Mark Shea: Don’t stint on the Sacrament of Anointing

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Residents at John Paul Village receive the Anointing of Sick on Holy Thursday. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Residents at John Paul Village receive the Anointing of Sick on Holy Thursday. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

About a decade ago, I went to confession for the umpteenth time for a sin I had struggled with for years: gluttony.

I had confessed it again and again, made a firm purpose of amendment—and gone right back out and fallen flat on my face.  At the time, I weighed about 335 pounds (152 kilograms).  But no matter what I did, nothing seemed to change.

This time, I was in the confessional with a good Dominican who, as it happened, is not only a wise confessor, but also passionate zealot for a sacrament that is often badly neglected: the Anointing of the Sick.

As I mentioned this struggle yet again, he interjected, “Have you ever considered receiving the Sacrament of Anointing for this?”

I was taken aback.  It had never occurred to me.  Indeed, I felt that it would somehow be wrong to receive it.  Clearly, the problem was that I was a lazy, greedy, gluttonous slob.  What I needed was repentance and then to pick myself up by my bootstraps, get on with the hard work of putting the grace of Confession to work, just knuckle down, and stop being a pig.  I needed discipline, shame, regret, and humiliation as the fat, gluttonous slob I was and maybe, just maybe, I would finally become halfway normal and not the hog I’d always been.

Receiving the Anointing of the Sick felt like I was somehow stealing bases, whinging about victimhood instead of taking responsibility like a man.  Sick people are, after all, victims and I was not a victim.  I was a sinner.  The Anointing of the Sick was for people who were victims, who had fallen prey to illness through no fault of their own and who were at death’s door.  If you sought that sacrament for frivolous reasons like being a blimp, you were nothing but a parasite looking for a handout instead of carrying your weight (so to speak).  You were trying to get mercy without repentance since Anointing forgives sin just as much as Confession does.

I didn’t put all this into words to him, of course.  I simply said, skeptically, “Can you do that?”  I felt that it was somehow Breaking the Rules to anoint me when I was not coughing up blood, cancerous, or in a coma.

He replied, “I’m a priest.  Yes, I can give you the Sacrament of Anointing.  Obesity is one of the gravest health threats in America.  It puts you at extremely high risk for diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and a host of other problems.  Do you want to die without seeing your grandchildren?”

I did not.

“Then let me anoint you,” he said, “once you are done with your confession.”

I felt weird, but decided that there was some logic to it.  So when we were finished, he administered the Sacrament of Anointing and we prayed specifically for the breaking of the power of disordered appetites in my life.

The long and the short of it is this:  immediately I found to my astonishment that appetites which had gripped me my entire adult life, against which my will had been powerless, simply… died.

It was uncanny.  It was not magic, but grace.  My will was still involved in forging new habits and learning how to cooperate with that grace, but for the first time in my life, it was doable.  Some spiritual bondage that had hitherto owned me was destroyed and I was free.  I quickly dropped 80 pounds and have kept it off for 10 years, even with diabetes.

I mention all this because I think Anointing is a source of grace many Catholics neglect for false reasons similar to mine.  Yes, the Church does not want us to use it as a substitute for Confession.  Yes, we are not to become spiritual hypochondriacs and pester the priest for Anointing for every minor ache and stubbed toe.

But still and all, Anointing is given to us for our healing, both spiritual and physical and we should make much freer use of it than we often do.  It can be an enormous channel of grace for many ills both physical and, even more, spiritual and emotional.  Victims, not just of ills of the body, but of psychic trauma can use it to great effect for healing from many forms of abuse, familial wounds, and hurts received to body, soul, and spirit.

If you have struggled with any kind of pain—physical, emotion, mental, or spiritual—consider taking it to the Anointing of the Sick.

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