Pastoral Care of Gravely Ill Children

One of the sadder tasks that priests have is that of assisting families with a child who is gravely ill. It happens every so often that I will be called to a hospital or home by such a family. Often they request the Anointing of the Sick. But that is not always the sacrament that is really needed. I have written here before about how there is a lot of confusion surrounding this sacrament.

When a child has not yet attained the use of reason (usually attained by the age of 7),  then the Anointing of the Sick is not the proper sacrament to strengthen him or her in the face of serious illness. What he/she needs, instead, is Confirmation. Following, then, is a write-up I have done on this topic:

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About Confirming Younger Children Who Are In Danger Of Death

Anointing of the Sick – for those who have reached the use of reason

From the General Introduction to the Pastoral Care of the Sick (the ritual book that has the rites for Anointing in it):

“12. Sick children are to be anointed if they have sufficient use of reason to be strengthened by this sacrament. In case of doubt whether a child has reached the use of reason, the sacrament is to be conferred.”

(The age of reason is traditionally held to be around about the age of 7 for children who have normal development.)

From the Code of Canon Law:

“Can.  1004 §1. The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.”

Confirmation – the Sacrament for Children in Danger of Death

Since those who are baptized but have not yet reached the use of reason are not to be anointed, Confirmation is the sacrament which they are to receive when they are in danger of death. They have not sinned, so there is no need to have the forgiveness of their sins (which anointing can provide); not having the use of reason, they do not yet have subjective faith (which anointing strengthens). Therefore, what they need, in order to be strengthened in soul and body, is the Sacrament of Confirmation, which gives them the fullness of the Holy Spirit and configures them more fully to Christ.

“Can.  891 The sacrament of confirmation is to be conferred on the faithful at about the age of discretion unless the conference of bishops has determined another age, or there is danger of death, or in the judgment of the minister a grave cause suggests otherwise.”

Confirmation, as we know, strengthens us also to preserve and live out our faith. If (as we pray) the child recovers, then, he will have an advantage over his peers who will not be confirmed until the age of 12 or 13: he will have the gift of the Holy Spirit to accompany him and remind him of God’s healing, helping him to live out his faith and resist the many temptations of the world.

Ordinarily a Bishop is the one who confers the Sacrament of Confirmation; under ordinary circumstances, a priest must be delegated by the Bishop to confirm. However, in situations of danger of death, every priest may confer the Sacrament of Confirmation by the law itself:

“Can.  883 The following possess the faculty of administering confirmation by the law itself: […] 3/ as regards those who are in danger of death, the pastor or indeed any presbyter [priest].”

May the Holy Spirit heal our dear sick younger brothers and sisters in Christ and console their families and friends during their time of sorrow and distress!

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