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Experiencing Grace through the Anointing of the Sick

Fr Chuck CunniffChuck Cunniff, CSP
February 2, 2024

“Would you like to receive the Sacrament of the Sick?”
“Oh, no… I’m not in danger of death.” 

Unfortunately, too many Catholics still orient their understanding of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick as a last anointing before death.

The words the priest says, as he anoints the person’s forehead, “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit,” and then their palms, “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up” reminds us that this sacrament is about love, mercy, and freedom. This sacrament is not about miraculous healing – it is about realizing that even in illness or our dying time that we are not alone. The Sacrament of the Sick brings us assurance that God and the community of faith is with us – physically and spiritually.

When I began my cancer journey 18 months ago, my brother Paulists here in Boston celebrated this sacrament with me. I received this sacrament in October while on a retreat and will receive it again after Mass on February 10 or 11 as part of the Paulist Center Community’s celebration of the sacrament. In receiving the sacrament, I have sensed special help of God’s grace in a time of anxiety. It has helped me as I deal with my very human fear of death. And I have been sustained by trust in God, strengthened against temptation to just give up. (Source: General Introduction, Pastoral Care of the Sick.)

Do I have times of anxiety? Yes. Do I continue to fear of death? Yes, because I am a human being who has control issues; I like things ‘my way, my time.’ But I am learning, in all aspects of life, to let go and let God. This learning brings me an abiding knowledge that I am not alone… that God is with me via people, prayer, sacraments.

Who can receive the Sacrament of the Sick? This sacrament is for those who suffer from a chronic health condition (which may or may not be visible/known to others); an addiction; aging; cancer or other life-threatening diseases; before having major surgery; or in an emergency health crisis. Someone who struggles with depression, addiction and other physical/emotional issues that impact one’s overall health may seek the sacrament early in their journey to sobriety/health as well as from time-to-time to help them through rough times – an assistance that may keep their thinking/actions on a healthy life path. Like all sacraments, the person receiving is the one who determines whether they need it or not.

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is not magic. It is not a medicine cabinet for what ails us. It is a prayerful/graceful encounter with the love of God. Over the years of my ministry, I’ve told people (in this kind of situation and others) that All will be well. My health journey may not “turn out” the way I want it, but this sacrament reinforces my belief that all will be well.