What I understood and knew about the sacrament of anointing of the sick was deepened dramatically by my experiences last year leading up to the death of my father. During his illness, my dad had recourse to this sacrament on many occasions and was visited by our parish priests frequently. I remember a few weeks before he died, he took my mother, my wife and I into a room and started to talk about – what I initially thought – were nonsensical things. My first inclination was a deep sadness and disorientation at the thought that my dad, who had always been sharp, lucid and clever was finally ‘losing it’ and was now talking in circles and not making sense. For a second I felt like a kid lost in a department store. My lifelong rudder was gone. The North Star had faded. My compass was off. Dad talked about things that were present as if they weren’t, and things that weren’t as if they were. He asked questions that had no relation to the topics we were discussing, he became eccentric, erratic and strange. He reminded me of moments I had experienced between sleep and wakefulness; the times I have nodded off in the middle of a conversation; sometimes waking myself up because I had tried to respond to the conversation and being embarrassed at the recognition that what I had said made no sense. Or other times when I had woken myself up because I was talking aloud (nonsensically) in a dream. But in particular I recall, in a moment of clarity during this talk, that my Dad asked us all to ensure that the “real him” as he referred to himself, would not be forgotten. He suggested that he might do strange things and not make sense, but that he wanted us to know that the “real him” was still there and never to forget it. He also asked us to help him not to give up. To pray for him. All he wanted to talk about was God. He thanked Him over and over and over again. He talked about God, or to Him, just like St. Dominic. The TV never came back on – a waste of time. Dad tied a small wood crucifix around the pull-strings of his sweatpants. He held a hand cross tightly in his fist. His eyes were heaven-ward constantly. I couldn’t help but feel like he was bracing himself. Preparing himself for a battle.
After these strange episodes I began to read more deeply about the dying process and what I found was that this “altered state” was very common. The scientific books were satisfied to explain it away as merely a chemical thing… as the body begins to shut down there is new activity in the brain that causes disorientation. That’s it. Open and shut. But I, as a Christian, had to harmonize the physical truths with the spiritual ones. We are both body and soul. And I knew that in the spiritual dimension my father was beginning to get glimpses of the other side. As the eyes of his body dimmed, he was beginning to see with the eyes of his soul. He was absolutely beginning to cross over.
It was during this time that my dad especially benefited (and sought out) the sacraments. Though he never said, I knew he was dealing with terrible pain from the cancer in his bones and lungs, discomfort from the hours upon hours of sitting and lying down, embarrassment from having his nakedness constantly wiped and cleaned. He was the most vulnerable he would ever be, the most like a child, the most weak, and it was at this moment, when he was closest to the suffering of the Cross, that the devil no doubt tried hardest to temp him; to have him lose hope, to have him get angry at his caretakers, to despise his sorry state, to hate, to demand that Jesus make things different, to go into the eternal night angry with God.
But the anointing protected him. And he knew that. The chrism oil covered him. And he was defended. He never complained. Nor did he get angry about his bed sores, or nakedness. He smiled. Sometimes coyly because he didn’t understand what we were saying. But he smiled. He thanked the priests. He kissed their hands. They kissed his. And 24 hours before he died, he received the final anointing, the last absolution… and after that he never spoke again. His battle with the enemy continued in silence but the sacrament worked in his heart. In silence. I was reading the book of Revelation to him when he died. I was sharing the passage about the white stone we will all receive in heaven, the stone that has our real names, our deepest, truest name, engraved upon it – the name that only God knows.
And moments later, seconds after I left his bedside, he was gone.
In my training, study and discernment for the diaconate I have come across many things which I now see through the eyes of service. The diaconate is above all else a vocation to serve the people of God. And the sacrament of anointing of the sick I now see too as deeply diaconal – because it is deeply about sacrificial service.
Anointing is about meeting and ministering to a brother or sister in the most difficult moments, in the most painful moments: in the final moments.
And that is the kind of thing best done… by a servant.
I just finished reading a well known Catholic author who despite his substantial education continued throughout his time to fall into a very common trap laid for the unsuspecting in the thickets of the ecclesiastical underbrush. The trap is this: that Conservative and Progressive Catholicism exist and further that these should be regarded and considered for the better understanding of the Christian faith and its history. Permit me to share why I believe this notion to be not only incorrect, but ultimately damaging and potentially dangerous.
The Catholic Church, like the Body of Christ which we proclaim her to be, is not an “either/or” proposition. The Church is not either Republican or Democrat. Male or Female. Rich or Poor. Traditional or Modern (Galatians 3:28). While these may represent the inclinations of individual Christians, they are all false dichotomies when made in reference to the Catholic Church herself. And it doesn’t matter when in the history of the Church one is attempting to apply the observation. It’s never been the case. Not during the “dark ages” or during the “enlightenment.” Not in “ancient” times or in “modern” times. To use these definitions is facile. Frankly, it’s lazy. These labels belie a fundamental understanding at what (or Who) is actually being observed. And further they attempt to collapse the universality, history, beauty and profundity of the religion that God himself founded into vacuum-packed-for-easy-consumption-but-nevertheless-vastly-imperfect monikers. Using these terms is akin to looking out at the entire universe through a tiny North American keyhole only to find an abstraction of ourselves reflected everywhere. In the end, this approach, which in my mind is likely only a stratagem introduced with glee by the enemy of our souls to drive further the wedge of confusion and division, is simply false.
Catholicism is a “both/and” proposition. In all things. The Catholic Church and the Deposit of Faith are principally about harmonics. What does this mean? It means that we should not take one word, phrase, action, event, or idea, lift it up and absolutize it in order to understand what the Church is saying or thinking.
Let me demonstrate:
Is baptism an actual regeneration brought about by washing us clean from all sin and causing us to be reborn, or is it a symbolic rite entered into and performed to announce to the local assembly the entrance of a person into a saving relationship with God? Both. Is the Eucharist the real living body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, or a memorial meal to recall the teaching, life, death and resurrection of our Lord? Both. Are the scriptures the inerrant and inspired Word of God, or are they a collection of historical, poetic and parabolic texts written by many different authors and assembled over centuries by a faith community in order to share a common tradition? Both. Does the ordination of a man actually and really change his soul and configure it in a special way to Christ, or is it a ceremonial means to set aside a person to be a leader and spiritual father to a particular congregation? Both. Is the Pope the supreme authority of the Christian faith on earth and to be afforded obedience and religious assent by all believers, or is he lowest of the low, the last, the servant of the servants of God? Both. Is direct abortion, consciously and willfully sought, always a grievous mortal sin to be combated at all costs, or is it the tragic outcome of a complex and often devastating series of circumstances in a woman’s life that need to be pastorally considered? Both. Is the death penalty different not in degree, but in kind from the sins of abortion and euthanasia, or is it an affront to the human person which in today’s modern age should never be employed? Both. Did Pope St. John XXIII in convening the Second Vatican Council want to breathe a new spirit into the pastoral practice of the Church or did he want to highlight, enforce and promulgate the timeless traditional teaching of the Church? Both. Did the Second Vatican Council introduce new discipline and pastoral perspective by observing the “signs of the times,” or did it reaffirm all previous teachings and pronouncements of the Church “by the light of the Gospel”? Both. Should we ‘meet people where they are‘ in their faith journey and lovingly embrace them, or should we always speak the truth about the grandeur of our human dignity and guide people to the fullness of the plan that God has for them? Both.
We are a Church of harmony. Because God is a God of harmony (1 Cor 14:33). That is the insight. It is the third way. The both/and. We don’t look ‘left’ or ‘right,’ we look up. That is Catholicism. That is our true theology. That is what differentiates us from every other corner of the Christian world – Catholicism harmonizes ideas, doctrines, precepts, laws, and disciplines by considering the “whole” of something; in fact the word Catholic, which most people understand to principally mean “universal” actually has a better definition, the Greek word Katholikos means “according to the whole” – and this is the meaning we don’t often regard, but one which perfectly sums up the majesty of the Church: our world-view, faith and practice as Catholics is shaped and formed not by proof texts, headlines, or individual interpretations but according to the whole of Sacred scripture, according to the whole of Sacred Tradition, according to the whole of History, according to the whole of the teaching authority of the Church.
To suggest the contrary not only threatens to lead us astray, but robs us of the genius of God in the Church and steals from us the understanding that we are not dealing only with a physical church characterized by her institutions, doctrines and disciplines but also by a supernatural reality present among us to steward us to our heavenly home like the loving and Holy Mother she is.
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