human person are identified: “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Trinitarian). Then the priest extends his hands over the penitents head and says: ‘God, the Father of mercies, (Trinitarian) through the death and Resurrection of His Son (Paschal Mystery) has reconciled the world to himself (The Dignity of the Human Person) and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church (Ecclesiology) may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”


Kenan B Osborne identifies the role the Church has to take seriously in regard to the future of the shortage of priests. The Church’s care for the sick today remains a pastoral problem of no small dimension. If one views the Sacrament of Anointing from a wider perspective, then the extreme shortage of priests in many countries automatically precludes the anointing of the Sick for a vast majority of Catholic Christian communities throughout the world that do not have a resident priest. If the lack of Sunday Eucharist becomes a major pastoral problem, then the lack of a priest for the ‘Anointing of the Sick’ is of at least equal proportion.

To be present when the priest is administering this important Sacrament is of a comforting and humbling experience. As Christians we must ensure that the opportunity for to receive this Sacrament is not lost and therefore we should be vigilant and be responsible to contact the priest at the first instance of an illness or a family member being hospitalised. This ensures that the sick person has received the relevant

dispositions that the Sacrament brings to help them recover or to have a glimpse of the ‘Beatific vision’ of seeing God face to face. It is a responsibility that all Christians should be aware off and take seriously.

Finally, when the Church cares for the sick, it serves Christ himself in the suffering members of his Mystical Body. When it follows the example of the Lord Jesus, who ‘went about doing good and healing all,’ (Acts 10:38) the Church obeys His command to care for the sick (Mark 16:18).


— Deacon Henry McKenna is currently a serving hospital chaplain in Motherwell Diocese





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