A reader asks:
I have a friend who is undergoing foot surgery soon. Although it is minor surgery, she will be under general anesthesia for over two hours. Her sister ended up in a coma for two weeks following a surgery so she wants to make sure she has her ducks in order confession, anointing of the sick etc. She went to our pastor and wanted to make an appointment for anointing and he said that it was not serious enough surgery and that cannon law dictates she can’t receive it. He commented that the faithful don’t know enough cannon law to understand it is an abuse of the sacrament to give it so freely. Is this right? And is there abuse in giving the sacrament freely to those who are sick? My friend is very upset about it. Your advice would be very welcome . Thank you for your help father. My prayers are with you.
In my opinion the priest is both right and wrong.
He is right that the sacrament should not be given frivolously. And it is very often given frivolously!
For example, I have seen regularly scheduled Masses at a parish for seniors wherein everyone, even the young people who brought the seniors, troops up to be anointed. That is an abuse of the sacrament for more than one reason.
First, though some of those people were pretty old, no one was in obvious danger of death.
Second, this sacrament should if possible be received in the state of grace. If a person is incapacitated, the sacrament of Anointing also forgives sins, but if a person is capable of confessing he should confess properly and receive absolution before being anointed.
Third, group anointing like that both reduce respect for the sacrament and nearly always insure that the sacrament is improperly administrated.
So, people who are sick with a cold probably shouldn’t be given this sacrament. The Second Vatican Council said that "’Extreme Unction," which may also and more properly be called ‘anointing of the sick,’ is not a sacrament for those only who are at 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 that person to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived." [SC 73]
The problem is that everyone is always in danger of death, which comes to us we know not when.
Let us remember that Anointing was and still is called Extreme Unction… the word "Extreme" does not mean that you are giving it on a skateboard or you are using huge amounts of oil.
It means that a person is "in extremis", that is, "in danger of dying".
IMO, I think she could be anointed due to the reason that she is going to have general anesthesia. For me that is a deciding factor. General anesthesia is always risky business, no matter what the actual surgery is, minor or major, because it often involves inducing paralysis and it requires airway management.
I am cautious about whom I anoint and for what reason. I insist on regular confession and absolution, preferably after Mass with Communion, and then in close proximity to the actual surgery which must be risky enough to warrant this "danger of death" sacrament.
My view of general anesthesia, even as highly developed as it is now, is such that I see it as an great enough risk to warrant anointing. Other priests may not agree, and they are free to. I have made my decision after discussions with physicians, including an anesthesiologist, and after having witnessed surgeries from the observer’s position next to the place where the anesthetist or anesthesiologist works, and after my own experiences of anesthesia.
In this case, I think it would be okay to seek the sacrament from another priest if the pastor does not want to administer it.
At the same time, I think it is good that the priest is diligent about the care of the Sacrament of Anointing. He shouldn’t be overly criticized. He seems to be taking it seriously, which is positive.