Sacrament of the Sick

The “Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest” emphasizes the importance of the priest in the visitation of the sick and the homebound, particularly for the purpose of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick (No. 9). Similarly, Canon Law clearly states that “only priests (bishops and presbyters) are ministers of the Anointing of the Sick. . .” (No. 1516).

Acting in the person of Jesus Christ, in persona Christi, a priest serves as the Divine Shepherd and the physician of souls and has the awe-inspiring task of assisting the sick, the old and the dying to make reparation for their sins, to offer themselves as a sacrifice for the conversion of sinners and for the good of the Church, and, if it is God’s will, to be healed and restored to health.

‘I Am Now Rejoicing in My Sufferings’

This is what St. Paul meant when he candidly said: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). This was also reflected by St. Peter when he said: “Rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Pt 4:13). Reportedly the two children of Fatima, Francisco and Jacinta, did nobly and selflessly offer their sicknesses and their deaths for the intentions of the Holy Father and the conversion of sinners. In a word, in the sick, the old and the homebound there is a tremendous powerhouse of spirituality that can be harnessed for the good of the whole Church.

Relief and Joy

W.P. Wittman photo

On one of my regular visits to a hospital, I had to minister to a lady who had a serious infection in the lower right leg that caused her both intense pain and heartbreaking distress. When I identified myself as a Catholic priest and chaplain, her eyes lit up with relief and joy. She sincerely confessed that, although she had strayed from the Church and from the regular practice of her religion, she would like to make her peace with God. Next she devoutly received the Sacraments of Reconciliation, the Anointing of the Sick and the Holy Eucharist. The joy on her face was an unmistakable index of the peace and joy that flooded her soul in that sacred, blissful and reassuring encounter.

From the human standpoint, she was receiving nothing short of the best treatment. However, the progress was slow and unpredictable, causing the lady much anxiety. Thereafter I visited her on five different occasions, and each time I noticed a manifest change for the better. At our final meeting, she joyfully informed me that she had made such good progress that the doctors were ready to have her discharged and admitted to a rehabilitation center, so that, with physical therapy and nursing care, she could resume her normal life. Her joy truly knew no bounds, and her gratitude was heartwarming and reassuring. Sickness, in God’s providential design, can serve to bring prodigals back to the Father and a renewed dedication to the Christian faith.

Father Edwin Gordon, a law graduate, seasoned pastor and much-loved retreat master, tells us that he once had to be admitted to an isolation hospital as a patient for several months. Next to him in the ward was a man (let us call him Ben) who had a brain tumor and was dying. In the course of their conversations, he learned that Ben had once been a priest but had quit the active ministry and married. Sadly, his wife committed suicide. This traumatic blow was so severe that Ben had also tried to take his own life. He was then a soldier in the war and became a POW. On his release, Ben became the landlord of a public house and then, much later, married a young woman of 28 who never came to see him.

A Return to God and the Church

With fraternal sympathy and priestly solicitude, Father Gordon asked Ben if he would like to return to God and the Church. Willingly Ben agreed. So Father Gordon began with the Sacrament of Reconciliation and then administered the Sacrament of the Anointing. Finally, he dared to do something truly audacious. He invited Ben to join him in the chapel, where he offered the Mass and administered the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

Two nights later, Ben was dying and this is how Father Gordon frames that final encounter: “I said the prayers for the dying, ‘Go forth, O Christian soul, in the name of God the Father who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you, and in the name of the Holy Spirit who sanctified you!’ The shepherd in the mist had returned to the Eternal and Good Shepherd. Perhaps someone like Francisco or Jacinta was praying for the conversion of sinners and Ben had come back through them.”

It is very interesting to note that, when commissioning His apostles for their ministry, Jesus clearly and emphatically enjoined on them a dual responsibility: to preach and to heal. In other words, he wished to emphasize a joint concern for humans: soul and body.

Words, no matter how comforting, can never be an adequate substitute for deeds; ministering to the eternal welfare of people is as important as ameliorating their temporal condition. True religion is far more than “pie in the sky.” In a word, Jesus left no doubt whatsoever that the health of people’s bodies was an integral part of God’s purpose as health to their souls.

Body and Soul

William Barclay once said that nothing has done the Church more harm than the repeated statement that the things of this world do not matter. For instance, in the middle thirties of the last century, unemployment invaded many respectable homes.

The father’s skill was rusting in idleness; the mother was trying to make a shilling do what a pound ought to do. Children could not understand what was going on except that they were hungry. Men grew bitter or broken. To go and tell such people that material things make no difference was unforgivable, especially if the teller was in reasonable comfort himself. The Church will forget only at her peril that Jesus first sent out his men to preach the kingdom and to heal, to save people in body and in soul.

Father Edwin Gordon relates his personal experience with a young woman in her 30s who was terminally ill with cancer. He took her, her husband and her son to the Shrine of our Blessed Lady at Lourdes. There the patient found great consolation in seeing our Blessed Lady at the foot of the Cross, resolutely standing beside her dying Son while the sword of sorrow pierced her aching heart, thereby sharing in his redemptive mission by her own sufferings.

‘I Have Offered Everything’

Father Gordon suggested to that young woman that she too offer herself to Jesus through Mary in her personal sufferings. An aggressive cancer had reduced the patient to a skeleton, and so she said to Father Gordon, “Father, I have offered everything.” Indeed there was nothing more that she could offer. To her husband and 14-year-old son that remark was a great consolation. Only then did they realize that she had given everything to Jesus and that her impending death was not the end but the beginning of a new and marvelous life in Christ Jesus, a life of unending peace and everlasting happiness.

“May he support us all the day long till the shades lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging and a Holy rest and peace at last!” — Blessed John Henry Newman, Sermon 20, Wisdom and Innocence (1834)

FATHER VALLADARES writes from Myrtle Bank, South Australia.