At the Wednesday General Audience today, Pope Francis catechized about the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick – one of the most misunderstood sacraments.
The Church teaches that one should receive this sacrament when he or she “begins to be in danger of death due to sickness or old age” (Catechism # 1514). However, many people do not understand one aspect or another of this requirement.
On the one hand, there are those who present themselves for the sacrament who do not have a serious illness that puts them in danger of death, or who perhaps are not otherwise properly disposed to receive the sacrament.
On the other hand, and as the Holy Father said:
But when someone is sick, sometimes we think, “Let’s call for the priest”; [but then, some respond,] “No, that will bring bad luck, let’s not call him”, or “That will frighten the sick person”. Why do we think this? Because there is, to a certain extent, the idea that after the priest, the undertaker will arrive!
Therefore, the Holy Father continued:
But this is not true. The priest comes to help the sick or elderly person; for this reason, it is so important for priests to visit the sick. We should call the priest to the sick person’s side and tell him: “come, anoint him, bless him”. It is Jesus himself who arrives to raise up the sick person, to give him strength, to give him hope, to help him; even to forgive his sins. And this is wonderful!
When the entire audience text has been translated, I’ll post here a link. In any case, it is important for me to mention something about that last part – the forgiveness of sins.
Sometimes when someone needs to receive the Anointing of the Sick, he is unable to go to Confession in that moment – perhaps he cannot speak due to a breathing tube; perhaps he is in a coma; or perhaps there is simply insufficient privacy (shared hospital room, or something like that). In such cases, when it is not possible to confess his (mortal) sins, then as long as he repents of them, they are forgiven him by the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. This is one reason why it is so important to be in the habit of daily examining our consciences and saying an act of contrition, as I have mentioned at various times on this blog!
(Keep in mind, I am talking about mortal sins here, not venial sins, which we are never required to confess, though it is frequently a good idea to confess at least some of them. The issue is mortal sin, because if we die in a state of mortal sin, we will go to hell. That is not the case if we die with only venial sins on our souls.)
However, should that person recover, or the impossibility of confessing is otherwise removed, even though the sins have been forgiven by the Anointing, there is still the obligation to confess them. Let’s say that the impossibility was due to a shared hospital room. The person is moved to a private room. When that happens, the priest should be called again, so that the person can go to Confession. Again, this applies if they have unconfessed mortal sins!
In other words, the Anointing of the Sick is not a magic “Get out of Confession free” card. God is very merciful, so he does give us a way to have even our mortal sins forgiven in extreme cases where the ordinary way – Confession – is not possible. But when it becomes possible to use that ordinary way again, then we are obliged to use it.
The same is the case if we are in a near-death situation and a priest gives General Absolution (absolution without individual confession). Let’s say the plane starts to go down and a priest is on board. (This reminds me of a flight I was on, when someone saw me and said, “Oh, there’s a priest on board, we’ll be OK!”) The priest stands up, tells everyone quickly that he will give absolution and to repent of all their sins, then he does says the prayer. In the meantime, the pilot regains control and guides it to the nearest airport (or doesn’t regain control, but successfully lands the plane in a river – as happened a few years ago, and everyone survived!). Some of the people on the plane might have had unconfessed mortal sins. They received general absolution. But the danger of death was subsequently removed, so they are obligated to confess those sins in their next confession.
Lest this post become book-length I’ll end it here. There is a lot more to say about the Anointing of the Sick, but let’s wait for the translation of the Holy Father’s full address and then we’ll also see if we can supplement it with some other details from the Catechism and so forth.
Here, have a photo from today’s audience!