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Why Anointing of the Sick matters

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The value of Anointing of the Sick transcends the simple expectation of physical recovery, according to James Starke, diocesan director of Divine Worship.

“The application of oil, especially blessed oil, by human hands is comforting. In a world in which we often shy away from illness and death, the anointing is a moment when those who are ill do receive the comfort of being touched by another person and not being neglected,” said Starke.

People who receive the anointing shouldn’t expect to be instantly or miraculously healed of their ailments, nor should they become disillusioned if they don’t feel or notice improvements in their health or outlook, according to Starke.

“We do hope and pray for a physical recovery,” said Starke. “If someone has received it and is disappointed, they should ask their pastor to give them the prayers from the rite so that they can look it over and see, ‘What is it that I’m praying for?’ Maybe they feel disappointed because their expectations are different from what the rite is actually designed to do. Physical healing can be there — but it’s also about entering more deeply into the life and work of Christ. Every moment when we have an opportunity to do that, especially when it involves giving a new perspective to our suffering, is advantageous.”

Oil, a medicinal treatment used for many ceremonies in ancient times, was once used to anoint soldiers going into battle as a sign of strength, healing and protection. Its origin in Christian tradition begins with the Letter of St. James, which speaks of group prayer for the sick and anointing with oil.

“Oil is a medicinal element that is beneficial in general terms. It would have been used prior to Christianity as remedy for any sort of ailment, including inflammation,” said Starke.

Related: Bishop encourages the sick to offer their suffering for the church

However, those who receive the Anointing of the Sick should not do so with an exclusive focus on perceiving the oil’s medical benefits.

“It’s not necessarily about relieving our sense of suffering altogether. It might be that the suffering remains. It’s about how we connect that with Christ’s suffering and how we see that as part of Christ’s work of redemption and salvation,” Starke explained.

Addressing those who might feel hesitant about receiving the anointing due to anxiety about the suffering or denial, Starke has words of encouragement.   

In the first place, receiving the anointing is not about dying — it is not, in and of itself, the “last rites.” Although the sacrament is an ideal blessing for those in immediate danger of death, it is now available to anyone who has a serious illness, chronic suffering, poor health or undergoing surgery. 

“If you’re on the fence about receiving it, discuss it with your pastor,” Starke recommended. “If you’re in a situation where the rite allows you to receive the sacrament, why not receive the grace?” 

Although it might feel better to pretend that a health problem is not serious and reassure oneself that receiving the sacrament is not needed, Starke says it is better spiritually and psychologically to receive the anointing.

“There is a sense in which we don’t want to confront our suffering,” said Starke, saying that the rite confronts us head-on with the reality of human weakness. “You have to confront your pain and the suffering. This sacrament gives us God’s grace and strength to do that.”

Fletcher can be reached at zita.fletcher@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zbfletcherACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019