Communal Anointing

Celebrating the sacrament of the anointing of the sick at Eucharist

By Fr. Mike Barrett

This article first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Celebration. Download a print friendly version of this article.

While I commend each and every effort to provide comfort and grace to the infirm, the sick, the elderly and those anticipating surgery, my liturgical experience with the sacrament of the anointing of the sick has more often than not been one of exclusion, isolation and segregation.

Parishes offer “healing Masses,” which may be an anointing on the first Saturday of each month, or on one of the weekend Masses about twice a year. They give carefully orchestrated instructions as to where those to be anointed will be taken: Sometimes they are asked to sit up front (convenience for the presider?), and are even told to form a line not unlike the Communion procession. Such efforts to standardize the administration of this sacrament seem to give the recipients the least consideration of any members in the assembly.

There is no question that each and every step in the rite calls for careful attention to these fragile members who “send for the priests of the church.” Regularly scheduled communal celebrations are supported by the beautifully crafted prayers (and Preface!) provided in the Roman Missal and in the Rite of Pastoral Care for the Sick. No sacrament calls for the assembled to be included in its administration more than this one: by prayer, through support, in the presentation of the recipients, aftercare, and by the laying on of hands.

Catechesis

In our effort to celebrate this sacrament more inclusively within the Sunday assemblies, the members of our worship committee proposed some catechesis by way of the parish bulletin a month before the celebration, along with pulpit announcements encouraging the membership to escort parishioners, relatives or friends who normally would be unable to attend due to health limitations. Our turnout was greater than ever, which caused the ministers of hospitality and the ushers to buzz over the logistics of transporting the sick, etc. All were greatly relieved when they were assured again that the presider would amble into the assembly, thereby sparing the confusion of “moving” the sick. Following the consecration of the oil, after the homily, the presider began to approach the recipients as they rose, and invited those nearby to lay hands upon them.

Planning

The response in planning for these celebrations was hesitant on the part of some committee members, as this would differ from the past. One member warned that “ours is not a touchy-feely” parish. Another worried that fewer would be anointed due to a new format. Well, the celebrations abounded in the full, active worship and participation of the assembled on behalf of the sick who were anointed.

Tears flowed freely both among the assembly and the anointed as they felt the unction of the Spirit through the administration of holy oil and the laying on of hands. Many times, people were huddled in such great numbers laying on hands that a way had to be cleared for the presider to draw close to recipients. Some of the assembly jumped to their feet, moved through pews and out into aisles to become part of the ministration of the imposition of hands.

Transformation

In such an experience, the assembly is transformed. There are no bystanders or uninvolved members: Blessing God at the invocation over the oil, singing hymns of healing comfort during the anointing, and laying on hands properly places the responsibility of healing and caring where it belongs — in the assembly. Our weekend celebrations include pre-med students and residents from the community medical college. One such young couple transported their mom to our parish celebration to encourage her with love and support on her journey to health.

Such eucharistic celebrations as these create their own unique drama as the Spirit moves about and unfolds human hearts for yet another opening to the grace and healing power of God. Of course, such celebrations add time to the weekend liturgies. But time and communion spent with the sick is never wasted.

Fr. Mike Barrettt is pastor of Blessed Trinity Parish in Milwaukee, Wis., and a regular contributor to Celebration.