Catholic sacrament for the sick is in demand

CHICAGO — Mary Ellen Segraves could sense the fear in her ailing mother Ceil’s eyes the day after her knee surgery. But when the Rev. Yaroslav Mendyuk approached her hospital bed to offer the sacrament of the sick, Segraves saw her mother light up.

Following the priest’s lead, Ceil Segraves crossed herself with a frail hand taped with tubes and closed her eyes as Mendyuk anointed her forehead and hands with oil and recited the blessing from his prayer book. Her children then surrounded her and joined hands with the priest to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

“It gives you confidence,” said Segraves, 84, parishioner at St. Viator Catholic Church in Old Irving Park after receiving the sacrament. “It gives you a different prayer — a prayer received. You feel calm.”

Although most non-Catholic medical centers employ interfaith chaplains to counsel patients regardless of religion, only ordained priests can anoint ill Catholics, a sacrament formerly known as last rites or extreme unction. The rite, once reserved for the dying, is no longer considered last or in any way extreme. Since Vatican II, it has been offered to anyone who needs healing from a grave illness or injury.

But the greater demand combined with a shortage of priests threaten to create a painful shortfall for Catholics already afflicted. Priests worry that Catholic patients may suffer even more from neglect if the void goes unfilled.

Catholics find a prescription for the sacrament in the New Testament’s Book of James 5: 14-15: “Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man: and the Lord shall raise him up and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.”

Though some believe that passage refers to the miracle of physical healing, the primary purpose of the sacrament is to open a channel for reconciliation with God, said the Rev. William Grogan, Cardinal Francis George’s liaison for health care.

“There might be a physical healing of some sort and minimally that might be the release of stress and anxiety,” Grogan said. “But there is a healing between the soul and the savior.”

David Lichter, president of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, said the pressure on priests to do parish ministry has taken a toll on the number of clergy focused on health care. He said many parishes offer the sacrament of the sick in congregational settings so there’s no urgent need when the patient reaches the hospital.

But when emergencies arise, which happens more often with a surge in violent crimes across the city, Grogan said administering the sacrament to a patient requires an instant response, a personal approach and an investment of time. Even though the ritual takes no more than two minutes, priests must carve out plenty of time to comfort, regardless of other pressing responsibilities, he said.

“These events are not things you walk in and out of,” he said. “You stay bedside to console the survivors. Rather than the religious equivalent of fast food, we want (patients) to have nourishment of being part of the Catholic community.”