Anointing of the Sick
ROME, JULY 4, 2006 (Zenit).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My wife and I go to Mass on first Saturdays to this church where the normal priest offers confession, Mass and anointing of the sick. Now, the normal priest was not there, but our new priest stood in for the normal priest. When the Mass was over the priest said: "Before, I give the anointing of the sick, I want it to be known that I will give it only to those who are: sick, dying, have a serious illness, or in danger of losing their life. Too many people abuse this sacrament." Was he right in making that statement? -- J.C., Corpus Christi, Texas
A: I have no idea if the manner or tone of the priest's statement was done with due pastoral tact. But he is correct as to the substance of the norms for administering the anointing of the sick.
Under present norms the sacrament may be administered "as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived" (Code of Canon Law 1004 §1).
The provisions of the ritual "for the anointing of the sick and their pastoral care," issued by the Holy See, clarifies the conditions under which the sacrament may be received.
Regarding the judgment as to the seriousness of the illness the document states that: "It is sufficient to have a prudent or probable judgment about its seriousness. All anxiety about the matter should be put aside and, if necessary, the physician might be consulted."
Also: "This sacrament can be repeated if the sick person had recovered after his previous reception of anointing. It can also be conferred again if, during the same illness, his dangerous condition becomes more serious."
Major surgery is also a sufficient motivation for receiving the sacrament even if the condition is not in itself immediately life-threatening: "Before a surgical section (popularly 'operation'), holy anointing can be given to the sick person as often as the dangerous illness is the cause of this surgery."
Here the Church distinguishes between an illness that might not of itself warrant reception of the sacrament, and the same illness preceding surgery. In the latter case, anointing becomes warranted.
With reference to the elderly: "Anointing can be conferred on the aged who are greatly weakened in strength, even though there is no sign of a dangerous illness." In this case the anointing may be repeated periodically as old age progresses.
The sacrament can also be administered to sick children: "from the time they have reached the use of reason, so that they can be strengthened by this sacrament." Consequently the motive for conferring the sacrament is not (though it may include) remission of their personal sins, but to obtain the strength they may need either for bearing their sufferings, or to overcome discouragement or, if it is God's will, to be restored to health.
The sacrament may also be conferred on the unconscious if "as believers they would likely have asked for the holy anointing while they were in possession of their faculties." Likewise, if a person is apparently dead but the priest "is in doubt whether the sick person is really dead, he can give him the sacrament conditionally."
Therefore, although the Church's dispositions allow for a generous administration of the anointing of the sick, the sacrament is ordered toward the gravely ill from a physical condition. It should not be administered generally and indiscriminately.
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