Dear Father | Let us not cast pearls before swine with Anointing of the Sick
Q: Why don't parishes offer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick more often? Wouldn't it be a good idea to offer it on a regular basis, say once a month or so?
Obviously, Jesus bestowed this great gift upon His Church with the understanding that she would make it as available as possible to His people for their spiritual and physical benefit. That being said, however, He also cautioned us not to dispense the sacraments frivolously, telling us neither to "cast (our) pearls before swine" nor to "give what is holy to dogs."
In the case of the Anointing of the Sick, the sacrament is intended for those who are seriously, gravely, and/or chronically ill, especially if that chronic illness causes great physical pain. It is not, as I believe every Catholic should already know, reserved only for the moribund.
The sacrament can, however, be given too freely. Our understanding is that someone ought not be anointed more than once for the same illness. The exception to this would be if someone's condition significantly worsened a few weeks or so after the first anointing or in the case of those who are chronically and painfully ill, due to old age or some deteriorating condition (and not from something that would normally go away after a while). In each case, however, the priest administering the sacrament is instructed to use sound pastoral judgement.
The point here is that the Church wants to strike a happy balance whereby she dispenses the sacrament neither parsimoniously nor flippantly. The danger in celebrating the sacrament for the parish at large as frequently as you suggest is that it risks creating the impression that the sacrament is something that it is not. I was once assigned to a parish where we offered a communal celebration of the sacrament. Among the dear souls who showed up for it were a number of non-Catholics who were in pretty good health, but just came for the "blessing!"
The faithful need to be instructed that this is much more than just a "blessing" and is designed for Catholics who have serious illness (and not for transitory maladies like colds or the flu). Yes, I would agree that it is a good idea for parishes to offer the sacrament readily and regularly, but with the reservation that the pastor must instruct his flock well so that they understand and embrace our teaching on the nature and purpose of this power-laden mystery of the Church.
Msgr. Mitas is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Union and dean of the Washington Deanery. Send questions for a priest to: St. Louis Review, 20 Archbishop May Drive, St. Louis, MO 63119 or to email@example.com.
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