Twice I have received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. The first time was four years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer; the second, a couple weeks ago when I learned that the breast cancer had metastasized.
The sacrament involved both the sacrament of reconciliation and the anointing of my head and hands. It immersed me in the love of the church, a profound experience that drove home the fact that as part of the Christian community, I do not stand alone when facing troubled times.
On both occasions, friends joined me as our pastor came to my home to lead the service. It included my favorite prayer, Psalm 139, which reminds us that God is familiar with all our ways, knowing us from our very beginnings and standing with us through everything.
I’ve known others to receive the sacrament with only a spouse or children present and still others who have received the sacrament as part of a parish experience and still others who embraced the sacrament with only the priest who administered it. One friend, a college professor, received the sacrament in 2002 and 2008 before students and colleagues, certainly an educational experience not soon forgotten by anyone present.
Despite these examples, however, research shows that the sacrament is both misunderstood and underutilized, even by church-going Catholics, people who go to Mass at least once a week. According to a report six years ago from the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, only 63 percent of those who attend Mass weekly or more have requested the sacrament for themselves or an immediate family member. CARA said that only 45 percent reported they considered it “very important to them to receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick at some point.”
There are gender differences too. More women (57 percent) than men (45 percent) have requested the sacrament. And younger Catholics are less likely than older ones to seek the sacrament when ill.
The situation suggests an educational challenge for the Catholic Church.
Misconceptions need to be addressed. Once known as Extreme Unction and the last rites, the sacrament of the anointing of the sick used to be practically synonymous with imminent death. The very name “last rites” scared some people and became unwanted reality therapy for others. Depending upon one’s viewpoint, it became a last step in the leaving of life or a first step toward the new life in eternity.
For some the misunderstanding goes even further afield. The sacrament of the sick is for the living, yet one pastor told me ruefully that he had just received a call from a widow who wanted him to administer the sacrament to her husband who had just died.
A sacrament, once defined in the Baltimore Catechism as “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace,” is powerful, both in testimony to what it represents and in realty, what it gives—in this instance, healing of the soul and sometimes the body. The Catholic community deprives itself of comfort and grace when the anointing of the sick is underutilized. Perhaps it is time for an educational campaign to alert church-going Catholics of how much the anointing of the sick has to offer.
Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is U.S. Church Correspondent for America.