Husband & Wife Articles


Sacramental Strengths in Sickness

A young husband reflects on his wife’s illness

Jason Godin

“This isn’t what you want to hear, but the test results show that you have … “

Youth tends to dismiss the Ash Wednesday reminder that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as a worry for another day. A dire medical diagnosis, however, can sharply return our understanding to the mortality of all ages. How does a husband or wife with young children, when handed such devastating news in their 20s or 30s as opposed to their 70s and 80s, handle all that lies ahead as a family? Thankfully, as during all other moments in life, a sacrament of the Church is available to strengthen the basic building block of human society.

A Sacrament of Healing …

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that Anointing of the Sick is one of the sacraments of healing that “any member of the faithful” can receive “as soon as he or she begins to be in danger of death because of sickness” (250, 316). Typically, it is a priest who celebrates the sacrament by anointing the forehead and hands of the sick person with holy oil, accompanied by prayer for that individual to receive “special grace” that “unites the sick person more intimately to the Passion of Christ” (CCCC, 318-319). By asking for “comfort, peace, courage” and “even the forgiveness of sins” if the sick person is unable to make a Confession, Anointing of the Sick serves both the sick person’s good and “the good of all the Church” (CCCC, 319).

… Serving the Entire Family

Serious sickness accelerates a lesson usually learned much later in life – limitations of ourselves and dependence on others. It can seem like the demands of fatal illness ask too much from a young family. Even the strongest husbands and wives may find their marriage vow “to have and to hold, in sickness and in health” weighted down by doubt, misery or regret over their circumstances when medical bills pile up as the kids continue to pile on each other. Reserves of faith, hope and charity – thought to be endless when untested – can fade fast in situations of stress.

Anointing of the Sick, however, begins to replenish spousal strength within the solidarity of a broader parish “family.” The sacrament gives the priest an opportunity to direct the family to resources that can supply time, treasure and talent to an ailing family. Other families can generously offer to cook meals or share from their own experiences with illness what works and doesn’t work from day to day. If nothing else, the sacrament affords an ear that listens or a shoulder to sob on in an hour of need.

In addition, Anointing of the Sick models, from one generation to the next, the strength faith can give in times of trial. A medical diagnosis doesn’t define what it means to be a husband, wife or child. A family – the character of “who they are” – radiates much more from “what they believe” and “how they act” together in the crucible of daily living. The chance for children to participate in sacramental action – helping by holding the vessel containing the blessed oil, standing with the missal as the priest reads the Liturgy of the Word – fuels the fires of faith. Ultimately it adds fruits of grace to the family tree that their children’s children will harvest.

A dire medical diagnosis can produce a flood of emotion in short order. The latest medical breakthroughs may absorb some of the shocking news. But optimism in advances made by mankind fade too easily and, seemingly, too soon as treatments designed to cure also cause discomforting pain to the ones we love. Doubts also cloud thoughts about the past and future. Could anything have been done to prevent the illness? Will insurance cover all the treatments?

Anointing of the Sick helps alleviate these fears. It offers an advance in sanctity. Its graces strengthen all parties – both the individual patient and the family of providers – on the road of healing. And, like all the other sacraments of the Church, it reminds us how the Divine Doctor is always at work.

Jason Godin lives in College Station, Texas, with his wife and their two children. He teaches United States history.