When someone is seriously ill, some people say a priest should be called. Others feel that it is best to wait until near death so that the sick person is not alarmed and fearful. Is there a right time to call a priest?
Two questions are being asked here. The first has to do with an honest disclosure of the seriousness of an illness to a sick person. Apart from the virtue of honesty, the Catholic Church holds that each person has the responsibility to appropriately prepare for death.
While we should always live as if we were to meet the Lord at any time, there are specific issues that a person may have to resolve as death approaches. One’s spiritual life is certainly at the top of that list. This might well include such matters as forgiveness for others. It may also include sorting out practical matters including financial issues.
The Church obviously supports a person’s ability to address all of these issues. In order to begin to do so, doesn’t a person have the right to know the nature and extent of an illness? Shouldn’t a person at least be asked whether he or she wants to know the complete truth regarding the illness?
Once that question is posed and the person has had the opportunity to know the truth (as far as it is medically known), they are then able to address the issues discussed above to the best of their ability. To do otherwise, in my opinion, robs an individual of the dignity of personal decision-making in areas which are extremely important.
The second question deals with the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The Scriptural basis for this sacrament is found in the healing ministry of Jesus. That this ministry was carried on by his disciples is evidenced in the New Testament: Acts 3:1-10; 14:8-18, or more explicitly, “Is there anyone sick among you? He should ask for the presbyters of the Church. They in turn are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Name of the Lord. This prayer, uttered in faith, will reclaim the one who is ill, and the Lord will restore him to health. If he has committed any sins, forgiveness will be his.” (James 5:14-15)
It is important to note that the subject of this passage is a person who is sick (not necessarily one near death). What is envisioned is a sacrament of healing (of actual illness or an inner healing of the person). In history, for many and complex reasons, the anointing of the sick began to take on an emphasis of preparing for death.
The Second Vatican Council asked that sacramental rites be revised according to their proper purpose. The revised rite for this sacrament was first issued in December of 1972. It was placed within a context of pastoral care of the sick and called the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. It was not intended to be reserved only for those who are at the point of death. Persons facing surgery, the elderly or anyone who may receive comfort and strength from this sacrament should have the opportunity to receive it.
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