Send for the priests of the Church

28 November 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Black Friday

Here on Cape Cod, the “black frost” has occurred. The colorful summer plantings outside the church turned to mush overnight. In the morning, I had to dig the windshield scraper out of the garage before heading off to Dippin’ Doughnuts. The steaming hot coffee (I’ve now upgraded to extra-large cups) was particularly satisfying. Following the winds of November, the trees stand bare, etched against a leaden sky. I’m mindful of the poetic lyric of Simon and Garfunkel, “Deep and dark December.” And as we stand at the conclusion of the Church’s Liturgical year, the Scriptures remind us to be well-prepared for the second coming of Our Lord. 

For Catholics, there is a wonderful Sacrament that shines light into our own particular days of darkness. It is the Sacrament of the Sick. As St. James wrote in about 47 A.D., “Are there any who are sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church and let the priests pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” The Anointing of the Sick has been one of the Spiritual treasures of the Church for a very long time. For me as a priest, the Sacrament of the Sick is a great privilege and honor to administer. To pray with the elderly, the ill, and the injured in their time of need is very much a priestly work. To be able to bring the presence of the Lord and of the Church community to the bedside of a person in distress always touches my heart with a sense of ministerial fulfillment. 

Here at St. Patrick Church, 37 percent of the population is 65 years of age or older (including me). The median age is projected to increase. This means there will be increasing numbers of parishioners unable to attend Mass due to age or illness. Deacon Bill Hays heads up the ministry to the homebound. We are also responsible for some 300 nursing home patients. Deacon John Simonis oversees that ministry. The priests of St. Patrick are on call 24/7 for all nursing home and housebound patients in our care. The parish record book for the Sacrament of the Sick fills up quickly. 

In addition, Falmouth Hospital has 95 beds. The four priests of Falmouth take turns for hospital emergencies. The two of us at St. Patrick are on hospital call 100 hours a week. There are deacons on-site seven days a week to keep the priests well-apprised of the Sacramental needs of all hospitalized Catholics. 

To get back to St. James’ “call for the priests of the Church.” OK. Why, when, how, and who? 

Why? Call for the priest if you are growing frailer due to advancing age. Call for the priest if you are seriously ill. Call for the priest if you’re scheduled to undergo major surgery. Notice that it’s called the Anointing of the Sick, not Extreme Unction or Last Rites. It’s called the Anointing of the Sick because it’s intended for the sick. It is a Sacrament of healing. The Sacrament for those who are dying is the Eucharist, Viaticum

When? It’s best to celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick when you are alert. That way you can actively participate in the rite and receive Spiritual comfort. Those who are comatose are anointed as well in the hope that they may at least be able to hear the beautiful prayers and Scripture readings. The rule of thumb is this: don’t wait too long. With the decreasing number of priests, it’s not always possible for a priest to be there in the blink of an eye. A priest will also visit and offer prayers for the recently-deceased and their grieving families, but it may be too late for the Sacrament of the Sick. 

How? Well, you can receive the Anointing of the Sick together with others when your parish schedules a communal celebration. You can also approach the priest at any time and request the Sacrament — in the Sacristy, at the door of the church, in the rectory, or even in the Penance room. If that doesn’t work in your situation, the priest will come to you. 

Who? The best person to request the Anointing of the Sick is you. If you are a patient, ask one of the nursing staff. They normally know what to do and how to do it. I receive my phone calls from nursing staff on the cellphone I always carry in my pocket. Communication glitches can occur when the priest is summoned by some well-intentioned friend or neighbor without the knowledge of the nursing staff and without your consent. Your family can be involved as much as possible in the celebration. It can be very meaningful to you when at least some of your family members are present as you receive this Sacrament. 

So follow the advice of St. James. “Call for the priests of the Church.” Please give us the opportunity to minister in this personal and powerful way.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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