Anointing of the Sick

And More on the Chair of the Priest Celebrant

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ROME, JULY 4, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.



Q: My wife and I go to Mass on first Saturdays to this church where the normal priest offers confession, Mass and anointing of the sick. Now, the normal priest was not there, but our new priest stood in for the normal priest. When the Mass was over the priest said: "Before, I give the anointing of the sick, I want it to be known that I will give it only to those who are: sick, dying, have a serious illness, or in danger of losing their life. Too many people abuse this sacrament." Was he right in making that statement? -- J.C., Corpus Christi, Texas

A: I have no idea if the manner or tone of the priest's statement was done with due pastoral tact. But he is correct as to the substance of the norms for administering the anointing of the sick.

Under present norms the sacrament may be administered "as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived" (Code of Canon Law 1004 §1).

The provisions of the ritual "for the anointing of the sick and their pastoral care," issued by the Holy See, clarifies the conditions under which the sacrament may be received.

Regarding the judgment as to the seriousness of the illness the document states that: "It is sufficient to have a prudent or probable judgment about its seriousness. All anxiety about the matter should be put aside and, if necessary, the physician might be consulted."

Also: "This sacrament can be repeated if the sick person had recovered after his previous reception of anointing. It can also be conferred again if, during the same illness, his dangerous condition becomes more serious."

Major surgery is also a sufficient motivation for receiving the sacrament even if the condition is not in itself immediately life-threatening: "Before a surgical section (popularly 'operation'), holy anointing can be given to the sick person as often as the dangerous illness is the cause of this surgery."

Here the Church distinguishes between an illness that might not of itself warrant reception of the sacrament, and the same illness preceding surgery. In the latter case, anointing becomes warranted.

With reference to the elderly: "Anointing can be conferred on the aged who are greatly weakened in strength, even though there is no sign of a dangerous illness." In this case the anointing may be repeated periodically as old age progresses.

The sacrament can also be administered to sick children: "from the time they have reached the use of reason, so that they can be strengthened by this sacrament." Consequently the motive for conferring the sacrament is not (though it may include) remission of their personal sins, but to obtain the strength they may need either for bearing their sufferings, or to overcome discouragement or, if it is God's will, to be restored to health.

The sacrament may also be conferred on the unconscious if "as believers they would likely have asked for the holy anointing while they were in possession of their faculties." Likewise, if a person is apparently dead but the priest "is in doubt whether the sick person is really dead, he can give him the sacrament conditionally."

Therefore, although the Church's dispositions allow for a generous administration of the anointing of the sick, the sacrament is ordered toward the gravely ill from a physical condition. It should not be administered generally and indiscriminately.

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Follow-up: The Chair of the Priest Celebrant

Several readers asked for clarifications on the location of the priest's chair (June 20).

A South African reader enquired if "the best position should be where the presider can sit and preach from, in case he is to preach from his chair."

Another priest, an associate pastor from New York, asked: "I am wondering if comment could be offered on the location of the seating for altar servers (acolytes) when serving Mass? In my parish, they are seated on either side of the presider. I believe this is inappropriate."

If I may begin with a brief terminological comment. The word "presider" has gained some currency among liturgists, but I usually refrain from using it in the context of the Mass as it does not appear in the official liturgical books.

The official translation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) does speak of presidential prayers, texts, office or presidential chair, but the person who presides is referred to most often as "priest celebrant."

Returning to our main theme, GIRM No. 136 states: "The priest, standing at the chair or at the ambo itself or, when appropriate, in another suitable place, gives the homily. When the homily is completed, a period of silence may be observed."

Thus the possibility of preaching from the chair is a factor in deciding where to locate it, but hardly the most important one as other locations are available. In most cases the basic criteria given last time for the chair's location would also make it a suitable place for preaching.

I would also observe that only the bishop preaches while seated. Even if a priest delivers the homily from the chair he does so standing.

The text of the GIRM quoted in the previous column clarified that only the deacon's chair, or that of eventual concelebrants, may be placed near the presidential chair.

The earlier custom of placing the acolytes on either side of the priest should therefore be discontinued and another suitable place be found for seating the servers from where they can exercise their ministry.

Churches that have installed fixed seats or benches beside the priest's chair might have to continue the previous custom for lack of viable alternatives. In such cases the norm might sometimes be fulfilled by leaving a suitable space on either side between the servers and the priest celebrant.