When should someone receive the Anointing of the Sick? If I asked you to close your eyes and picture the Sacrament of Anointing, what image would come to your mind? I think many Catholics would picture a priest standing at a hospital bedside.
For an increasing number of Catholics, however, the mental picture would be different. They would picture a parish gathered for Sunday Eucharist, with 30 or so people-some visibly ill, some apparently perfectly healthy-coming up the aisle to be anointed, some with their spouses or caregivers. Although the sacrament began as a ritual of healing, over time the emphasis shifted to the forgiveness of sins on the deathbed, when such forgiveness would be the final preparation for heaven.
The Second Vatican Council returned the original meaning to the sacrament by emphasizing that it is not only for those who are at the point of death, but for anyone who is seriously ill, including mental or spiritual illness. It also helped move the Anointing away from a private service and back toward a community-based one. Today we are all aware that tensions, fear and anxiety about the future affect not only our mind but our body as well. These illnesses can be serious. They can move us to ask for the healing touch of Christ in the Sacrament of Anointing. Persons with the disease of alcoholism or persons suffering from other addictions can be anointed. So can those who suffer from various mental disorders. The anxiety before exploratory surgery to determine if cancer is present is a situation in which Christ's power can be invoked in the sacrament. In these cases the person does not have to wait until the illness is so grave that he or she is in the hospital or institutionalized to celebrate the sacrament. Sacraments, after all, are community celebrations.
It is preferable to celebrate them in the context of family and parish even before going to the hospital. The sick person has a better opportunity to appreciate the prayers and symbols of the rite when in her or his customary worshiping community.