In Mark 6:7-13 Jesus sends the twelve out, two by two to the mission field. He gives them authority over unclean spirits, and the Gospel records that they “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13). We see later in the life of the Church the practice of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is closely related to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Together, these two sacraments are referred to as the Sacraments of Healing.
“Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders 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. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” (James 5:13-16)
This sacrament is reserved for those with serious or chronic illnesses. And there are certainly people who will attest to receiving a physical healing when receiving this sacrament. But it is important to note that from the Catholic perspective, the sacraments are not and never have been some kind of “magic,” nor are we guaranteed a physical healing when anointed with oil and prayed over by our priests. What we are certain of is the presence of Christ in this sacrament, and how he will strengthen us to deal with whatever we may endure.
As with many things, Catholicism is a balance between two extremes. On one hand, you will find Christians who believe that the “age of miracles” ended with the apostles, and there are no miraculous answers to prayer in our lives today. At the other extreme, you will find those who profess a “prosperity Gospel,” and believe that God will heal any illness if we simply have enough faith. Catholics would find both of these extremes to be in error.
From the Catholic perspective we understand that the most important thing to God is the condition of our soul — are we living in a state of grace, and are we growing in holiness. Sanctification is after all what we are to strive for (Hebrews 12:14), heaven is our goal, and “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose“ (Romans 8:28). It is a reality of life that those sufferings we endure, including poor health can draw us closer to God, require us to lean more fully on Him, take the focus off of ourselves and help us to grow in holiness. The Catechism speaks to this in CCC1501 – “Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.”
While many often question why God would allow illness, perhaps a better question would be this — what is it about our human nature that often requires suffering in order to redirect our focus on the things that are most important in life? We can become so easily self-absorbed and focused on things far less important than eternity. Suffering has a way of returning our focus to that which is truly important and central to our lives, if we allow it. Perhaps this is why St. Paul writes in Romans 5:2-5 “Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Yet we do also pray for healing, but always within the context of what God’s will is for this particular situation. This ultimately comes down to trust – trust that God both knows and desires what we most need. And sometimes, what we most need may be to allow him to strengthen us to endure, not remove a particular cross from our lives. So as the Catechism notes in CCC1512 — “the liturgy has never failed to beg the Lord that the sick person may recover his health if it would be conducive to his salvation.” The most important thing to God will always be the state of our soul and our growth in holiness. It should be the most important thing for us as well.
So while we do pray for physical healing and hope that may be the result of our prayer and this sacrament, we also understand that “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. 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.’” (CCC1520).
The Anointing of the Sick is a gift given to us by Christ to help us to grow in holiness, as are all the sacraments. And we trust in him to know what we most need, and know that he will never abandon us as we strive to live in his holy will for our lives.