Sunday, March 22, 2009

Text size: increase text sizedecrease text size Sacrament for the sick is in demand

Once reserved for the dying, the anointing of the sick is now offered to any Catholic who needs healing from a serious illness

By Manya A. Brachear |Tribune reporter

Mary Ellen Segraves could sense the fear in her ailing mother Ceil's eyes the day after her knee surgery. But when 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 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."

For decades, the local parish offered the sacrament at all hospitals that fell within its boundaries. But that approach dates back to a time when five priests occupied one rectory and shared sacramental duties.

Now, only one priest oversees a parish—if not more than one parish. It's also more common for patients to go where their insurance sends them, which is not always the hospital closest to their spiritual home.

Grogan said many patients simply don't have a priest of their own to call and rely on the hospital to find one for them.

"For most of the [Baby] Boomers, who we know from statistics are not church affiliated, illness can be an occasion for review of one's life and conversion," Grogan said. "We want to be present for them. We don't have the personnel now."

To solve the shortfall, the archdiocese has authorized priests from the Eastern eparchy, religious orders and dioceses inside and outside the U.S. to work in area hospitals. In fact, most of the priests already hired as chaplains in the area's 22 Catholic hospitals hail from overseas. Three Jesuit priests currently volunteer at Stroger Hospital. Berwyn-based MacNeal Hospital, where of the majority of patients are Catholic, is in the process of hiring a Catholic priest. The VA's Hines Hospital in Maywood employs ordained priests active in the reserves or who once served in the military. Mendyuk, who administered the sacrament to Segraves at Advocate Health Care's Illinois Masonic Medical Center, is from the Byzantine rite.

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 rush to the patient's side as soon as possible and 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 for a period of time 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."

Mendyuk, who also leads a Ukrainian Catholic parish in Munster, Ind., always takes his time when he administers the sacrament. After anointing Segraves, he engaged her in conversation and vowed to be by her side, no matter when she called. He returned with communion every day until she was discharged from the hospital.

"I'm praying every day for my patients," Mendyuk assured her. "You are on my golden list. You don't have to remember my name. I'm the only Catholic priest in the hospital."