Read ~ Chapter 14: Suffering and the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick
Father Anthony Nachef, STD (Doctorate in Sacred Theology)
The teachings contained in this chapter are based on Holy Scriptures, the Tradition of the Catholic Church [especially the First and Second Vatican Councils, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the Fathers of the Church (especially St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine)], the Magisterium of the Catholic Church (especially Saint Pope Paul VI, Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis). All Apostolic Encyclicals and Letters are found on the Vatican Website: Vatican
Suffering is an existential problem
The dilemma of suffering: From the very beginning of human existence all of us have common questions. Who am I? Where am I going? Why do I suffer? What’s going to happen to me after death? These questions have tormented every human being from the beginning of time until today. Experiencing tragedies in our world shake our existence and creates in us a sense of discontinuity.
Sickness, suffering, and death isolate the human person. The daily routine of life is broken and, therefore, relationships with the world and others naturally change. It is a dark test of faith, hope, and charity. Our task in this chapter is to shed light on how to live the mystery of suffering in view of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Old Testament concept of suffering: In the history of the Hebrews, suffering was very negative. When they suffered they have always complained to Moses, to the kings, or to the prophets. The dilemma of suffering in the Old Testament did not find an answer. Mostly, God was using the suffering of his people as a tool to atone for, and to forgive their sins.
New Testament answers the dilemma of suffering: With the full revelation of God in the New Testament in and through Jesus Christ, the dilemma of suffering became an element of salvation. Why? Because the logic of God in redeeming humanity used suffering as an instrument to accomplish it (We call it ‘the ethos of salvation’). Jesus Christ suffered, died, and is risen. By doing that Christ gave an answer to all of us: ‘If I, Jesus Christ, used suffering to accomplish redemption, then my way is a good way and the only way.’ But how did Jesus do it?
Theology of suffering
Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is in the Bible: In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus sent the Apostles to perform his mission: “So they set off to preach repentance; and they cast out many devils, and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them.” (Mark 6:13) Evidently, the Apostles already during the time of Jesus here on earth, started to anoint sick people granting them the grace of healing. This biblical foundation of the sacrament of anointing shows that every action Jesus performed on earth is intended to continue in the mission of the Church forever. The Holy Spirit will ensure that anointing continues to grant Jesus’ grace of healing to those who are sick.
The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is also reported in the Letter of Saint James inviting the sick people to have the priest “anoint them and if they have sinned, their sins will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15) This sacrament not only bestows the grace of healing and carrying Jesus’ cross, but also forgives the sins of the anointed. This practice in the early Church reveals God’s plan to have the Church act on behalf of the anointed to have their sins forgiven, especially if they are unconscious and can’t go to confession anymore.
Suffering is caused by sin: The Catholic Church has always taught that suffering is caused by sin. Jesus Christ assumed a sinless human nature from the Virgin Mary: He could not sin because the subject acting in his human nature is divine. Now if Jesus did not sin, why did he suffer?
The Fathers of the Church have taught us that the ‘procedure of inversion’ is the reason behind the suffering of Jesus. An example, if a sheep falls into a well the only way that we can pull the sheep out of the well is to go in the same way, and then reverse the old way by going in the opposite direction. We sinned and therefore we suffer. Jesus went the same way of suffering to reverse the curse of sin in his human nature. That applies to Eve and the Virgin Mary too. Eve sinned and caused suffering; Mary went the same way by suffering and, cooperating with Christ the only Redeemer, reversed the curse of sin. The Catechism confirms: “Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” (CCC, 1521) How?
Saint Pope John Paul II ~ The salvific effects of human suffering: The problem of suffering is there. It is a part of our life. What do we do when we suffer? How can we help ourselves and others when we go through intense suffering? Saint Pope John Paul II’s Letter “The Salvific Meaning of Suffering” sheds some significant lights on this problem.
Saint Pope John Paul II analyzes the second chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. Saint Paul says: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” (Col 1:24) Why is Saint Paul saying that? Isn’t the suffering of Christ complete and sufficient for the humanity’s redemption? Yes. So can St Paul complete what is ‘lacking’ in Christ’s afflictions?
Christ’s suffering can be shared by us: Our Savior is a Divine Person whose actions in his human nature are infinitely perfect and complete. We don’t add anything to the suffering of Christ because there is no need. If the suffering of Christ is perfect and sufficient for our salvation, this does not mean that it is not opened to being shared by other people. Herein lies the deepest concept of the communion of saints: even though we cannot add anything to the suffering of Christ, we can still share in it. Why? Because, as Saint Paul said, “We are the Body of Christ.” We interact as the Body of Christ: the head helps the foot, the eye helps the ear, etc… Every time that one of the members suffers, they participate in the suffering of Christ for the redemption of humankind. The Catechism calls it “an ecclesial grace: The sick who receive this sacrament, ‘by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ’, ‘contribute to the good of the People of God.’ By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father.” (CCC, 1522)
The Church extends Christ’s redeeming suffering in space and time: Jesus Christ’s actions have an eternal value. He suffered physically in history but can’t suffer anymore. The Church must extend his redeeming suffering in history until the end of time. When we share in the suffering of Christ, we are perpetuating in human history the salvation caused by that suffering. Christ cannot suffer physically anymore, but we can. The Head cannot suffer but the Body, the Church, still can. God established the communion of saints as a tool to cooperate in humanity’s redemption only in the sense of what St Paul meant when he taught that “we are God’s coworkers for the salvation of all.” (see 1 Cor 3:9)
Suffering is not a passive act of self surrender: It is a dynamic participation in the suffering of Christ for the sake of the Church. Therefore, it is an active evangelization that the kingdom of God is present through the suffering of Christ. This presence is everlasting because of his resurrection. Suffering, death, and resurrection make up one and the same mystery of salvation. In this sense the Letter to the Romans states: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)
Two types of suffering
Two types of human suffering: There are two types of suffering. Either we suffer because of our sins, or we suffer even though we live a saintly life. The fact of suffering is the same but the reasons behind it and its consequences are different.
Sufferings amends our sins: If we suffer because of our sins, it is a grace from Christ to help us amend our lives. When we sin, we disturb the moral order bringing our being down to where God did not intend it to be: our sin brings the level of the world’s moral order down (Saint Pope John Paul II taught that we not only have a communion of saints, but also a communion of sin). Suffering for our sins reestablishes the moral order to be what God wants it to be. In that sense we read in Judith 8: 27: “So now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.”
Suffering increases our life of holiness: If we live a saintly life and we suffer, that suffering will benefit another weak, sinful member in the Body of Christ, the Church. We have heard our parents tell us many times ‘offer it up.’ As explained earlier, when we suffer, we ‘complete in our body what is lacking in the suffering of Christ, for the sake of his body, the Church.’ In this sense also St. Peter says: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13)
So, whether we suffer for our sins or because of our saintly life, our suffering is beneficial to us and the Church. Christ, in His infinite love, wisdom, and mercy, transformed a necessity of nature (suffering) into an instrument of salvation. We are going to suffer no matter what, so we might as well use that suffering to help us reach our salvation and help others reach theirs. In this sense the prophet Isaiah, speaking of the suffering of God’s servant (Jesus Christ), says: “he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Is 53:11)
Consequences of the Anointing of the Sick
Grace of the Holy Spirit: The sacrament of Anointing grants the suffering person the grace of the Holy Spirit to associate the suffering with Christ’s redemptive suffering. Since suffering causes an existential crisis, the suffering person needs all the graces they can get to stay focuses on the redemptive dimension of Jesus’ cross. Only the grace of the Holy Spirit that the person receives by the silent laying on of hands before the anointing with oil, can assure the presence of such a grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death.” (CCC, 1520)
Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick forgives sins: The Anointing of the Sick has several consequences. First, if the person is not conscious anymore and they haven’t gone to confession, this sacrament will forgive their sin. In this case, the Church is assuming the responsibility for acting on behalf of the person who is unconscious. This can happen because of the communion of saints: the strong member will act on behalf of the weak to receive the grace of Christ.
Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick grants the sick the grace of the suffering Christ: Spiritually, this sacrament will help the suffering person to endure it in order to receive the grace of the suffering Christ. The divine life of the risen Christ who conquered suffering will help the sick person to carry the cross of Jesus for their own salvation and the salvation of the entire Body of Christ. It might look at the moment that there is no exit because suffering hurts. But there is always resurrection after death. Such a strengthening happens through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism teaches: “This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death. This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will. Furthermore, ‘if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven’.” (CCC, 1520)
Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick could provide a physical healing: A physical healing is also possible as a result of the sacrament, if it is God’s will. Many sick people feel physically the working of Christ’s grace in them when they receive this sacrament. We are weak; we suffer; we don’t have an obvious answer. The only possible answer is to bring the priest to anoint the sick throwing them into the loving hands of Christ on the cross. The Council of Florence teaches that This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will (see Council of Florence (1439): DS 1325).
Saint Pope Paul VI: the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick sets the anointed in a ministry to the Church: In his reformation of the Church’s rites (1972), Pope Paul VI emphasized that this sacrament is not only a passive reception of Christ’s grace. Actually, it has a dynamic aspect in that the anointed becomes a minister to the Church. They actively participate in the redemptive suffering of Christ and, therefore, they become ministers to others. They set an example of total surrender to the cross of Jesus and complete in their bodies what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.
Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick does not replace confession or any of the other sacraments: This sacrament is not intended to be ministered only to those who are dying. It should be received by those whose sickness (any form of sickness) has paralyzed their lives. Even though the anointing forgives the sins of the unconscious person, it cannot replace the sacrament of reconciliation in those who are still able to confess their sins. Through this sacrament, the Church communicates Christ’s healing to whose whose actual physical sickness is so serious that it affects their lives and the lives of those around them. Their suffering is so intense that the grace of Christ in this special sacrament becomes indispensable. The Catechism rightly states: “This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house.” (CCC, 1523)
Reference: watch the a Body both of Suffering and Glorious in Catholicism