After Jesus had gathered his disciples, he sent them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God (Mark 6: 1–13). He instructed them to travel light, to trust in God to provide for them, and to preach repentance to the people. In Jesus’ name the disciples “ … drove out many demons. They anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mark 6:13). The disciples were Jesus’ ambassadors with a mission to tell people that they were not alone, that the healing touch of God was in their midst.
After Jesus death, resurrection and ascension into heaven, the Church continued to carry out the mission to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil. The Letter of James reflects the teaching of the early Church.
Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters 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)
Today we celebrate God’s care and concern for the seriously ill and the elderly through the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. In celebrating this sacrament special graces are conferred on those who are experiencing the difficulties that come from serious illness or old age. The sacrament is not celebrated to heal the person physically, although that may happen if God so wills. As a source of grace, Anointing of the Sick helps the recipients grow in faith and trust in God. No matter what their condition is, they are not alone. Jesus Christ is present, healing them in a fundamental way.
A Healing Touch
In his biography, The Manner is Ordinary, Fr. John LaFarge, SJ wrote of his experiences of ministering the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, then called Extreme Unction. When he was a young priest at the beginning of the twentieth century, Fr. LaFarge spent eight months as a chaplain on Blackwell’s Island. This was an island next to Manhattan Island in New York City where poor people were taken when they became sick and helpless. Fr. LaFarge estimated that during those eight months he administered the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick about three thousand times. One old woman who was mentally ill stuck in his mind. She would yell and scream and flail about so much that they had to tie her to the bed. Nothing seemed to be able to calm her down. “Yet,” Fr. LaFarge recalled, “the moment I merely touched the edge of her eyelid with the holy oils, she relaxed, fell back quietly on the bed, took a deep breath and from that time on until her death was peaceful, tranquil, and rational.”
Fr. Lafarge reflected that God had been good to his word. “He was a hundred percent ‘there,’ in a vigorous, dramatic manner that often took my breath away.”