By ERIKA ANDERSON-Staff Writer | Published February 23, 2006
With open hearts and outstretched hands, they came forward to be blessed.
Hundreds of people, some visibly ill, many crying, filed down the center aisle of Holy Spirit Church to receive the anointing of the sick from Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and other priests who concelebrated a Feb. 11 Mass for the Sick.
Wearing a bright pink jacket and a scarf in the same shade on her head, Sandra Shuler came forward to receive the sacrament for the third time since her original breast cancer diagnosis in 2002.
As she closed her eyes and opened her palms, feeling the warmth of the chrism while Archbishop Gregory blessed her, she thought of the gift of touch.
“It’s very comforting. The power of human touch is great. And when one is sick and receiving treatment, so many times we are touched in ways that are painful,” she said. “This experience today was just profoundly moving for me.”
Shuler was just one of many who attended the Mass in hopes of healing—physically, mentally or spiritually. The chilly, rainy day did not keep people away, and those who were blessed included men, women and children from parishes around the archdiocese.
Archbishop Gregory was joined by a dozen fellow priests at the Mass, which coincided with the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes.
In his homily, the archbishop spoke of Lourdes, the small town in southwestern France, where Mary appeared to young Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Today, millions of pilgrims flock to Lourdes seeking healing from the waters that flow from the grotto where Mary first appeared.
“Lourdes is a place of faith far more than it is a place of miracles. The Mother of God has touched this little community with her grace so that the waters that flow from the grotto there reinforce the grace of baptism that we have all felt,” Archbishop Gregory said. “The Church has selected this Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes as a reminder for all in the family of faith of the presence, the needs, and the gifts of those who are sick in our midst. We are reminded that Jesus Himself made the sick a primary community of His ministry.”
“He regularly touched the sick and healed them, and He always comforted them and assured them of His love,” the archbishop continued. “On this Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, we are asked to embrace this same ministry of the Lord.”
The anointing of the sick is a sacramental expression of Jesus’ enduring care for those who are sick, Archbishop Gregory said. And confusion over the sacrament has often kept people from receiving it when it was most needed, he added.
“This is a sacrament for the sick, not for the dying. It is a sign of Christ’s continuing care for those who live with the weaknesses of our human frailty—physical weaknesses as well as spiritual weaknesses,” he said. “For too long, we Catholics may have been taught that the sacrament was only to be shared with those who were facing the very last moments of their lives. We often incorrectly delayed seeking the sacrament until we were near death.”
Archbishop Gregory thanked his fellow priests and the parishioners of Holy Spirit and reminded the congregation to keep those who were unable to attend in their prayers.
“Today, Holy Spirit Parish is Lourdes. The Mother of God has made that place a holy site. Those who have come to Holy Spirit render this church a place of healing, strength and comfort,” he said. “There are many sick people in our archdiocese who are too weak to join us today. The inclement weather might have frightened some who had intended to join us. Let us embrace them in a special way in our prayers this day so that they too will be comforted and strengthened by the prayers of this wonderful community of faith.”
The Mass, which was organized by Holy Spirit parochial vicar Father Ricardo Bailey, was sponsored by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, whose primary mission is to assist the sick and the less fortunate. Wearing long black cloaks, members of the Order sat on the side of the church and assisted during the anointing.
The celebration of the sacrament has two actions—the laying on of hands and the anointing with the oil of the sick. Because there was such a large congregation, a select few were chosen to come forth and received the laying on of hands from the archbishop.
Then, as the choir sang the traditional spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” everyone who wished to be anointed with oil came forth one by one to the archbishop or other priests.
For many, the event was profoundly moving.
Shuler, whose husband, Tom, a deacon at Holy Spirit Church, assisted at the Mass, has learned to lean on her faith through her illness.
After her original cancer diagnosis in 2002, she was treated with a lumpectomy, six months of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation. Her prognosis was excellent. But two years later, the cancer reappeared and is now in her lung, lymph nodes, ribs and sacrum. Now undergoing treatment, she continues to work as a nursing professor at Mercer University while enduring hair loss and fatigue as her main side effects.
“I try to live in the moment, to realize that I’m alive today,” she said. “It’s easy to keep my spirits up if I think that way, and on the days that I don’t feel good, it’s easy for me to lean on God.”
Shuler has received the anointing of the sick both in private and with a group of people present.
“It’s very moving to be with the community and to really feel the support and prayers of so many people,” she said.
Sally Miller, a Holy Spirit parishioner, also knows well of the importance of community support. An eight-year survivor of uterine cancer, Miller volunteers with the Cancer Survivors Network at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta. She, too, was anointed at the Mass and believes opportunities such as this one are important in dealing with an illness.
“During a healing service, it’s easy to think about and trust in God and to realize that he loves us and has a plan for us,” she said.
And having the support of the community is even more essential, she added.
“I think this Mass and healing services such as these are so important because they focus you in on God. You see around you other people who are seriously ill,” she said. “It reminds us that we are one community. This may be a church building, but we are the church. This is our family here, our church community.”
Father Bailey said he hopes to make the Mass for the Sick, the first archdiocesan-wide one of its kind, organized by the Order of Malta, an annual event.
“I’m very happy with the turn-out. It was such a grace-filled moment to see all these people come to be with the archbishop and to pray for healing. I think it was good for the priests as well because it reminds us of the importance of the sacrament,” he said. “I believe it reinforced the unity of the Church of Atlanta and the need to come together to seek the healing that only Christ can give and to pray for our brothers and sisters who are ill.”