There probably isn’t a Catholic priest anywhere who, after even a short time in ministry, cannot tell of some very remarkable happenings that followed his anointing of a seriously ill person in the Sacrament of the Sick. Beginning with my 5 years of hospital chaplaincy in the 50s & 60s, I can testify to several. The one that always comes to my mind in this connection is that of a young woman whom doctors had given less than 12 hours more to live. She indicated clearly her eagerness to receive the sacrament, which I was called in to give her. The doctors remained at her bedside to witness what I would do. One of them was a German intern about my own age, an English-speaker. In two previous conversations, he had expressed to me his astonishment that a young, educated man like me could believe in what he called the “unenlightened, medieval rituals” that I was practicing.
The punch line of my story is that the woman made an almost immediate and unexplained recovery and may very well be alive today. I’m not at all sure of what actually happened that day; I’m not inclined see miracles quickly or easily. On the contrary, I am always quite skeptical and I look for natural explanations. I can tell you this with certainty: those doctors – there were three of them – left that woman’s room shaking their heads in total amazement! The German intern stayed with me for a long time, wanting to talk about the incident – what really happened and what I thought it may have been. We became friends, and all I can recall about him from that time on is that he invited me to see the Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess!”
My experience has been that what the Sacrament of the Sick bestows is a very evident peacefulness that comes to the anointed and prayed-over person. New hope; a quiet, inner cheerfulness, often evidenced by a smile, however weak; confident acceptance of whatever may lie ahead. In this connection, too, the memory of a specific example returned to me from the distant past. It’s that of a carpenter friend of mine and my family, extremely ill but too young to be taken by death from his loving wife and devoted daughters. Under the influence, I believe, of the last sacraments, he happily let go of the only life he ever knew and loved and said toward the very end that he could see and feel the arms of Jesus welcoming him to his new and eternal home. His death, his departure, left much sadness – but not the slightest doubt about his own happiness, well-being and peace.
We can be sure that the man with the “unclean spirit” we met in the Gospel passage we just heard would today be correctly diagnosed as having a recognized and treatable disease. He was a very sick man – period. The limited scientific and medical knowledge of his time offered no other rationale than that an “evil spirit” had infected and overtaken his body and mind. And we are told that Jesus cured him. What are we to think?
Jesus was neither a scientist nor a magician. He was the Holy One of God and completely human. But he was a healer; he exercised an awesome power that was not called down from a distant God but called out of the depths of his own being. He did astonishing deeds of healing, of restoration, of collaboration with nature.
To belong to Church is to be a member of his body and to share, to one degree or another, in his power. Jesus is eager to act through any person who is willing to cooperate with him. There are no special words or rituals we must know or employ. In the humble strength of a whispered encouragement, the gentleness of a touch, the assurance of simply being there, the prayer uttered with or for someone in need, the blessing of unmerited forgiveness – in these and a thousand other ways, if we are willing, Jesus can and does work miracles through each of us.
I wish you a “miraculous” day!