Jesus is with us always

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26 Jun 2024

The Sacrament of the anointing of the sick highlights for us that Jesus is with us in sickness and in good health.

This year Pope Francis has focused many of his intentions on people who receive the Catholic Sacraments.

In July he prays for those who receive the anointing of the sick.

In the world of Jesus’ time many people were anointed with oil, particularly kings. It was also used to sign off on solemn contracts between people. Its most common use was in the care of the sick, and especially to soothe pain.

In his Gospel St Mark describes Jesus instructing his disciples as they go on mission to anoint people whom they healed. In Jesus’ parable, too, the Good Samaritan pours oil on the mugged man’s wounds. Jesus also defended the woman who poured oil over his head on the grounds that she was anointing him for his death. Scented oil sweetened the pains both of living and dying.

The anointing of the sick in the Catholic Church is based on the Letter of St James 5.14. James says,

‘Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.’

This practice of anointing the sick became common in the Church. It was later focused on those who were close to death, and in popular thought was confined to them. Its title name Extreme Unction suggested its finality. As a result, many people were afraid of being anointed because it seemed like a death sentence

The Second Vatican Council insisted that the Sacrament was for those seriously ill, not just for the dying. It also changed its name to the anointing of the sick. In many Catholic Churches the Sacrament is celebrated regularly within a Mass where the elderly and those suffering from illness are anointed. They can find strength in the Sacrament. It brings home the message of the Gospel that we can find Jesus in sickness and death as well as in life and good health. That is why Pope Francis prays for God’s power given through the Sacrament. It is shown not only in physical health but in serenity of spirit and acceptance of the trials of illness, pain and ageing.

Pope Francis does not confine his prayer to people who receive the Sacrament. He prays also for all who gather around the person who is anointed.

As with other Sacraments it blesses and strengthens the church community as well as the person who receives it directly. When people gather they share in the compassion of Christ that the sick person experiences. The Sacrament can also allay the fears and strengthen the hope of the ill persons and that of the community who care for them.

The anointing of the sick is an everyday sacrament in an everyday world. It also reminds us, of course, that Christ’s love and compassion are anything but every day.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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