By Fr. Justin A. Freeman
Sickness and serious injury are among the most isolating events that a person experiences in his life. The sick person is physically, and often, socially isolated. He or she is confined to an institution or home, prevented from participating in social and cultural avocations. The social isolation and loneliness can be more psychologically painful than the underlying disease.
Sickness also brings spiritual distress and a sense of abandonment by God and the community. Chaplains are often asked by patients why God is punishing them and whether they have been abandoned by God. The Scriptures are filled with examples of how illness brings about a crisis in faith to even the most devout believers. In Psalm 88, the psalmist laments that he is “shunned by his acquaintances” and “made loathsome” to them. Even more, the psalmist asks, “Why do you reject my soul, LORD, and hide your face from me?” (v. 15).
The sacrament of the anointing of the sick counters these isolating tendencies and sense of abandonment. It continues the healing work of Jesus, who not only brought about physical healings, but removed the barriers that kept the sick from encountering God and participating fully in the community.
The sacrament brings about communion with God and spiritual re-integration with the community of believers. For this reason, it is important that chaplains emphasize the communal nature of the sacrament by encouraging the presence of family, friends, and even medical staff whenever the sacrament is administered by a priest. In this way, the patient will know that the entire Church is praying for him or her in a particular way.
The rite of the sacrament is inherently communal. The oil is normally blessed by the diocesan bishop in the presence of his presbyterate at the Chrism Mass celebrated during Holy Week, so the Church reminds the sick that the entire community is praying for them. One of the closing prayers of the ritual asks that the person be comforted by the prayers of God’s “holy people.” Communal anointing services, which have been celebrated at the parish level since the Second Vatican Council, serve to remind the sick that the entire Church is praying for them.
Chaplains play an invaluable role in catechizing patients, family members, and staff about the communal nature of the sacrament. Chaplains can help foster a communal understanding of the sacrament in a variety of ways.
First, attempt to involve as many loved ones as possible in the celebration of the sacrament. If the patient is not imminently dying, then the family and priest can coordinate a mutually convenient time for loved ones to gather at the bedside to pray. Praying together as a family with the sick present helps to foster solidarity.
Second, invite willing medical and support staff to pray with the priest, family members, and sick person. Hospital staff have told me how powerful and meaningful it was to be included in the rites for the anointing of the sick. Once I anointed a severely ill young woman in the intensive care unit who was intubated and sedated. No family or loved ones were present. The only person in the room was the custodian, but together, she and I prayed as I anointed the patient.
Thirdly, hospital chaplains can invite patients and families to request the sacrament as soon as possible. Few things are done well in haste, and inevitably, complications might arise. As the former priest chaplain of a level one trauma center, I have anointed people in the trauma bay, while they were coding, and in the operating room. While God’s grace is still present, the inherently communal structure of the sacrament does not come through in such moments.
Chaplains have a valuable role in educating people about the communal nature of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. We can teach the sick and family members that the entire Church suffers with them and is praying for them by thoughtfully and pastorally inviting other people to participate.
Fr. Justin A. Freeman, O. de M., a Mercedarian Friar, is currently parochial vicar of St. John’s Parish in St. Pete Beach, FL.