Anointing for Mental Illness

I follow Fr Edward McNamara’s weekly liturgy Q&A feature on Zenit. Even if I disagree with his response (which I do this week) I have to admit the guy is willing to engage some of those who write to him. It’s not unknown for him to change his mind.

This week’s question:

Could someone who has mental problems/disorders receive the anointing of the sick? … I have a friend in Nova Scotia who visited a shrine in Quebec last summer. The shrine held a special anointing of the sick, but the priest announced that it was only for those truly ill and/or with a life-threatening illness. My friend was truly upset and didn’t know whether to receive the anointing. She has had cancer and now suffers an anxiety/panic disorder, always living in fear of the cancer returning.

We covered this in the Pastoral Care rites at length two years ago. The sacrament is for those who are seriously ill. The documentation doesn’t distinguish between physical or mental illness. Anointing is usually done once per illness, unless there is a remission or the person is elderly.

More instructive than the lists in PCS 8-12 is the intent of the sacrament. Anointing is not equated with healing and recovery. It is meant to serve for situations in which the person’s serious illness impinges on their faith.

I’m not familiar with the particulars of an anxiety/panic disorder. But it would seem to me that the sacramental situation is better addressed in the person’s home parish. Ponder it: you could get your infant baptized or get married while on pilgrimage–theoretically. But for many reasons, it wouldn’t be the first choice.

I appreciate that a religious shrine would offer anointing of the sick for pilgrims. Elderly people might benefit–and by the way, Fr McNamara errs in assigning an age to this category. The rite does not. (I think that some people age 70 are far from elderly, and certainly many younger people are “older” in the sense of their general weakness and attitude toward life.)

A cancer survivor with anxiety about the disease returning … this is a situation for pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. For a diagnosed disorder, it would be the occasion for anointing–once for a non-elderly believer.

Cases like this need to be handled more sensitively and creatively. If you get one anointing for a mental illness, then perhaps such an anointing should be planned to coincide with a breakthrough in therapy. The celebration of the sacrament might include a preparation period in which the purpose of anointing is carefully explained and applied to the individual’s situation. Anointing would be best done in the local community, surrounded by loved ones and other supporters. At minimum by the person’s pastor, someone presumably involved with the situation.

As I read this situation I was struck by the missed opportunity involved with a person getting anointed while on pilgrimage. What do you think?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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