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Format: 04/18/2014
Format: 04/18/2014


Valley News Dispatch: Catholics take a new view on a one-time death-bed ritual

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

By Rex Rutkoski

Valley News Dispatch

The chapel in the rural Penn Township countryside, just outside of Saxonburg and the home to Shelbourne Assisted Living facility, is the setting as Carole Thompson of Middlesex escorts her wheelchair-bound mother, Mary Terek, 86, into the light-filled room.

Her pastor, the Rev. Al Semler of Holy Sepulcher Roman Catholic Church, Middlesex, greets her warmly.

Terek smiles as Semler begins the rite now known as the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

Rev. Semler grew up in West Deer in the pre-Vatican II era when the sacrament was known, forbodingly to some, as "The Last Rites" or "Extreme Unction."

Roman Catholics are being asked to view the sacrament, once thought only to be a death-bed ritual, in a new light. The educational process is ongoing, though changes, illustrated in one way this morning in the prayerful exchange between Semler and Terek, came decades ago during the historic Vatican II sessions of the 1960s.

"I remember when I was young and you would be frightened when you saw the priest coming because that generally meant you were near death," Semler says. "The church wanted to get away from that and not have it be a scary time, but a time of need to give a person a real idea of the real strength of the Lord."

Not only isn't it necessary to be on one's death bed to receive that strength, but faithful are encouraged to take advantage of other opportunities to receive the sacrament, such as requesting anointing prior to surgery and at communal celebrations offered in church.

"The rite used in administering the sacrament is adaptable to various circumstances," says the Rev. James Tringhese, pastor of St. Regis Parish, Trafford.

Those circumstances, in addition to pre-surgery, include those who are seriously ill, but are expected to recover; those experiencing the afflictions of old age; people who are chronically or terminally ill; those with mental illness and persons near death. It can be administered more than once.

Some people receive it several times over a lifetime.

It is primarily a sacrament of spiritual healing, which should not be confused with a cure.

"It can often be a source of grace for facing the illness realistically," Tringhese says, "and believing in the love that God still has for the person even in the midst of pain, suffering or terminal illness."

Too often, people today associate anointing with giving up hope for a recovery, says the Rev. Vincent Kolo, who has anointed more than 2,300 people in the last four years as chaplain at Allegheny General Hospital, North Side.

Kolo, a Scott Township native, sees it as a rite of hope -- "hope for here and hope for eternal life."

Mary Terek says receiving the sacrament is important to her. "I think I'm with God in heaven (afterwards)," she says. "It gives me peace."

Her daughter, Carole Thompson, understands. She had surgery last fall and received it.

"I lost a lot of anxiety," she says. "You are more ready to accept whatever outcome you have."

It is a source of comfort to a family to see their loved one be anointed, she adds. "It is one of the mainstays of our faith," she says.

It is, in fact, a very beautiful sacrament to perform as a priest says the Rev. Tom Burke, pastor of Good Shepherd in Braddock.

"When I go into a hospital or nursing home or home, people light up like a Christmas tree," he says.

There is a sense of peace, just in anointing on the hands and forehead, to pray with them and to give them the Eucharist, he says, if a person is experiencing a lot of pain and suffering.

"It is like a spiritual security blanket. If it is near death, like in intensive care, there's a sense of everything will be OK," Rev. Burke says.

The Rev. Anthony Carbone, pastor of St. John the Evangelist, Latrobe, is not sure some people quite understand the sacrament in its newer form. Families often do not call for a priest when someone falls ill because they don't want to upset the sick person, he says.

Carbone sees that as a disservice to the loved one.

"We ought to be helping them prepare for death," he says. "The whole purpose of the sacraments is for our salvation."

Still, Rev. David Poecking, pastor of St. Michael, Pitcairn, and Pittsburgh Diocesan chaplain to Forbes Campus of West Penn Hospital, Monroeville, finds more people are less shy about being anointed.

Many who once associated anointing closely with death now understand the broader view of it, he says. "Nowadays, most of the people I encounter readily welcome anointing," he says.

To read more, visit the Valley News Dispatch web site.


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