Theological Reflection: Sacrament of the Sick

Since the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has undergone a remarkable development in practice. Where once it was only given only to those members of “the faithful who … from infirmity or old age become in danger of death,”1 the Church, by means of this sacrament, now “commends to the suffering and glorified Lord the faithful who are dangerously ill [periculose aegrotantes] so that he may support and save them.”2 The specific reference to the danger of death in the 1917 Code is conspicuous by its absence from the 1983 Code. This change, in fact, as well as the change in the very name of the sacrament from Extreme Unction (or ‘final anointing’) to the Anointing of the Sick, was made “in an endeavour to make it clear that it ‘is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death,’”3 but for “any man sick among you” (Jas 5:14) whose illness is serious.

By extending the gift of this Sacrament to more of Christ’s faithful who are in suffering, including those with chronic illnesses and even mental illnesses which constitute a real share in the Cross, even though they may not place them in immediate danger of death, the Church implicitly acknowledges the dignity and the particular “vocation of the sick.”4 Indeed, “the sick, especially the chronically ill, share in the Church’s life and mission … United to Christ, the baptized and confirmed ‘sick person is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive passion.’”5 The Sacrament of Anointing is not only the means by which the Church intercedes for her suffering son or daughter to receive strength and healing, though it is certainly that; it also renews and deepens the sick person’s union with the suffering Christ, that they might “fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ” (Col 1:24 DRA) by their own bodily participation in His redemptive Passion. Therefore the Church consoles the sick that their “sickness has meaning and value for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world.”6 

This affirmation of the dignity of the sick and of their participation in the Church’s mission precisely by means of their sickness is of critical importance in increasingly decadent, secular Western societies such as ours, which, through the habitual and legal practice of euthanasia, tacitly deny the value of suffering and degrade the dignity of the sick and aged. Often those who are chronically ill or disabled, particularly the elderly, can fall into depression and despair. They may feel that their life is as good as over, that they no longer have any role to play or any meaningful impact to make in the world. Against such diabolic lies, the Church insists with a mother’s solicitude that the sick may yet “contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ,”7 in particular “to offer their sufferings for missionaries,” by which offering “the sick themselves become missionaries!”8 Rather than only marking the end of a Christian’s pilgrimage through life and sending him on his final journey to the heavenly homeland, the Anointing of the Sick now serves to fortify and exhort a Christian soul in suffering to do their part in the battle for the world’s salvation, a part which they are uniquely suited to play: “Some work of noble note may yet be done.”9


Footnotes

  1. “Fideles qui … ob infirmitatem vel senium in periculo mortis versetur.” Code of Canon Law/1917, c. 940, in Codex iuris canonici 1917, at Biblia Clerus, http://www.clerus.org. Translation mine.
  2. Code of Canon Law, c. 998, in Code of Canon Law Annotated (Woodridge: Midwest Theological Forum, 2004), 764.
  3. Code of Canon Law Annotated, 764. Inner quote is from Paul VI, Sacrosanctum concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] (December 4, 1963), 73.
  4. Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook (Portland, OR: Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, 2018), 12.1.7.
  5. ALH, 12.1.6. Inner quote is from Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1521; cf. also CCC 1294, 1523.
  6. Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum, trans. and ed. International Commission on English in the Liturgy (Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1983), 1.
  7. ALH, 12.1.5.
  8. John Paul II, qtd. in S. de Boer, “The Collective Anointing of the Weak,” Questions liturgiques 76 (1995), 74.
  9. Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses,” 52, at poets.org.

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