—until I realized I was the ignorant one in need of instruction
Recently during Mass, the celebrant invited anyone in the congregation to come forward to receive the sacrament of the sick. Impulsively, I turned to my husband and mouthed our six-year-old daughter’s name. Without missing a beat, he grabbed her hand, whispered in her ear and joined the line of geriatrics to receive the sacrament.
Almost immediately, I regretted my decision. The young couple in front of us, who had been forced to interact with my small children as my toddler repeatedly tossed anything and everything on their pew, began to whisper to themselves when they saw my husband and daughter leave their seats. I saw other people watching too as they moved down the line toward the priest.
Initially, I was embarrassed. I hated the scrutiny of people watching and wondering about my child. I wondered whether I should have just bypassed the entire thing.
The truth was my daughter had been struggling with stomach issues for the last six months. We had been to doctors and specialist, and nothing yet had been successful in curing her. Was it serious? Nothing yet suggested it. But she was suffering, and we had no way of knowing whether it was a physical problem or rooted in a deeper anxiety issue. After weeks of the symptoms lying dormant, I thought my prayers were answered; yet in the past week she returned to her previous struggles.
Yes, she was sick. And yes, I wanted the Lord to heal her. And if the sacrament of the sick could help her in any way, I wanted her to have it.
The young man in front of me began to crane his neck, captivated by my daughter. Suddenly, he turned to his wife and motioned for the baby she held on her lap. She quickly did what he directed, and the young father joined my sweet girl to receive the sacrament.
In that moment my hesitation turned to pride. I had been reflecting on the works of mercy and how to incorporate them in my life, and here I was, instructing the ignorant. I gave myself a little pat on the back for being a witness, even though it had made me uncomfortable.
Later that night something from the interaction didn’t quite sit right with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the anointing of the sick offered in the context of Mass and wondering why more people didn’t come forward to be healed from their afflictions. After all, aren’t we all, in some way, in need of healing from something? We promote engaging frequently in other sacraments, like confession and the Eucharist, so why not encourage the full congregation to participate in this one?
As always when needing to educate myself about the ins and outs, and whats and whys of the Catholic faith, I turned to the Catechism. Soon I realized that the gnawing feeling I had, leading me to a deeper understanding of the sacrament, was the Lord extending his mercy to me. You see, I was the ignorant one in need of instruction.
Anointing of the sick is not a sacrament bestowed upon children who are not yet of the age to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. As the Catechism instructs, although this is not just a sacrament for those at the point of death, it is limited to times when “anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age” (Catholic Catechism, 1514.) Because it confers the forgiveness of all sins, the anointing would only be appropriate for those who have hit the age of reason (which is often considered seven years old).
Do I think I sinned or made some grave error in sending my daughter to receive this sacrament? No. My intention was pure and in earnest. But the point of this testimony is simple: in focusing so much on how I could be a vessel of mercy toward others, I forgot that I must first, and always, be open to the mercy that Christ desires to bestow upon (at times, ignorant) me.
Maria Garabis Davisholds a Juris Doctor degree and a BA in theology. A former youth minister and now practicing attorney, she resides in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and four children.