The Sacrament of the Sick may be the most misunderstood of the seven sacraments, probably because of its informal name from years past, “Last Rites.” When you hear “Last Rites’ you see a movie scene of a somber priest who made it just in time standing beside someone gasping his last breath. It’s scary.
However, the Sacrament of the Sick is not just the emergency sacrament, though the dying should not hesitate to call a priest. Contemporary theology suggests more emphasis on sick than dying. It also stresses spiritual, psychological and emotional consolation as well as health in mind and body. It’s appropriate before someone goes into the hospital for surgery, for example. It is for serious illness, but not just when one is in the throes of one. It can be administered at the onset of illness or when the elderly indicate failing health.
Here are some suggestions for understanding the sacrament:
1. Concentrate on what it is, a sacrament to offer comfort not to foreshadow the grim reaper. Pope Benedict XVI spoke most humanly when he said that this sacrament that emphasizes “God’s unlimited goodness, must first of all bring healing to broken hearts.”
2. Make it a community experience. Even if the sacrament is administered somewhere other than at a service at church, others, such as family and friends, can be present. Allow those present to be part of the ceremony, offering some way to connect those present in their prayer for the sick person. Common prayer comforts everyone. Knowing people are praying with you and for you is a source of strength.
3. Include a symbolic gift in the service, such as a prayer shawl, a candle or card, to stand as a reminder of the sacrament and God’s grace afterwards. Some parish groups make shawls for their sick, have the pastor bless them and give them to people after they are anointed.
4. Prepare a liturgical aid for those in attendance, even just a typed out prayer or words to a favorite hymn to facilitate everyone’s participation.
5. Facilitate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Since confession is confidential, provide a way for the recipient of the sacrament to be alone with the priest for confession.
6. Prepare for reception of Holy Communion. When given to a person who is dying, it is called “Viaticum.” “Viaticum” means food for the journey and is a vivid reminder that the sacrament gives inner strength. All Catholics present can join in receiving the Eucharist.
7. Receive the sacrament anywhere, at church, at home in the living room, in a sickroom, in the hospital. While the sacrament is not an everyday event, it is not a once in a lifetime one either. It is available at any time of serious illness. In the case of long-term or chronic illness, it is appropriate to celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick regularly, particularly at significant moments such as before a major medical procedure or at times of particular struggle.
8. Understand that the rituals are about inner strength. Confession is for the forgiveness of sin and the grace to resist sin in the future; anointing with blessed oil by a priest is a rite of strengthening, a rite so sacred the church reserves administering it to the priest. Not even a deacon can anoint with blessed oil. The Viaticum is nourishment, spiritual food to help us be strong.
9. The sacrament also includes the minister’s touching the recipient, reminiscent of the healing touch of Jesus. Others can offer healing touch too, for example, by extending their hands in blessing or tracing a cross on the person’s forehead.
10. Include comforting music, perhaps of the Psalms. The church recommends several psalms for the Sacrament of the Sick. Among the more popular ones are Psalm 91, which emphasizes security under God’s protection; Psalm 116, which offers thanksgiving to God who saves from death; and Psalm 121, which emphasizes the lord as my guardian.