When I was a kid, my grandparents had a crucifix on their bedside table.
It was a special kind of crucifix, though. It didn’t hang on the wall. They laid it flat.
And, you could open it up! The top slid off the base and fit into a groove at the top so the crucifix part was upright. Inside the base were two candles that fit on either side of the cross (where Jesus’ hands would be), a small holy water bottle, and a tiny sheet of prayers.
I was always fascinated by it. I used to go in their room and set it up. Only years later, as an adult, did I figure out what it was. Do you know?
It was a Last Rites kit.
Last Rites is a set of sacraments and prayers you can receive just before you die. You get Confession, Anointing of the Sick, Eucharist (known here as Viaticum), and the prayers for the dying. The idea was, if you’re on your death bed, the priest could come in and set up a little prayer corner to give you Last Rites.
Now that I think about it, it’s kind of morbid having that at your bedside all the time. I guess they were prepared…which is a good thing. And, it ties into the pointy I want to make: when it comes to the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, call early, don’t wait!
Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven sacraments. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this sacrament gives special grace of healing and comfort to those experiencing difficulties from grave illness or old age. While physical healing is possible if it leads to increased faith and salvation, the primary benefit is spiritual and emotional healing and strength.
The sacrament of anointing should be received when “the believer begins to be in danger of death because of illness or old age” (CCC 1528). “Begins” is an important word. This sacrament used to be called Extreme Unction because over the centuries it was given more and more exclusively just before death. It was the unction (anointing) at the extreme (near death).
This practice caused problems and led the Church to do a kind of “re-branding” of the sacrament…hence the name change.
A woman once told me the story of her father’s hospitalization for surgery. She lived in another city but her sister was there taking care of the details. The woman asked if a priest had gone to give their father Anointing of the Sick. Her sister said, “No way! If Dad sees a priest, it will scare him out of his wits. He’ll think it’s more serious than it is.” The implication being, you only see a priest when you’re about to die.
Sometimes people wait until it’s too late! Their loved ones die before the priest can get there! Think of all the grace they missed. Remember, with Anointing of the Sick, call early, don’t wait!
What grace will you miss? First, there’s strengthening, peace, and courage from the Holy Spirit. Fear is the most debilitating thing about illness. You don’t know what’s coming next, and you’re powerless to stop it. You’re tempted to give up hope. The sacrament strengthens you against that.
Grave illness and old age also brings feelings of inadequacy and uselessness. When health issues increase, people can’t do what they once did. They can’t travel, they can’t work, and can’t be productive. This can lead to discouragement, despair, and the loss of self-worth.
Anointing of the Sick gives the grace to suffer well…and that’s a powerful thing. Your suffering offered in union with the Cross of Christ is the most effective intercession imaginable. You’re not useless, you’re empowered.
Christ’s suffering saved the whole human race. United with him, you are consecrated to participate in his saving work and bear special fruit. This sacrament not only helps you to deal gracefully with illness, the frailty of old age, and suffering…it helps the whole Church.
The thing to remember about Anointing of the Sick—call early, don’t wait! Don’t wait until things get terrible, get the sacrament early. Don’t wait until a grave illness gets worse. From the start of trouble, get God’s grace working for you.
What sounds better, dealing with anxiety, fear, and uncertainty on your own, or receiving God’s peace, courage, and strength through this sacrament? I’d go with the last one. It’s the beauty of Catholicism.