For some, there is nothing more frustrating than being sick. Sickness runs from annoying inconvenience—like a headache or a common cold—to grave, life-threatening cases involving major surgery or incurable disease. In each case, sickness reminds us of our limitations.
Our reaction to infirmity is to seek alleviation. With a perfect understanding of the human person, Christ has provided the Church from its beginning with a spiritual as well as a corporeal remedy for our illness. We are not just flesh and bone. We are spirit, mind, and body.
In a very real sense, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has a very important community dimension. In any illness, particularly one as we near the end of our lives, we should never have to stand alone. We should not have to face infirmity without the consolation of others. In the New Testament’s Letter of St. James, the sick person is instructed to call for the presbyters (priests) of the Church for an anointing and prayers.
These presbyters represented the Christian community and its concern for the sick person. Such concern is further highlighted in the “prayer of faith” that St. James said will reclaim the one who is ill—the prayer arising from the community of faith, the Church, gathered around the sick person precisely to invoke the “name of the Lord.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “the Anointing of the Sick is a liturgical and communal celebration, whether it takes place in a family home, a hospital or church, for a single sick person or a whole group of sick persons” (CCC, no. 1517).
Increasingly today, there is an effort to bring people together for a communal celebration of this Sacrament, usually in a parish church. Since infirmity and old age constitute legitimate reasons for receiving this Sacrament, a parish can easily provide a setting for a number of parishioners to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick regularly. It can serve the purpose of the Sacrament and, at the same time, build up the faith of the community itself.
You can read more from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, order your own copy, or read questions about it at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.
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