Sunday, June 28, 2009

Catholics take a new view on a one-time death-bed ritual
Monsignor Michael Begolly, pastor of Mt. St. Peter church in New Kensington, administers the Sacrament of the Sick to Mary Matviko at her New Kensington home.
Jason Bridge/Valley News Dispatch

Sunday, June 28, 2009

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 Regional 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.

The aging population likely has led to a much broader administration of the sacrament, Poecking says.

He recently performed the rite for parishioner Andrew DeBone, 92, a resident of Manor Care, Monroeville.

"My father is most appreciative of Father Dave's visits," says Donna DeBone of Monroeville, who is a volunteer Eucharistic minister at Manor Care.

She likes the new way of looking at the sacrament, which she calls "the center of our religious life."

Ross resident Marie Schuster's husband, Lawrence Schuster, was anointed three times in the period between suffering a stroke in 1999 and his death in 2007.

"He had such a peaceful look on his face after receiving the sacrament," she says. "It made it so much easier for me."

Dolores McFeaters of West Homestead understands.

"I can't tell you what an uplifting feeling it was, even with all the sorrow, to know a priest was there when my sister died," she says. "There's nothing more calming than a minister giving a blessing at a time like that."

Mary Cavicchio, 85, of Trafford, who has had several heart surgeries, says she was happy to be given the opportunity to receive it recently at her home from her pastor, Tringhese.

She finds it reassuring.

So did her grandmother, says Kim Halula of Wimmerton, near Latrobe. Her grandmother, Mary Gresh, 91, died June 3, shortly after being anointed.

"I think she was holding on for the sacrament. We just know in our hearts," Halula says. "Even though she was unconscious, I felt she was aware of what was happening."

Priest shortage yet to impact sacrament ministry in region

The Rev. Vincent Kolo wants to remain optimistic about how the priest shortage may impact one of his church's vital sacraments.

Other priests in the Pittsburgh and Greensburg Dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church share his hope.

"Several years ago, someone said that the shortage would force the church to look at what was essential to priestly ministry," says Kolo, chaplain at Allegheny General Hospital, Pittsburgh. "The day that priests do not care for the sick will be a sad day."

He has administrated the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to more than 2,300 people in the last four years. And he believes that, in contrast to some major cities like Chicago, if his fellow clergy continue to make it a priority, those in need of receiving it locally will not go wanting.

A recent Associated Press story reported that in Chicago, greater demand for the sacrament, which can only be administered by a priest, combined with a shortage of priests threaten to create a painful shortfall for Catholics.

David Lichter, president of the National Association of Catholic Chaplins, says the pressure on priests to do parish ministry has taken a toll on the number of clergy focused on health care.

To address the shortfall, the Chicago archdiocese authorized priests from the Eastern eparchy, religious orders and dioceses inside and outside the U.S. to work in hospitals. Most of the priests hired as chaplains in the Chicago area's 22 Catholic hospitals are from overseas.

That has not been an issue in this area.

"I would say there is no shortage to the point of affecting hospital coverage in Pittsburgh," says Rev. Kolo. "There are plenty of priests in the greater Pittsburgh area to cover sick calls to hospitals and nursing homes."

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