This past week, one of the local neighbours invited me to attend a movie with him at the Varsity Cinema. The movie that he asked me to attend with him was called: “Won’t You Be My Nieghbour.” This is a documentary about the children’s broadcaster Fred Rogers and his show for children, which was better known as the Mr. Roger’s Show. It tells of how Fred Rogers was preparing to study to be an ordained Presbyterian Minister. However, just as he was in the midst of his studies he encountered the new medium of television in the early 1960’s. As he watched television, he was concerned about the kind of entertainment that was directed towards children. He saw that all of the television shows produced for children did not take them very seriously and had rather mindless comedy at their centre. He was particularly concerned by the pretend violence that these shows directed towards young people. Fred Rogers believed in the value of each young person and thought a more important mission would be to produce television which took young people seriously and tried to let them know how much each of them was valued and loved.
For several decades Fred Rogers produced a simple, yet highly successful television show which attempted to speak to young people about how important they were and the value that they had because they were unique. Although his show was not explicitly Christian, behind his message was his Christian belief that God had created each person and it was because of this that each human being had value. The message that Fred Rogers wished to communicate to young people was that they had value because they were made in the image and likeness of God. It was not necessary for them to do anything or to live up to any expectations in order for them to have value. They were valuable because God had made them. Because he took children seriously, in an age which believed children were to be seen and not heard, he was extremely well loved and respected by generations of young people. For this reason, Fred Rogers is presented in the movie as a bit of a prophet. Through his television show, he brought the message of love to generations of young people telling them that they were lovable and of value just because they had been created by God. The movie presented Fred Rogers as a real prophet, one who announced to a generation of young people who they were and the value that they had in the eyes of God. This was the reason for his popularity among so many young people for so many years. What surprised me was how full the movie theatre was. Although the movie had been showing for several weeks, the theatre was packed with people both young and old. It was clear by the attendance at the movie that the prophetic message that Fred Rogers spoke about the human person on his show was one that the world still thirsted to hear.
The movie captured a little bit of the nature of Fred Roger’s prophetic voice as it showed some of the different issues that he dealt with over the years. In certain episodes during the 1960’s, as the United States dealt with the issue of segregation and racism, the show made a point of having an African American police officer who Mr. Rogers dealt with as a friend and neighbour. He taught children that violence was never an option because the other person was also a human being of value. Instead, he showed that it was important for all people to deal with their feelings of anger and fear in constructive and non-violent ways. In the face of an epidemic of teenage suicides, the show dealt with the importance of talking about problems and finding healthy solutions. This documentary showed Mr. Rogers as an example of a prophetic person who announced the value of all people to our modern world.
As I watched this movie, I could not help but think that this prophetic message regarding the value of all persons was a perfect summary of the readings which we hear proclaimed this Sunday. In the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Amos, we hear how Amos was sent to speak a prophetic message to the people. He had not looked to be a prophet, rather he was called against his will by God. The nature of the message that we as Christians are called to announce to our brothers and sisters is the salvation of God which is summarized in the second reading from the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians. It tells us that Jesus came to save all persons and to bring to everyone the forgiveness of sins. This is the mission that we hear the apostles are sent out to proclaim in today’s Gospel. This mission is so important that the apostles are not to bring anything else with them that might serve as a distraction. At the heart of the mission of those who are sent is to cast out many demons and to anoint with oil those who are sick. There is a beautiful summary of Christ’s prophetic mission in the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer. It states: “To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation, to prisoners, freedom, and to the sorrowful of heart, joy.” The message that Jesus brings is that every human being is loved because she or he is made in the image and likeness of God. Each person has value because he or she is unique. We do not need to do anything to be lovable to God. We have value because God made us. It is for this reason that Jesus sends His disciples out to announce His message of love to all people. Because all people have value in the eyes of God, one of the prophetic things that Jesus sends His disciples out to do is anoint with oil those who are sick. By sending His disciples out to care for the sick, Jesus is giving them the prophetic mission of declaring the value that all people have because they are made in the image and likeness of God. In the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, we are reminded that we never lose our value in God’s eyes and that we are always His beloved children. We are anointed so that Jesus might bring us His healing grace in our time of suffering; whether that comes through physical healing or through the graces that remind us of our human dignity and give us the courage and strength to carry the crosses and burdens of our journey.
In our Christian tradition, anointing has great significance. The word “Christ” means the anointed one. Christians are called, like Christ, to be the “anointed people;” those chosen and anointed by God for salvation through Christ. While God calls all people to be saved, those who are anointed are among those who have accepted God’s offer of salvation. When we are baptized as infants, we are anointed with the oil of Chrism to symbolize that we have been set aside as members of God’s holy people and are called to share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly mission. The anointing after baptism proclaims the value that each one of us has and the call that is given to us to share in Christ’s mission. We are anointed after we are confirmed so that we might be given that gift of the Holy Spirit that allows us to share in Christ’s prophetic mission and announce His salvation to all people. In the Old Testament, whenever a person becomes a priest, prophet or king, they are always anointed. So too today, whenever a priest or bishop is ordained, they are anointed for the special mission that they receive from Christ to minister within the Church. When a person is sick, and in danger of death, she or he is invited to receive the Anointing of the Sick in order that Christ may bring His saving grace to the person who is sick.
Sickness causes all of us to question our value. When an individual is sick and alone in his or her suffering, he or she is tempted to believe that they have no value; that their life is over. In the Sacrament of the Sick, Christ wishes to come to us to remind us that He always cares for us and that we are always His beloved children. He wants us to know that because of His victory over death, we shall never really die. In the Sacrament of the Sick, we pray for physical healing and believe that it will be granted, if that healing is good for the salvation of the individual. We also pray for the graces to accept the sickness and crosses that come to us with illness and the increase of years. The Church teaches that a person should receive the Sacrament of the Sick whenever he or she learns that they are in danger of death due to illness or to old age. In many cultures it has been a practice not to celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick until a person is about to die. This is not what the sacrament is intended for; a person should be anointed while he or she is still conscious and able to be comforted by the graces of the sacrament. Through the sacrament we are reminded that we are always God’s beloved children and that Jesus is always with us; no matter what. In the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, we pray to be configured to Christ on the cross. Just as Jesus had the strength to bear with His sufferings, we ask that from His example we might also have the grace to deal with our sufferings confident that through His resurrection we too shall overcome all suffering and death. The anointing reminds us we always have value to God because He has made us in His image and likeness. It helps us to remember that Christ has won eternal life for us and that because of Him we shall never die.
One of the reasons why so many people think that the Sacrament of the Sick is intended only for those who are about to die is because it is part of the “Last Rites.” The Last Rites are a person’s last Confession, last Anointing of the Sick, and last Eucharist. At this time, the Church teaches that just as Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist celebrated a person’s initiation into the Church on Earth, so Confession, Anointing of the Sick and Eucharist prepare the individual for initiation into the Church in Heaven. However, just as we would never say a person should only celebrate Eucharist or Confession before death, so it is not correct to say they should only celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick before death. A person should go to the Sacrament of Confession whenever they are aware of having committed serious sin and are in need of healing. In the same way, Catholics should receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick whenever serious illness or age makes death a possibility. It is best for an individual to receive the Sacrament of the Sick whenever they learn of having a serious illness. It is also helpful to the individual if they can receive this sacrament when they are conscious and able to be comforted by the Lord who comes to them in this sacrament. The sacrament can be celebrated several times; whenever there is a serious change in condition or the return of illness. It is also celebrated as part of the Last Rites, but these too should be celebrated while the person is conscious and able to participate in the celebration. Through this sacrament the Church continues Christ’s prophetic mission of visiting those who are sick and dying, and of proclaiming to them the value that they have in God’s eyes because they have been made in His image and likeness.
Fred Rogers was a man who believed in the value of every human being. He dared to believe that every child had value because he or she was made in the image and likeness of God. He did Christ’s prophetic work of announcing the value of every human being. This week’s readings remind all of us that we are called to work in our neighbourhoods to announce the Good News of Christ’s salvation to all people. Every Christian is anointed and sent to proclaim Christ’s message of love for all people through our actions, words and deeds. Ultimately, the Christian message is that we are always God’s children; no matter how old or young we are. For those of us who are sick, or near death because of advanced years, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, reminds us that we never lose our value in God’s eyes and that Jesus is always with us. Please always feel free to approach me or any other priest and ask them to celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick with a loved one in the parish. If your relatives or loved ones live in another parish, find out which parish they live in and ask the parish priest there to do the same. If you are well and not sick, please always remember that as Christians we have all been anointed to announce to everyone in our neighbourhoods the sanctity of all human life from the moment of conception until natural death.
Please remember that we have all been anointed for that prophetic mission of being the person in our neighbourhood who announces God’s love for all people.
Fr. Michael McGourty
Pastor—St. Peter’s Parish—Toronto.