Jesus, after his Passion, death, resurrection and ascension, did not abandon the sick, the suffering and the dying. During his earthly ministry, he had a profound care for the sick and the suffering. During his heavenly ministry at the right hand of the Father, he has that same care for the sick and the suffering.
Jesus established the church as his body on earth. Now Jesus’ ministry to the sick and suffering is not simply to those who walked the streets in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. By establishing the church, his ministry to the sick can go “to the ends of the earth.”
The preeminent way that Jesus continues to show his care for the sick and suffering through the church is by the sacrament of anointing of the sick, which Jesus himself instituted. “So they (the Apostles) went off and preached repentance. They drove out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mark 6:12-13).
St. James, in his letter, describes the essential elements of this special sacrament. “Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone in good spirits? He should sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters (priests) of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15). In what St. James says we can see that this sacrament is for the maladies of both body and soul.
The essential elements of this sacrament are the anointing with oil blessed by the bishop and the prayer of the bishop or priest when the sacrament is administered.
The prayer of blessing of the oil of the sick can help us understand this sacrament. The bishop prays, “May your blessing come upon all who are anointed with this oil, that they may be freed from pain and illness and made well again in body, mind, and soul.”
During anointing, the bishop or priest prays, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
Following upon what Christ has revealed through Scripture and tradition about this glorious sacrament, the catechism helps us to understand what exactly happens when someone receives anointing of the sick.
First, we receive a particular gift of the Holy Spirit. “The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death. This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will” (CCC, 1520).
Another thing to keep in mind about this special gift is that “‘God is love’ and love is his first gift, containing all others. ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’” (CCC, 733).
Second, through this sacrament there is special union brought about with the Passion of Christ. “By the grace of this sacrament the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion…it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus” (CCC, 1521).
There is not a mere imitation of Christ’s suffering, but an actual, real participation in Christ’s suffering, which brings about the salvation of the human race. Our suffering mysteriously contributes to our own salvation and the salvation of others.
St. Paul understands this clearly: “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which in Christ Jesus goes with eternal glory. The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:10-12).
Third, by receiving this sacrament we receive an ecclesial grace. “The sick who receive this sacrament, ‘by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,’ ‘contribute to the good of the People of God.’ By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, through the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father” (CCC, 1522). This helps us understand more clearly the second effect of the sacrament mentioned above.
Finally, it is a preparation for the final journey. “The Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it. It completes the holy anointing that mark the whole Christian life: that of Baptism which sealed the new life in us, and that of Confirmation which strengthened us for the combat of this life. This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering into the Father’s house” (CCC, 1523).
Through all of this we see that Christ wants us to be united with his suffering, so as to share definitively in the glory of his resurrection in heaven, where “he will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).