Thursday, November 25th was a day which I shall never certainly forget. It was the first time wherein I had the joy to share my experience as a hospital chaplain with STHL students attending at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Malta. I want to take the opportunity to thank wholeheartedly Rev. Prof. Emanuel Agius for graciously inviting me to share my pastoral experience with newly ordained and future priests.
The lecture was scheduled from 9.00 am till 11:00 am at the venue THL 316 B. The theme to be tackled was the following: What are the pastoral issues in the administration of the sacrament of the Anointing of the sick?
As I was preparing the PowerPoint presentation for the lecture, the Holy Spirit took me to three pivotal points which Pope Francis mentions in his address for the opening of the Synod, at the New Synod Hall, on Saturday, 9 October 2021, namely: communion, participation and mission. If we really want a synodal Church we must be in communion with Our Lord and one another. Communion breeds participation and the latter opens for us the whole venue for mission.
During the preparation for such a sharing the Lord continued teaching me that for a discussion to be tenable we have to adopt some tools which facilitate its flow. I found the following quote from Pope Francis extremely helpful in this: When the Lord wants to give us a mission, wants to give us a task, He prepares us. He prepares us to do it well…What is important is the whole journey by which we arrive at the mission the Lord entrusts to us…when the Lord gives a mission, He always has us enter into a process, a process of purification, a process of discernment, a process of obedience, a process of prayer.
As I delved deeper into the question I came to realize that serving the sick is truly holiness in action. Another quote from Pope Francis certainly put me on this very valid track. He said: “The poor and the suffering you will always have with you,” Jesus warns (cf. Mt 26:11), and the Church continuously finds them along her path, considering those who are sick as a privileged way to encounter Christ, to welcome Him and to serve Him. To cure the sick, to welcome them, to serve them, is to serve Christ: the sick person is the flesh of Christ.
In other words, by encountering Christ in the sick we are magnificently introduced to the wisdom of the heart. Pope Francis reminds us of this very important aspect in his message for the 23rd World Day of the Sick 2015 when he said: Wisdom of the heart means being with our brothers and sisters. Time spent with the sick is holy time. It is a way of praising God who conforms us to the image of his Son, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). Jesus himself said: “I am among you as one who serves” (Lk 22:27).
Pope Francis unquestionably wants a Church where dialogue plays a very important part in it. Personally speaking, I got more convinced about it when I read his address upon receiving the Charlemagne Prize, May 6, 2016: If there is one word that we should never tire of repeating, it is this: dialogue. We are called to promote a culture of dialogue by every possible means and thus to rebuild the fabric of society. The culture of dialogue entails a true apprenticeship and a discipline that enables us to view others as valid dialogue partners.
The STHL students I had in front of me were more than valid dialogue partners in this interesting search for the pastoral issues concerning the administration of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. They were brothers whose intention and commitment, as proposed by the same Faculty they magnificently represent, was that of shaping a better society as well as a better Church.
In the discussion that followed there were some points which I found really interesting. First, the priest should manifest humanity for those whom he meets along the wait. Rigidity is the archenemy of being Christlike. As Pope Francis tells us: Rigidity [in the church] is a sin against the patience of God. Secondly, the importance that parish priests visit their parishioners who are being hospitalized. Thirdly, priests can go and visit their sick parishioners at their homes and, possibly, besides the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick they can also celebrate Mass for them.
Reflecting upon the topic, as I encounter it in my hospital ministry, I find three issues which are challenging. First, there are some people who, for them, receiving the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick means that they are dying. As a wise brother of mine told me, it is wise that one presents the Sacrament as it is, namely and as the Latin rite says it so clearly: Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up. Amen. Secondly, there are those who simply reject receiving the Anointing of the Sick for a diversity of reasons, being angry against the Church or lack of belief or simply because they endorse a different faith.
What certainly emerges from these and other issues are three pivotal points. First, the need is urgently felt for a simple and convincing catechesis on the Sacraments of healing, that is the Sacrament of Reconciliation coupled with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us in number 1421: The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members. This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing: the sacrament of Penance and the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1421).
How many Catholic Christians are truly familiar with the five effects of that Anointing of the Sick, namely that it is a union with Christ’s Passion; that it strengthens; it gives forgiveness of sins; restores the health both in spirit and body; and prepares us for death?
Obviously, within a clinical setting, all this makes sense if there is the pastoral accompaniment of the sick person together with his and her relatives. Pastoral conversations are important to pave the way for such an important catechesis to take place.
Finally, the pastoral accompaniment of the staff members is also important so that the working trust between the chaplain and the members of the multidisciplinary team is established and fortified and, as a practical consequence, patients who are in greatest need for pastoral care are immediately identified. The sooner one engages himself and herself within the pastoral dialogue the better.
As a conclusion for this very interesting lecture which I had the privilege to share with STHL students I felt that it was appropriate to propose some pastoral suggestions to the personal lives of these future shepherds of God’s people.
Drawing from my personal and pastoral experience, the Lord helped me identify four areas with the help, of course, of the great Church reformer St Charles Borromeo.
First, the prayer life. St Charles Borromeo said: Listen, and I will tell you. If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold. In other words, avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God. Do not spend your time in useless chatter. Wasting time is not tolerated in a life of a priest. Time is precious!
Second, discernment. Again, St Charles said: When you administer the sacraments, meditate on what you are doing… We must meditate before, during and after everything we do.
Thirdly, healthy self-care, including having holidays by going abroad, retreats, healthy friendships, hobbies and so on.
Fourth, ongoing formation. St Charles said: Are you in charge of a parish? If so, do not neglect the parish of your own soul, do not give yourself to others so completely that you have nothing left for yourself. You have to be mindful of your people without becoming forgetful of yourself.
While thanking both Rev. Prof. Emanuel Agius and the STHL students for their priceless contribution in these humble reflections I tried to present here, I would like to add an important comment. I do pray and hope that these simple proposals, among surely many and many others, might help in taking the opportunity to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick with much profit not only for the patients, the family and relatives and the staff as well but, mainly, for us, the ministers, who offer it during the rough times our patients go through.