During the Vietnam War, an American soldier was severely wounded, but miraculously recovered, and from his hospital bed he wrote a very moving letter. He said, “From the split second I was hit, I was completely alone. . . . I was hurt real bad; a mortar [shell] landed about six feet behind me and took off my left leg, badly ripped up my left arm, hit me in the back, head, hip, and right heel and ankle. Shock was instantaneous, but I fought it–knowing that if I went out, I’d never wake up again. There were three or four medics hovering over me, all shook up, trying to help me; but all I could do was try to pray. The trouble was I couldn’t think. . . . I knew I would die and fought desperately for ground–every inch, every breath of life. I knew I was in a state of serious sin. I tried to pray but couldn’t. I asked the guys to keep me conscious, and most of all, if anyone could help me pray. . . . I lived to make it to the [evacuation] chopper two hours after being hit. After they carried me into the first-aid station, I felt four or five people scrubbing my body in different places. This brought me to open my eyes, and I [saw] someone bent over me. I wasn’t sure who it was, but I thought it looked like our battalion chaplain; his nose was practically on mine. After I saw him, I started to go out–I figured for the last time. When I talked I could only whisper, and this took all I had. As I was going out, my eyes closed and I heard Father say, ‘Are you sorry for your sins?’ With my last breath and all I had, I whispered,‘Hell, yes!’ Then a split second before I went out, I felt oil on my forehead. And something happened which I’ll never forget–something which I never experienced in my life! All of a sudden, I stopped grasping for every inch of life; I just burst with joy. . . . I felt like I had just got a million cc’s of morphine. I was on Cloud Nine. I felt free of body and mind. After this, I was conscious about three or four times during the next ten-day period; I never worried about dying. In fact, I was waiting for it” (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, Series II, p. 81). This is a beautiful description of someone receiving the Sacrament of the Sick, and a reminder that Jesus continues to be present among us in a healing way today.
God has always chosen to involve people in His plan of salvation; He wants us to be active participants in receiving and sharing His grace. The prophet Amos was one of many messengers chosen by the Lord, all of whom helped prepare for the coming of Christ. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus Himself sent out the apostles in His Name and with His authority to cast out evil spirits, to preach a message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and to anoint the sick with oil. This mission continues today through the ministry of the Church, for as the Letter to the Ephesians tells us, we have been chosen in Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit; we are sent forth in the world so that “all might praise the divine favor [God] has bestowed on us.” As members of the Church, you and I are called to receive God’s gifts, to use them, and to share them. One of these gifts is that of healing–most especially as experienced in the Sacrament of the Sick, or Anointing.
This sacrament can be a powerful experience of God’s healing presence. Some years ago, one of my parishioners suffered a mild heart attack on Tuesday of Holy Week, and was admitted to Harper Hospital in Detroit. On Holy Thursday, I attended the Chrism Mass at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral, during which Cardinal Maida blesses all the holy oils used throughout the Archdiocese during the coming year, including the Oil of the Sick. After the Mass I went directly to the hospital to see my parishioner, and I anointed her with the oil that had been blessed by the Cardinal less than an hour before; I gently teased her that because she was probably the very first person in the Archdiocese being anointed with this newly-blessed oil, she’d get an extra boost from the sacrament. As it turned out, not only was she released from the hospital the next day, but she was able to attend church and actually serve as a Eucharistic Minister at one of the Easter Sunday Masses three days later.
Sometimes the Sacrament of the Sick leads to a physical improvement or cure; even when this doesn’t happen, Jesus always gives it to us as a source of spiritual, moral, and emotional healing.
Whether at a special Mass of Anointing, or in a simple ceremony in the hospital or nursing home, or at the person’s home, and whether in the presence of many people or just a few, this sacrament is a powerful way of experiencing Christ’s healing power and love. A frustration I have–one which I’m sure many priests share–is that very often people wait too long before calling to arrange for the sacrament. Yes, it can help someone who’s unconscious and near death–but it’s even better if the person can receive it while still alert, thereby being able to receive the spiritual consolation and peace it offers. The Church no longer refers to it as Extreme Unction, meaning a final anointing when death is imminent; rather, we call it the Sacrament of the Sick. Anyone seriously ill, in poor health due to old age, or about to undergo serious surgery, qualifies to receive the sacrament.
Sometimes Jesus heals us of our physical ailments; sometimes He asks us to continue bearing these conditions so that we might grow even more in grace. He always heals us of our moral and spiritual suffering, if only we turn to Him in trust. You and I are called to be witnesses of His healing power–by helping people arrange for the Sacrament of the Sick, when necessary; by showing concern for those persons in our life who are suffering; by forgiving one another inChrist’s Name; by witnessing to the truth of our faith and to its importance in our lives; and by loving God and our neighbor as deeply as we can. Living in such a manner allows us to share in the Church’s ministry of healing. We’ll probably never encounter a wounded soldier in danger of dying on the battlefield, but all of us will have some opportunity to be a channel of Christ’s healing and peace; we ourselves may never see a miraculous physical healing, but God does want to work through us in mysterious, invisible ways that will only be made known to us in heaven. Let us be grateful for all the Lord has done and is doing; let us be open to all that He will do through us and through His Church.