Saturday, June 22, 2019


Don't get me wrong, I love clarity when it comes to the faith and moral teachings of the Church as well as the Church's canon law.

But I tend to agree with Pope Francis who told a theology seminary in my hometown of Naples that, “Mercy is not only a pastoral attitude, but it is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus,” he said. “I encourage you to study how, in the various disciplines - dogmatic, morals, spirituality, law and so on - the centrality of mercy can be reflected..."

Bishops, priests and deacons as well as other pastoral workers must listen to their parishioners and not be so wrapped up in a particular moral teaching so as to miss the struggle that almost every human being has in his personal life.

Let's take the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Strictly speaking this Sacrament should be administered to people who are entering a serious illness or are dying from a particular disease or medical issue.

Some would say, though, that this Sacrament should only be offered to those who have a particular illness, not to those who might die from some procedure that has nothing to do with a particular illness.

For example, let's say a perfectly healthy person who has the need for a knee replacement due to wear and tear, seeks out a priest for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick prior to surgery. I would have no problem offering this person the Sacrament, because knee replacement is a difficult surgery and recovery can be lengthy. On top of that one is completely placed under anesthesia.

One can anticipate a number of things that could happen but might not, to include death itself during the surgery.

Why not anoint this person and encourage others to seek the  Sacrament for any serious surgery they will have?

I just had a colonoscopy and was put under with a mild anesthesia. But I could have died and there could have been serious complications if the GI doctor nicked or clipped something that caused the loss of blood to the point of death. I might not have awoken from the anesthesia. Should I have been anointed prior to this surgery????? I wasn't because some would say to have been anointed for this would have be an abuse of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

The more doctrinaire and legalistic would say the Sacrament is only for a serious illness and the anointing is to address that illness already present, not to foresee unexpected or unforeseen circumstances such as sudden death from anesthesia or a medical mishap.

Many years ago I had a parishioner undergo elective surgery to reduce the size of her stomach so she might lose weight. Her obesity was such that she could suffer a stroke or heart attack and die.

I anointed her prior to the surgery. And yes, something went wrong during the surgery, and she died on the operating table.

Was I wrong to anoint her?


Anonymous said...

Mercy being the substance of the Gospels makes me think of Jesus and the two thieves on their crosses.
One repents and immediately forgiven. Period.Ticket to Paradise.
Jesus asks the Father to forgive his executioners, as He realizes that they don't comprehend what they are doing.
The forgiving father receives his repentant son. Welcome home. Throw a party.
Being spiritually generous to one whose heart is humbly disposed to union with God is how Mercy strikes me.
So..I think yes! if a person is asking for the Anointing of the Sick they are wanting union with God it seems, and there is risk of death then I agree with granting the request.
I have been the recipient of pastoral spiritual generosity...and it gave me the strength to get through harsh difficulties as I returned to the Church...and boy have I returned!!!

Anonymous said...

CCC 1514 The Anointing of the Sick "is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone 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."

A priest may anoint those who are preparing to undergo surgery without being concerned that he is, somehow, violating the purpose for which the Sacrament has been given to the Church.

Anonymous said...

So you’re saying you will violate a literal reading of church rules if you like the person & find them sympathetic. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:45 - If your comment was directed to me, no, one do not violate the Church's rules by anointing a person who is going to undergo surgery or someone who has grown weak under the burden of his/her years.

The commentators - canonists, theologians, bishops - are close to unanimous in the understanding that the Sacrament of anointing can be celebrated for those who are to undergo surgery. And it has nothing to do with whether or not the priest likes the person or whether or not he finds the person sympathetic.

John Nolan said...

CCC 1514 doesn't quite answer Fr McDonald's question, and if you read the article on Extreme Unction in the (older) Catholic Encyclopedia, which is available online at New Advent, you will find that there were differing views concerning the sacrament over the centuries. Not until Trent was it formally defined as having been instituted by Christ himself.

However, it was always understood that the sacrament relates to bodily sickness, and cannot be given to convicted criminals or those about to suffer martyrdom, although these people are certainly 'at the point of death'. The modern term 'Sacrament of the Sick' reinforces this connection.

Someone about to undergo surgery for a condition which is not in itself life-threatening does not require anointing. It's nothing to do with 'mercy'. The morbidly obese woman was a different case, since she had in effect a life-threatening illness.

For those about to undergo surgery, or criminals about to be executed, or soldiers about to go into battle, the Church provides sacramental Confession, Absolution and Communion. When we had capital punishment it was usual for the condemned person, if a Catholic, to have Mass said in the condemned cell on the morning of the execution (8 am except in London when it was 9 am).

I don't understand what all the fuss is about.

Anonymous said...

There is no fuss.

These canons (998 & 1004) can be summarized as follows. Those who satisfy three conditions may be anointed:
1. A baptized Catholic,
2. Reached the age of reason,
3. Begun to be in danger from illness or the infirmities of age, or have become sick again or underwent a further crisis. It should be noted that the danger need only have begun to exist. The person does not have to be "in extremis" (in imminent danger of dying). This is a change from the pastoral practice before the Second Vatican Council.
The ritual gives the following examples:
· "those who are dangerously ill through sickness or old age"
· "a sick person...before surgery whenever the surgery is necessitated by a dangerous illness"
· "elderly people...if they are weak, though not dangerously ill"
· "sick children...sufficiently mature to be comforted by the sacrament"
· "sick people who have lost consciousness or who have lost the use of reason...if ...they would have requested it if they had been in possession of their faculties"

TJM said...

So it sounds like routine surgery would not be a qualifying event.

rcg said...

Anesthesiologists are awesome but anytime someone is going under I would get the Sacrament. I had reconstructive surgery on my foot after a business trip to Central America. Apparently the defense budget was in straights at the time and I had been given the bare minimum joy juice to keep me a gloamy state. For some reason I awoke and sat up to check on the surgeons progress. They gave a nod to the anesthetist and I was back in la-la land. That could have gone badly, I understand, and although I had no ill affects the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick after my confession was a great comfort.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

A friend from childhood recently underwent "routine surgery" for a hip replacement. All went well until post-op day two when she developed a severe infection which blossomed into sepsis. This happened very quickly. (Severe infections in infants and small children can result in death in just hours.)

I have known numerous people who went in for "routine surgery" and, for a variety of reasons, became seriously ill. It may have been sepsis, pneumonia, blood clots, or some other life threatening condition.

I anointed her before the surgery and, again, when she was in a drug induced coma in order to help her body heal. I have not violated the spirit or the letter of the law.

Anonymous said...

Rcg, if you were in a gloamy state you definitely were not deep into the night
for anything other than a skin excision.

Anonymous said...

I wish there were some way around colonoscopies---those are among the worst medical procedures!

TJM said...

I have had both hips replaced and never considered being anointed but I did go to Confession

rcg said...

Bones in left foot were a mess; required reshuffling to return to original alignment then pinning in place with wires that extended out the end of my toes skewering the bones like kebabs. Six weeks later the doc pulled the skewers out. This time with no anesthesia at all. It was Exhilarating.

John Nolan said...

Those in danger from some external cause, such as war, natural disaster, sentence of execution, or surgery unrelated to a dangerous illness, are excluded from the Sacrament of the Sick.

Should a priest take it upon himself to anoint in these circumstances he is acting contrary to the mind of the Church and probably rendering the sacrament null.

I have read of priests who hold 'healing' Masses and anoint the whole congregation on the grounds that 'we are all ill through sin'. They should be held to account for abusing the sacrament, but I bet they aren't.

John Nolan said...

Para 1517 of the CCC has the following:

'Like all the sacraments the Anointing of the Sick is a liturgical and communal celebration ... it is very fitting to celebrate it within the Eucharist [i.e. in the middle of Mass] ... If circumstances suggest it, the celebration of the sacrament can be preceded by the sacrament of Penance ...'

I recently posted about 'Novus Ordo conceits' whereby liturgists impose their pet theories on everyone else. This is a good example. There is nothing in Canon Law, the Apostolic Constitution of Paul VI (1972) which is the general instruction for the reformed rite, or indeed in Sacrosanctum Concilium, which says or even implies this.

There may be some with a dangerous (i.e. life-threatening) illness who want to celebrate it with the other good people of the parish. I suspect that most do not. Secondly, Confession and Absolution, if the sick person is conscious, are the necessary preliminaries to the Sacrament of the Sick. It's not a question of whether 'circumstances suggest it'. Thirdly, although the sacrament does not only apply to those in extremis, it is still appropriate for those who are close to death, despite the fact that they might have received it at the start of their illness.

When I'm on my deathbed I don't want to be wheeled into church, thank you very much.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Surgery, in and of itself, is dangerous. A "routine" procedure, as we all know, can lead to complications that are, unrelated to a "dangerous illness" for which the surgery was undertaken, potentially life threatening.

Even without complications, recovery in and of itself is potentially dangerous, painful, and fraught with dangers.

Celebrating the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick for a person undergoing serious surgery is not contrary to the will of the Church and does not render the Sacrament null.

John Nolan said...


You've missed the point. The illness itself must be dangerous, not the surgery (which always carries a risk). This is an external cause. Someone might want cosmetic surgery, or surgery to 'change' his or her gender. Would you anoint them before they went under the knife? I would hope not, but if you did, you would nullify the sacrament.

DJR said...

In the Byzantine Rite, we receive the mystery of Holy Anointing on the Wednesday before Pascha, referred to as "Holy and Great Wednesday." It is not required that one have a serious illness; the entire parish can be anointed. Those of the age of reason should go to confession beforehand.

At other times, anyone who is contemplating surgery or is sick can receive the sacrament. Our pastor will usually have the ceremony after liturgy on Sundays, but he would do it any other day as well.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

John - I did not miss the point.

Any significant surgery, and the use of anesthesia for surgery is, itself, dangerous and potentially deadly. This is particularly true of the elderly and/or infirm.

Any significant surgery, is undertaken to heal a serious, potentially deadly, problem.

rcg said...

I see John’s point although I also agree about the danger FrMJK cites. In my case I have an enlarged heart. It seems to be genetic and not a result of disease. It actually seems to increase endurance. But they were concerned and decided to treat it like a diseased heart and let the rate stay up which means I was not really out. My sleeping HR is close to 40 so they were pretty excited when I had to go out. I have had other minor surgery and there was no concern. I did get the chaplain to hear my confession for the minor procedures. It is good that he is there for that and I want to respect his mission.

John Nolan said...


Would you address my question concerning cosmetic surgery? It is simply not true that 'any significant surgery is undertaken to heal a serious, potentially deadly problem'. It would be entirely appropriate to anoint someone who has been diagnosed with cancer, and again if they were about to undergo surgery for it.

Mountaineering is a dangerous activity, but you would not anoint someone about to attempt the ascent of Everest.

But you know this already. If I, as a layman, have no difficulty in discerning the mind of the Church on this matter, then you, as a priest, can surely do so.

There remains the possibility that you have understood the mind of the Church but choose to act contrary to it. Sadly, this is common among a certain generation of priests.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

John, significant surgery is serious and potentially deadly. Is a patient having a mole removed under local anesthetic? I think they do not qualify for the Sacrament of the Sick. Is a person who, having lost 200 pounds, preparing to undergo cosmetic surgery, a panniculectomy, eligible? I think so.

Walking out one's door is potentially deadly, but I do not, you will be glad to know, anoint those who go to work each morning.

I have no difficulty discerning the mind of the Church. I would suggest that the mind of the Church is not to be found in following the letter of the law. The mind of the Church is to offer benefits generously. The supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls.

You are primarily concerned with the letter of the law, and you doubt the capacity of those who do not share your views on this question of anointing - and many things - to know the laws and to apply them judiciously and prudentially. That's unfortunate, in my view.