Anointing of the Sick and Consumerism

Last fall, I offered a reflection on anointing of the sick.  Here, I follow up with some additional reflection on anointing in a secularized society characterized by consumerism.

Consumerism is associated with a fragmented self.  Lacking a permanent and abiding sense of identity, individuals in a consumer culture are left to negotiate and establish their identities again and again.  Bruce Rittenhouse contends that “the individual who lives a consumeristic form of life must continually consume new good-signs in order to update his or her deployment of signs to present the most advantageous system of signs possible” and that “it is not simply taste, character, or categorical identity that must be asserted through a consumeristic form of life, but selfhood itself.” [Bruce Rittenhouse, Shopping for Meaningful Lives: The Religious Motive of Consumerism (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2013), 147.  Emphasis added.]  Illness can compound this problem, as persons experience alienation from friends and family, church communities, co-workers, God, and even their own bodies.  The self of the sick person, already diminished by the very nature of consumer culture and now depleted by illness, is in a state of what one might call “spiritual powerlessness.”  Indeed, for Charles Gusmer who uses this very phrase, it is the degree of this powerlessness that is decisive when considering whether to anoint. [Charles W. Gusmer, And You Visited Me: Sacramental Ministry to the Sick and Dying (Collegeville, MN: Pueblo, 1984, 1989, 1990), 87]  Anointing of the sick, then, is addressed to this state of powerlessness.

downloadAnointing addresses this crisis situation by reinserting the sick person into the overarching Christian narrative of God’s love.  In direct opposition to consumerist modes of abstraction, the rite does not envision administration of the sacrament as an isolated instance of pastoral care.  Ministry to the sick includes companionable visits, covering household chores, providing meals, bringing Communion to the homebound, etc., and it is a responsibility that devolves upon the local Christian community as such—a point made by the rite in nos. 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, and 43.  Numerous commentators have drawn attention to the idea that the sacrament of anointing is emptied of meaning if it is not part of wider context of pastoral care; here I draw on James Empereur as a representative example: “Anointing cannot be seen as an isolated ritual action but must mirror the acts of concern which precede and follow the anointing.  As in the case of the other sacraments, the authenticity of anointing depends on the quality of religious experience being articulated.” [James Empereur, Prophetic Anointing: God’s Call to the Sick, the Elderly, and the Dying (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1982), 205]

To put it another way, anointing of the sick is a profound statement of the Church’s belief that in illness “we should never have to stand alone.” [United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 2006), 256]  Consumerism is twinned with the notion that one’s worth and indeed one’s self-worth is determined by the degree to which one is productive, remunerated, and able to engage in purchase after consumer purchase.  Consequently, sicknesses that impinge upon one’s productivity are viewed in American culture as private or even shameful.  In the pastoral care it extends to the sick, the Christian community instead endorses the view of St. Paul, namely, that when one member of the body suffers, all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26).

Those who are sick are not merely told “you do not stand alone.” They are told “you stand forth.”  In Baptism, one is plunged into the Paschal Mystery of Christ and summoned to live a life of discipleship, following the Master who freely embraced the Cross and emptied himself for the sake of humanity.  The fourth-century John Chrysostom had urged the newly baptized in his community to regard the robes in which they had been clad: “Now the robe you wear and the gleaming garments attract the eyes of all; if you should will to do so, by keeping your royal robes shining even more brightly than it now does, you will always be able to draw all who behold you to show the same zeal and praise for the Master.” [John Chrysostom, Fourth Instruction on Baptism, 18]  Writing in our own day, Paul Meyendorff applies this baptismal theme to the sacrament of anointing:

Anointing of the sick, just like baptism, is not only for the forgiveness of sins, but for new birth, for enlightenment, for liberation from slavery, for adoption into sonship.  The oil we are now using reminds us of the oil of gladness with which we were anointed prior to baptism, as well as the anointing with chrism we received immediately after we emerged from the font.  We are thus reminded of the task that was set before us at our baptism: to “shine with the radiance of the saints.” [Paul Meyendorff, The Anointing of the Sick (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2009), 83.]

Do our Christian communities live up to this vision of anointing?


  1. I wish they would. Many Catholics are still stuck in an institutional model. We have debates about who may anoint. Sick people see the event as a servicing, not a service (liturgy). We lump the sacrament with Reconciliation (healing) instead of being a liminal encounter with Christ that leads to a deeper or new experience of the life of faith.

    Consider how we treat the sick. We send people to service them. But do we task the injured and ill with the opportunity for discipleship? Do we ask them to pray for their communities? To deepen their spiritual lives? To reach out by phone or mail or social media to proclaim what God has done for them? Do we pay attention to Mark 5:18-20? Maybe the experience of encountering Christ in Anointing of the Sick is less a sacrament of healing, and more one of vocation.

  2. For the parishes to which I have belonged, it is the lay movements that look after the sick in these extended ways, to the extent that the sick are members of the movement or relatives of family members. It may be a good reason to join a lay movement. If a sick parishioner spends time in a hospital or has the family notify the parish, a dedicated extraordinary minister will be sure to pay visits. Parishes can do so much more, as the author suggests.

    1. @Paul Schlachter:
      In medieval times orders of canon regular were established with tending to the sick and the dying, along with anointing of the sick, as one of their primary duties. Maybe we should see more canonries established now that the New Deal and post New Deal legislation in this area appear to be on the chopping block in the new administration.

      1. @Dunstan Harding:
        If I recall my medieval history, the Beguines also had a ministry to the sick. I think along the lines you suggest, bishops might oversee training, then appoint extraordinary ministers from among deacons and lay people to not only anoint the sick, but see to their ongoing material and spiritual needs.

      2. @Todd Flowerday:
        Lay ministers will be able do much, but Trent dogmatized that the priest or bishop is the proper minister of anointing and that the sacrament of the sick forgives sins (with Vatican II reinforcing that), so there’s no quick fix on expanding the ministry of the sacrament. (If one looks East for consoling hope, you can find examples where one priest was considered insufficient, but one required several priests….). I only note this because many people do seem aware that this is ground that has been trod in some sense before, and there are consequences to all that prior trodding.

  3. As a Chaplain, Board Certified by the Natl. Assn. Of Catholic Chaplains, with a full 4 year M.Div., pastoral care and counseling, liturgical training and development, and a Levitical member of the Knights of Malta (the original order of chaplains, ordained and lay, male and femsle, doing equal ministry side by side, except sacramentals), indeed the person accompanying the patient should be doing the anointing, since we are the presence of the Church during their stay. And ours is an ontological vocation and a calling. Canon laws have changed and do change. Is it more important to argue about the the sex of the person anointing, or to have the recipient receive the sacrament from the person who has created the Holy Ground of Church for them, who has been and will be accompanying them, who can knowledgeably pray the fullness of their suffering hearts and souls?

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