At the 2004 National Catholic Deacon’s Conference in Baltimore the bishop gave a humorous address to the deacons and their wives about the difference between men and women.
“Women,” His Excellency began, “when they are sick but there is still much to do, go into the bathroom, take a couple of aspirin, put a cold cloth on their face, take a deep breath, and then put on a brave face and go out to meet the day’s needs. On the other hand, when a man is sick his first reaction is to tell his wife, ‘Honey, call the priest: I need the anointing of the sick!’”
The point of the story is, of course, that women are a lot stronger than men—and not as ready to call up their priest for the anointing of the sick.
Of the seven sacraments of the Church perhaps none underwent more transformation than Extreme Unction which is now known as The anointing of the sick. Sure, in baptism the rite has been cut short—but baptismal ceremonials per the 1961 Collectio Rituum can still be provided to this day. Penance became a face-to-face affair that occasionally degenerated into free psycho-spiritual analysis. Holy Communion may be received in the hand—but the option to receive on the tongue is still available—and reception of Christ’s blood is strictly optional. Marriage remained more or less unchanged. Confirmation was dialed down (no more fear of getting “slapped” by the bishop), and ordination to the priesthood retained the matter of the sacrament (the laying-on of hands) while disposing of some wonderful items like the linen with which the priests hands are wrapped, which was then presented to the newly minted priest’s mother who was buried with it.
However, Extreme Unction became something almost altogether new: what was once reserved for the dying became a sacrament for those suffering from a severe or even chronic illness. These are two totally different things. Indeed, one time I confused them.
Soon after cancer surgery, I developed an infection with a high fever. Like a true “man” that the bishop described above, I decided to call for my parish priest, but he could not be reached. So I called, unwittingly, a local Tridentine chapel on their emergency line. I told the priest that I was very sick and could he please come and anoint me.
The priest responded politely but with concern, “Are you dying?” I responded that I had recently had cancer surgery, and at present had a very high temperature. After a pause about the length of a Hail Mary the priest asked, “Are you in the hospital?” I answered that I had been in the hospital, but was now home. Another brief pause brought this query from the presbyter, “Are you married?” At this point I didn’t know where the priest was going with any of this, so I spouted out, “Yes, father: I am married. My wife is a registered respiratory therapist and she is caring for me at our home…” He stopped me there and asked, “Does your wife think that you are dying?” I stopped and asked Alicia, “The priest wants to know if you think I’m dying.” Alicia said quite sanely: “I think you are very sick and very scared.”
Which was my response to the priest: “My wife says I’m very sick and scared—but she doesn’t think I’m dying.” The priest, whose name I never learned then measured out his answer: “I think your wife is right: you are very sick, and I’m sure you are frightened: but you are not dying. The sacrament of Extreme Unction is for the dying…” Before he could continue I blurted out, “Then what should I do?!”
The priest recommended, “Since you are not a parishioner at our chapel, I suggest you contact your parish priest for the anointing of the sick…” interrupting him again I stated, “I did try to reach him, but I can’t get an answer so I called you!”
Undeterred the priest responded, “There are many many other parishes nearby: I’m sure that there is a priest who will give you the anointing of the sick. I will pray for your recovery. But it sounds like you are in good hands with a wife who is a medical professional—and who doesn’t think you are dying.”
Sure enough a priest from another parish did come and anoint me. The fever dropped overnight, and I recovered enough to commence radiation treatments.
Not long after all of this self-created drama I attended a daily Mass at my parish. At the homily the pastor said that “This is our monthly healing Mass: anyone who feels that they are sick—whether in body, soul, mind or spirit—is welcome to come up and receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.” Much to my surprise everyone went up to the sanctuary to receive the sacrament of anointing. Since I wasn’t feeling particularly ill that day, I did not. But I was the only one who didn’t.
Since then, I have attended that weekday “Healing Mass” a couple of time—never on purpose—and always with the same result: everyone goes up to get anointed.
Part of me thinks that, since this Mass is pre-announced in the bulletin, parishioners must make a special trip to it: that is, they go to this Mass specifically to receive the anointing of the sick.
However, I was taught to believe the only time you can miss Mass is when you are so sick that you can’t attend it—either because you’d possibly get others sick, or you literally can’t get out of bed due to a high fever or some other serious malady.
Perhaps like the men who lower the sick man down through the roof in the Gospel story, the good souls who attend this once-a-month weekday healing Mass bring the sick into the sanctuary so that they can both participate in Holy Mass and be anointed, and hopefully, healed.
However, sometimes I wonder how sick all these people actually are. Certainly I do not propose to know what is in another person’s soul or body: the healthiest looking person may be ravaged with cancer or the opening stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Perhaps another person is struggling with mental illness or their own personal “Dark Night Of The Soul.” Indeed, during the anointing it is not totally foreign for some people to faint and be laid-out in the front of the sanctuary.
Again: I’m no doctor. But I’m curious if we haven’t created some “generic-confusion” among the sacraments. The sacrament of penance is the cure for the soul (and everyone always simply “feels better” after making a good confession) and also a preparation for Holy Communion. Indeed, the times that I did receive the anointing of the sick in the hospital or even at my house, the priest heard my confession first—something that was noticeable by its absence at this “Healing Mass.”
This same parish offers the sacrament of penance on Saturdays and also, in a refreshing change of pace, on Monday nights. The latter is based on a practice imposed during Lent by our Bishop who has all parishes open every Monday night from 7pm–8:30pm for confession during Lent. So this parish retained that year-round: a very worthy and laudable practice, especially since they include a Holy Hour with vespers and Eucharistic exposition, adoration and Benediction.
However, whenever I’ve attended Holy Hour there, which is not often, there are never more than ten people including four priests and a nun. On the Saturdays when I’ve gone to Confession at this church, there is not the same large crowd I found at the Healing Mass.
Perhaps it is because the Healing Mass is a once-a-month-affair, while confessions are heard twice a week, but there are fewer people present at reconciliation than at the anointing.
But I fear that maybe we’ve watered down the anointing of the sick to the point where it is not unlike Palm Sunday or Ash Wednesday: a day when lots of people show up because the Church is giving something out. True, this is a cynical observation and I hope a wrong one on my part. I have enough trouble keeping my own soul and motives in order, let alone judge any one else’s—after all: what do I know of their suffering or they of mine? However, as confession is usually a part of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick in fullest form, I do sincerely hope that those who regularly attend the Healing Mass avail themselves of the sacrament of penance as well: it always makes me feel better.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Extreme Unction” painted by Nicolas Poussin, circa 1637-40.