Understanding the sacraments: ‘Heal the sick’: a mystagogical catechesis

Healing was an important part of Jesus’ earthly ministry; the apostolic Church continues this ministry

Healing was an important aspect of Jesus’ earthly ministry—“his many healings of every kind of infirmity are a resplendent sign that ‘God has visited his people’ and that the Kingdom of God is close at hand” (Catechism, 1503).

He sent out the 12 to preach and perform healings in his name. Mark tells us that they “anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (6:13).

The apostolic Church continued this healing ministry, as we see in James: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders [presbyters] of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (5:14-15). The Church has recognized in this one of the seven sacraments (Catechism, 1510).

The sacrament is intended for the seriously ill, not just for those at the point of death. It can be repeated in the case of another grave illness. It also may be given prior to a serious operation or to the elderly who have become more frail (Catechism, 1515). It is administered by a priest (or bishop) by first laying hands on the sick in silence and then anointing them on the forehead and hands with blessed oil and saying, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up” (Catechism, 1513).

Following Benedict XVI’s model for mystagogical catechesis, we look first at the Old Testament context for this sacrament. An important source is the Suffering Servant Song in Isaiah 53: “it was our infirmities he bore, our sufferings that he endured.” Matthew saw this prophecy fulfilled in Christ when, on one occasion, he “healed all who were sick” (8:16). “This,” explains the Evangelist, “was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’” (8:16-17). The General Instruction to the Pastoral Care of the Sick (GIPCS) cites this same passage: “Christ himself, who is without sin, in fulfilling the words of Isaiah took on all the wounds of his passion and shared in all human pain (see Isaiah 53:4-5)” (GIPCS, 2). Christ is the Suffering Servant who healed us through his passion, resurrection and ascension.

The second element of a mystagogical catechesis looks at the signs found in the rite. Christ used a variety of signs such as spittle, mud, washing and the laying on of hands when he performed healings. One of the essential signs of this sacrament is the blessed oil that, in the words of the Catechism, “is a sign of healing, since it is soothing to bruises and wounds [Isaiah 1:6; Luke 10:34]” (1293). The prayer of blessing expresses the power of this sacramental sign: “send the power of your Holy Spirit, the Consoler, into this precious oil, this soothing ointment, this rich gift, this fruit of the earth. Bless this oil and sanctify it for our use. Make this oil a remedy for all who are anointed with it; heal them in body, in soul, and in spirit, and deliver them in every affliction” (Rite for the Blessing of Oils).

The final element of a mystagogical catechesis is to explain the significance of the sacrament for the whole of one’s life. The GIPCS explains the grace of this sacrament: “by this grace the whole person is helped and saved, sustained by trust in God, and strengthened against the temptations of the Evil One and against anxiety over death” (6).

The concluding blessing for the Mass for the Conferral of the Anointing of the Sick also suggests the comprehensive effects of this sacrament: “May God the Father bless you.  May the Son of God heal you. May the Holy Spirit shed light upon you. May God guard your body and save your soul. May he enlighten your heart and lead you to life on high” (Roman Missal).

The Church continues to carry out Christ’s charge to heal the sick “by taking care of the sick as well as by accompanying them with her prayer of intercession. She believes in the life-giving presence of Christ, the physician of souls and bodies” (Catechism, 1509). “And so in the sacraments Christ continues to ‘touch’ us in order to heal us” (Catechism, 1504).

Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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