The reality of the priestly community can be said to be fulfilled and revealed in an especially meaningful way in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, about which St. James wrote: "Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the Church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven" (Jas 5:14-15).
As we see, the Letter of James recommends initiative on the part of the sick person who, personally or through his loved ones, asks for the priests to come. It could be said that the common priesthood is already being exercised here in a personal act of participating in the community of life enjoyed by the "saints," that is, by those who have been consecrated in the Holy Spirit, whose anointing is sought. But the letter also shows us that giving help to the sick through anointing is a duty of the priestly ministry performed by "presbyters." This is another time when the priestly community is realized through harmonious and active participation in a sacrament.
The initial basis of this sacrament can be found in Jesus' care and concern for the sick. The evangelists tell us that from the very beginning of his public life Jesus showed great love and sincere compassion toward the sick and all the other needy and suffering who sought his help. St. Matthew states that he "cured every disease and illness" (Mt 9:35).
For Jesus the countless miraculous cures were the sign of the salvation which he wanted to bring to humanity. Frequently he showed the clear connection in meaning between them, as when he forgave the paralytic his sins and only afterward worked a miracle, in order to show that "the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth" (Mk 2:10). His vision does not stop at mere bodily health; he also looks to the healing of the soul, to spiritual salvation.
Jesus' way of acting was part of the plan of his messianic mission, which the prophecy in the Book of Isaiah had described in terms of healing the sick and helping the poor (cf. Is 61:1ff; Lk 4:18-19). It is a mission which, even during his earthly life, Jesus wanted to entrust to his disciples so that they would give help to the needy and especially, healing to the sick. The evangelist Matthew tells us that Jesus "summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness" (Mt 10:1). Mark says that they "drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick" (Mk 6:13). Significantly, in the early Church this aspect of Jesus' messianic mission was highlighted and many pages of the Gospels devoted to it, and also the work he entrusted to his disciples and apostles in connection with his mission was underscored.
The Church has made her own the special concern which Jesus had for the sick. On the one hand, she has promoted many endeavors of generous service to their care. On the other hand, with the sacrament of Anointing she has given and continues to give them the healing touch of Christ's own mercy.
In this regard it should be noted that sickness is never a mere physical evil; it is also a time of moral and spiritual testing. The sick person has great need of interior strength in order to triumph over this trial. Through sacramental anointing Christ reveals his love and bestows on the sick the interior strength they need. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the oil poured in the wounds of the unfortunate man on the road to Jericho is a simple means of physical care. In the sacrament, the anointing with oil becomes the efficacious sign of grace and spiritual salvation, through the ministry of priests.
In the Letter of James we read that the anointing and the priestly prayer have the effects of salvation, comfort and the remission of sins. In commenting on the text of James, the Council of Trent says that this sacrament confers a grace of the Holy Spirit, whose internal anointing, on the one hand, frees the sick person's soul from sin and the remnants of sin, and on the other hand, gives him relief and strength, inspiring in him great trust in the merciful goodness of God (cf. DS 1696). Thus he is helped to bear more readily the discomfort and pain of illness, and to resist with great force the devil's temptations. In addition, the anointing sometimes obtains physical healing for the sick person as well, when that is advantageous for the salvation of his soul. This is the Church's doctrine, which the Council of Trent expounded.
Therefore, the sacrament of Anointing bestows a grace of strength which increases the sick person's courage and resistance. It causes spiritual healing, such as the forgiveness of sins, which is accomplished by the sacrament itself through the power of Christ, if there is no obstacle in the soul's disposition. Sometimes it brings physical healing. This is not the sacrament's essential purpose, but when it does take place it shows the salvation given by Christ in the abundance of his love and mercy for all the needy, which he already revealed during his earthly life. Even now his heart beats with that love which continues in his new life in heaven and is poured out upon his human creation through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The sacrament of Anointing is thus an effective presence of Christ in every instance of serious illness or physical weakness due to advanced age, in which the presbyters of the Church are called to administer it.
The traditional term for this sacrament was "Extreme Unction," because it was considered to be the sacrament of the dying. Vatican II no longer used this expression, so the Anointing could be better seen as the sacrament of the seriously ill, which it is. Therefore, it is not right to wait until the last moment to ask for this sacrament and thus deprive the sick person of the help which the Anointing gives the soul, and sometimes even the body. At the proper time, relatives and friends must express the sick person's desire to receive the sacrament in the case of serious illness. This desire is to be presumed, unless it was rejected, even when the sick person is no longer able to express it formally. It is part of his adherence to Christ through faith in his Word and acceptance of the means of salvation instituted by him and entrusted to the ministry of the Church. Experience also shows that the sacrament gives a spiritual strength which changes the way the sick person feels and gives him relief even in his physical condition. This strength is especially beneficial at the time of death, because it helps in the passage to the afterlife. Let us pray every day that at the end of our lives we may be given that supreme gift of sanctifying grace which, at least in anticipation, is already beatifying!
The Second Vatican Council emphasizes the Church's commitment to assist with this holy Anointing at the time of illness, old age and finally death. The Council says that the entire Church asks the Lord for a lessening of the sick person's sufferings, and in this way she shows Christ's love for all the infirm (cf. LG 11). The priest, the minister of the sacrament, expresses this commitment of the Church, "the priestly community," of which the sick person is still an active, participating member doing good works. For this reason, the Church exhorts the suffering to unite themselves to the passion and death of Jesus Christ in order to obtain from him salvation and a more abundant life for the entire People of God. Indeed, the purpose of this sacrament is not only the personal welfare of the sick, but also the spiritual growth of the whole Church. Seen in this light, the Anointing appears as it really is: a supreme form of that participation in the priestly sacrifice of Christ, of which St. Paul said: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church" (Col 1:24).
Ever greater attention must be drawn to the contribution which the sick make to the development of the Church's spiritual life. May everyone--the sick, their loved ones, their doctors and others who care for them--always take into account the value suffering has as a way of exercising the Church's universal priesthood, by offering spiritual sacrifice, one's sufferings in union with the passion of Christ. May everyone see in the sick the image of the suffering Christ (Christus patiens), the Christ who, according to the prophecy in the Book of Isaiah about the servant (cf. Is 53:4), bore our infirmities.
We know, by faith and experience, that the sacrifice made by the sick is very fruitful for the Church. The suffering members of the Mystical Body are the ones who most greatly contribute to the intimate union of the whole community with Christ the Savior. The community should help the sick in all the ways indicated by the Council, out of gratitude for the benefits which it receives from them.