The Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2016 – Cycle C
2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19
Suffering and illness have always been among the greatest problems that trouble the human spirit. The entire Book of Job tries to deal with the issues of evil, sickness and human suffering. In the face of disease and life threatening situations, even the Christian will ask from the depths of their being, why? …why me? …why my loved one? The reality is Christians are not immune from sickness, suffering and pain as well as the isolation from the rhythms of ordinary life which can cause fear and often lead to anger.
There have always been people who have sought to alleviate human suffering and illness through the quest of the sciences and medicine. The Introduction to the Pastoral Care of the Sick states, “Doctors and all who are devoted in any way to caring for the sick should consider it their duty to use all the means which in their judgment may help the sick, both physically and spiritually. In doing so, they are fulfilling the command of Christ to visit the sick, for Christ implied that those who visit the sick should be concerned about the whole person and offer both physical relief and spiritual comfort.” (PCS #3)
In response to this human situation, Jesus taught, “Fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” (Mark, 5:36) and so the Gospels reveal a Jesus who comes among us as one who heals and restores people to spiritual wholeness and physical health: “Your sins are forgiven…stand up and walk” [See Matthew 9:1-13]. The healings of Jesus also have a social aspect for the healed individual can now return to public life; lepers can return to the community from being ostracized or a servant can again work as part of the household. To heal a person is to restore the community to wholeness.
The concern for the whole person is important. We are not just an assemblage of systems: pulmonary, neurological or skeletal. We are not machines in which you replace parts and regularly change fluids and send us on our way. Rather, we are incarnate spirits, flesh and spirit inseparably bound together.
What affects our physical well-being, affects our emotional, spiritual and psychological aspects as well. This insight is being rediscovered by modern medicine where pastoral care is seen more as an integral part of a person’s healing process in hospitals.
Partnered with medicine and science, the sacramental life of the Church continues through the ministry of priests and laity, touch, oil, bread and word, the healing of body and soul, that is, the healing of the entire person by Jesus. One of the hallmarks of the early Christian communities is that they brought the sick into the center of their gatherings and did not discard people. We Christians believe that in sickness or when dying, whether with infirmities or disabilities, or vulnerable in any manner, human beings have immeasurable value. In this light we live out our responsibility to each other and especially in regard to our care for the sick.
We need to understand that the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion and especially the Anointing of the Sick, are not about death but about healing and life. These Sacraments are the presence of Christ Jesus among us. Many Catholics still equate the Anointing of the Sick with what was called Extreme Unction and the Last Rites of the Church, that is, they equate this sacrament and even the presence of the priest with death. Jesus taught, “I came so that you might have life and have it more abundantly” [John 10:10]. The term and notion of Extreme Unction is no longer used. The renaming of the sacrament from Extreme Unction to the Anointing of the Sick has reclaimed our understanding of this sacred prayer and act as accompanying the sick with the healing power of Christ toward life. Sickness, healing and dying are journeys. The Church in its priests, deacons, Eucharistic ministers and people are called to be present and walk with the sick, their care-givers and families to strengthen them and pray with them throughout an illness or life’s infirmities.
Who should receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick?
- A person who is seriously ill, and this includes children and young people;
- a person facing surgery, before, or after if need be;
- those suffering from age and its infirmities;
- the mentally ill, people suffering depression or a chronic illness.
In other words, wherever human life is threatened by illness and suffering, the ministry of Christ should be invited in by first notifying the community and priests.
When might the Sacrament of the Sick be prayed?
The Anointing of the Sick can be prayed at the onset of a serious illness or diagnosis and repeated periodically over a lengthy illness providing the sick person also with the forgiveness of their sins. (PCS #6) Here we see the concern that the rite speaks about for “the whole person and [to] offer both physical relief and spiritual comfort.” (PCS #3) “Those who are seriously ill need the special help of God’s grace in this time of anxiety, lest they be broken in spirit and, under the pressure of temptation, perhaps weaken in the faith. (PCS #5).
Since all the Sacraments are public and communal acts of Christ, it is appropriate that family members and friends, even parishioners and medical staff should be present to pray the Sacrament. In combination with this sacrament, Confession and the frequent reception of Holy Communion should be prayed and received. This is why after we have received Holy Communion at each Sunday Mass I call forward the Eucharistic Ministers who will be bring Communion to our sick and home-bound. First, the sick should receive Communion from the same Eucharistic table as we do; secondly, as a reminder to us of the presence of those who can so easily become invisible due to age and sickness because they cannot gather with us and finally; as a reminder for us to pray for and visit the sick and infirm.
Regretfully my experience has been that the priest and parish staff are called into a situation when a person is at the end of the journey and often comatose, unconscious, or intubated and they cannot go to Confession or receive Holy Communion. In these situations the Church appropriately administers the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick but this continues this sacrament’s association with death in the minds of many Catholics. I can understand this reticence with people’s fear surrounding sickness and death but then where is the place for Christian hope? Again as Jesus taught, “Fear is useless, what is needed is trust.” (Mark, 5:36)
Associated with the Sacrament of the Sick if a person enters the dying process is the Last Rites of the Church which are the two Sacraments of Reconciliation (Confession) and Holy Communion, known as Viaticum, that is, “food for the journey”. These sacraments prepare a person spiritually for their embrace by God through death. Often people cannot receive the Last Rites because, again, the priest has been called into the situation at the very conclusion of the dying process.
It is the responsibility of the whole Christian community to care for the sick and suffering among us for when one member is sick we all share in their suffering. So I ask all of you:
- Please notify the Parish Office of the sick and home-bound, when a person enters the hospital or a healthcare facility or is transferred to another facility.
- Call for the sacraments of the church at the beginning and during a serious illness.
- Consider becoming a Eucharistic Minister or a Parish Visitor to the Sick
- Send a card or made a phone call to a sick or infirm person, better yet, periodically visit them. Visits need not be lengthy.
- Check in regularly on an elderly or ill neighbor.
- Volunteer at one of our healthcare facilities in the city.
In our struggle to understand sickness and suffering we are offered Jesus crucified. The Crucified presents us with a God who has been immersed in and embraces our suffering and pain. May we do the same for each member of our community.