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John was lying in a hospital, paralyzed and in a coma. His lips couldn't move, his eyes couldn't blink, and not a part of his body could move in protest when he heard the doctors saying to each other, "He's gone … nothing more can be done for him."
John had been given up for dead. He heard all of this in terror, yet he couldn't show he was still alive.
A priest came in. "Called too late," the doctors told him. But the priest, true to his seminary training and the Church's teaching, ignored the doctors and went on with giving the man the last rites. He administered conditional absolution and the anointing of the sick, just in case there was the least amount of life left in the man.
John recovered, and everyone said it was a miracle. John later told the priest how much he felt the strength-giving, life-giving powers of the last sacrament and how happy he was to know that the Church carries on for you even after the world and medical science give up.
The anointing of the sick, also known as extreme unction, is the sacrament instituted by Christ that gives spiritual health and sometimes — within the providential will of God — physical healing to persons who are in danger of death due to serious illness, injury or old age.
The scriptural basis for this sacrament is found both in the gospels and in James. Jesus showed it through His powers to bring back those who were apparently dead, such as in the case of Lazarus (John 11:1–44) and the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:49–56), as well as many others He brought back from the brink of death.
The sacrament's use is found in James 5:14–15: "Is any among you sick? Let him call the elders [priests] of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven." We also see in the gospels where Christ sends His Apostles and other male disciples to perform this act while preaching (Mark 6:12–13).
The anointing of the sick increases sanctifying grace. It also allows the sick person the grace of uniting himself more closely to Christ's Passion, giving suffering a new meaning.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, anointing of the sick has various effects. It:
This sacrament can act like the sacrament of reconciliation by remitting venial sins. Also, if the sick person is unable to make a good confession prior to receiving the sacrament (e.g., coma, delirium, paralysis, etc.) it can remit mortal sins as well, provided the sick person has at least what's called imperfect contrition. If the sick person regains his health he's obliged, however, to make a good confession if he wasn't in the state of grace prior to receiving the sacrament.
Jesus tries right up to the final moment to draw each of us to Him. In Matthew 26:50, we read how Jesus called Judas his friend, even while the man was in the act of betraying Him, in order to call the traitor back to Him.
And Matthew 27:46 recounts how from the Cross, Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" He wasn't in a state of despair, which would be mortally sinful. No! The Son of God was trying to get the Pharisees to remember Psalm 21, which predicted the Messiah would go through exactly what He was going through at that moment. Jesus calls us to Himself right to the bitter end, and that is precisely what the anointing of the sick is all about — giving us one last chance to be reconciled to Him before we stand in His presence to be judged.
We shouldn't wait until someone is at death's door before calling the priest. But even when someone is already apparently dead, we should still call a priest to administer the anointing of the sick. The theological definition of death is when the soul separates from the body. Just because there are no brain waves, heartbeat or respiratory activity doesn't mean the soul has necessarily left the body. The Church teaches her priests the soul may linger with the body for quite some time even after signs of life are no longer present. She insists, therefore, that priests can administer the sacrament even several hours after apparent death has occurred.
An example of this is contained in the miracle worked by St. Anthony of Padua. Saint Anthony was at his friary in Italy when he learned his father was on trial for the murder of a young nobleman, found slain on his father's property in Portugal. Saint Anthony told his brother friars he would return soon. After exiting the friary door in Italy, he, by the grace of God, soon entered the courtroom door in Portugal. Recognizing the famous Franciscan priest, the judge stopped the proceedings to welcome St. Anthony.
The saint used that break to address the court: "I can prove my father didn't commit this murder. If the court please, we will have the deceased himself tell you."
The judge reluctantly agreed, and court was reconvened in the cemetery after the coffin of the slain man was exhumed. With the crowd gathered around, St. Anthony commanded the lid be removed from the coffin.
Then St. Anthony cried out, "I abjure you, in the name of Jesus Christ, tell us whether my father killed you!"
To the astonishment of the crowd, the young man sat up in his coffin.
He answered the saint: "No, Fr. Anthony, your father did not kill me. Father, I died without having had the benefit of making a good confession. Will you hear my confession?"
Saint Anthony knelt by the coffin while the crowd backed up a little further. As the saint granted absolution, the man's body fell back into the coffin.
The point of this true story is to show you how the body may already appear dead, but the soul can still be present. There are many other events in the Church's history to demonstrate this as well, but this one event should suffice.
Even if someone you know already appears to be dead, call upon the priest anyway. And I'd recommend that you tell your loved ones now to do the same for you if your death is sudden, and it almost always is.
By the way, extreme unction may be received more than once by someone in danger of death — if his condition worsens or if he gets better and suffers a relapse. The elderly, whether sick or in good health, may receive the anointing of the sick at regular intervals.
Talk to your priest, and don't worry about bothering him. His primary purpose in his priesthood is to bring you the sacraments … all of them.