As his wife lay suffering in pain in a hospital bed in Mexico, having exhausted their last medical hope in an experimental treatment for metastatic melanoma, Andrew Bennett faced the darkness of death. His wife, Dawn, would live six more hours at most.
Just 10 days earlier in October 2016, as they remained hopeful for a cure yet acknowledged death could be near, Dawn had received the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick from their parish priest in an Anchorage emergency room. The devout Catholic woman found solace in confessing her sins, being anointed with oil and receiving Communion before departing for Mexico. She had lived out her faith with such passion that the priest, Father Scott Medlock of St. Patrick’s Church, said he prayed for his faith to be as strong as hers. Indeed, though her liver had failed and her body was drowning in toxicity, the mother of 14 seemed by all accounts to be in peak spiritual condition.
“I was happy that she was not going to be in pain and suffering and that she was going to see God — and sad at the same time, but mostly for myself,” Andrew said of his wife. All that remained for Dawn was to receive the final prayers, blessings and graces offered by the church, along with the hope of life in eternity.
Andrew and Dawn’s mother and sister summoned a priest. She was unable to give a confession and receive communion, so the priest anointed her with oil and prayed the Commendation of the Dying — the final prayer over the soul of the dying.
Her physical agony appeared to subside, and Dawn seemed at peace. Her family knew without a doubt she was in a state of grace. About 20 minutes later, she breathed her last.
“There was a lot of sorrow and crying, but at the same time it gave me a lot of hope and peace to see her receiving the (the Anointing of the Sick),” said Theresa Lorentz, Dawn’s sister. “It was a sign of hope, to see it as a new beginning and not the end.”
DEATH FACES CHRISTIAN HOPE
To fear the pain and unknowns of death is a normal human emotion, but faithful Christians can find solace in the hope of resurrection. The solemnity of Lent and celebration of Easter serve as a reminder of the promise of eternal life, said Father Medlock.
“We join together in dying with Christ and rising with him to new life,” he explained. “The promise of eternal life is joining with Christ in his death and in his resurrection, so it has everything to do with Easter.”
As the faithful approach death, the church makes a priority to offer spiritual gifts to prepare the soul for resurrection. Ideally the faithful will receive three sacraments at the time of death: reconciliation, anointing of the sick, and Holy Communion. This final receipt of the Eucharist is called viaticum, a Latin word meaning “food for the journey.” The priest then prays the Commendation of the Dying to complete the final rites.
If a dying person is unable to confess or take Holy Communion, the priest will administer one final sacrament, the anointing of the sick.
“This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Even if a person’s degree of awareness is unknown, the Anointing of the Sick is offered.
Father Medlock once responded to a family’s request for a loved one. As she lay comatose in the hospital, he anointed her forehead and hands with holy oil, bestowing on her the full graces of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. He prayed over his parishioner and offered words of comfort to her for a long while before leaving. About a week later she awoke from the coma.
She had heard every word he spoke. She remembered it clearly. And she was tremendously grateful.
Father Medlock said the emotional experience, as with Dawn Bennett, impacted him profoundly. As a former Methodist minister, he had prayed with the dying many times but only after becoming a Catholic priest did he encounter the unique fullness of the sacramental last rites. When that parishioner died soon after, he was grateful to have been part of her life and her death.
“It’s a privilege to be part of that journey,” he said. “The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is truly just a beautiful, beautiful gift for us from Christ.”
HEALING & ETERNAL SALVATION
The basis for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is rooted in Scripture. James 5:14-15 states: “Is anyone sick among you? Let them call for the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith shall save the sick; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” Mark 3:16 recounts, “They [disciples] drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.”
Though some report feeling physically healed after anointing, the church interprets “save the sick” and “healing” as referring to their salvation and spiritual healing.
“We pray for the strengthening of the spirit, the healing of the spirit, and we pray for the healing of the body,” Father Medlock explained. “The physical healing is prayed for, but it’s not something assured.”
One needn’t be dying to receive the Anointing of the Sick. In times of serious health issues due to injury or illness, advanced age, surgery or childbirth, the sacrament is available.
“The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that come with the condition,” explains the Catechism. “This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews faith and trust in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death.”
Father Patrick Brosamer of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church hopes to reintroduce the Anointing of the Sick into popular use.
“This wonderful and very powerful sacrament is available for a good reason,” Father Brosamer said, adding that the church always prays and “hopes for healing” of the body, while also strengthening the soul through the sacraments.
Father Medlock looks to Scripture to illustrate the profound “peace that surpasses all understanding” that comes with faith in resurrection and eternal life. After Jesus’ death the Apostles were scared and had withdrawn and locked themselves in a room.
“When they experienced the resurrected Jesus, everything changed in their life,” he said. “Death was no longer something they feared, and they went out to conquer the world.”
Father Medlock and Father Brosamer have witnessed many times that peace that surpasses all understanding, and they long to present this profound gift to everyone facing death.
“It’s the incarnation of our faith turning to Christ in times of death, where we seek to receive the gift of resurrection hope,” Father Medlock said. “Beyond any joy and love we experience on this earth, when someone dies it’s that time when we face that darkness of death and the light of resurrection hope.”