The sacraments continue the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ through time and space until the end of the world so that every person may receive his salvation, grace, love and mercy. We see this truth with particular clarity in the anointing of the sick which extends Jesus’ healing power and compassion to the suffering.

Jesus spent a significant amount of his time healing the blind, lame, deaf and lepers, as well as casting out demons and raising the dead. His ministry was an incarnation of the mercy and compassion of God the Father who wishes each person he has created to experience the wholeness and holiness of life restored to its original integrity.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, suffering and illness were often seen as punishment for sin. “It is the experience of Israel that illness is mysteriously linked to sin and evil, and that faithfulness to God according to his law restores life” #1502, Catechism of the Catholic Church. Jesus’ healing of the vast multitudes of the sick and suffering is both a foreshadowing and an extension of his victory over sin and death.

From the earliest days of the church, in the East and the West, we have evidence of liturgical traditions of anointing the sick with blessed oil and praying over them. Over the centuries, this anointing of the sick was celebrated more exclusively with persons at the point of death and so became known as extreme unction. In the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, the original practice of anointing people with serious illnesses which were not necessarily life-threatening was restored.

Who should receive the anointing of the sick?  Anyone suffering from a serious illness, facing surgery, experiencing the frailty of old age, or in danger of death should seek this sacrament. Such suffering may be physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual. Many parishes offer communal celebrations of anointing, but individuals needing the sacrament outside of these regular times should contact their parish priest. Pastors should make themselves generously available for such requests, as ministry to the sick and suffering is a significant component of Jesus’ compassionate service and thus of the church’s mission.

What does this sacrament accomplish within us? The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists four effects.

1. “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 … and 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” #1520.

2. By the grace of this sacrament, the sick person unites his suffering to Christ’s Passion and death: “in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus” #1521.

3. This sacramental union of the sick person with the death and resurrection of Christ benefits the whole People of God and contributes to the sanctification of the world.

4. The sacrament of anointing prepares us for the final journey, perfects our conformity to Jesus Christ, points us to the ultimate victory of eternal life and completes the anointings of baptism and confirmation.

As any priest can readily share, I have been blessed to be a minister of the sacrament of the sick. Through it, I have witnessed the powerful healing of Jesus, sometimes in a remarkable way. I have seen cancer disappear, deep depression lift away and a little boy suddenly wake up from a coma.

But most of the time, this sacrament simply does what the catechism says it does. Suffering members of the Body of Christ find peace, consolation and compassion. They feel the deep love of Jesus and the concern of the church. They can face surgery, illness and even death with a certain serenity because they have received the sacramental grace of the Lord. They know that their weakness, fragility and pain have a transcendent meaning because they are in deep union with the crucified and risen Christ who is the Divine Physician.