What exactly is the point of calling a priest in a medical emergency? You’ll see in this incredible story of healing from a Chicago hospital.
It used to be common for Catholics to carry a card that said, “I’m Catholic. In an emergency, call a priest.” Today, some Catholics add this detail to their medical information on their phones.
But why might we want this directive made known? What exactly is the point of calling a priest in a medical emergency?
If you ever ask a priest about his experiences administering the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick (also called Extreme Unction or Last Rites), you’ll see why.
Many priests witness incredible moments of physical or spiritual healing through dispensing the sacraments.
One story from Fr. Bart Juncer truly shows the power of Anointing of the Sick. I had the chance to talk with Fr. Juncer, pastor of St. Odilo Parish and the National Shrine of the Poor Souls in Berwyn, Illinois. St. Odilo Church is the only parish in the United States dedicated to the Souls in Purgatory, having been sanctioned as the Shrine of the Poor Souls in 1928.
A call in the night
Nearly 15 years ago, on a cold January night in Chicago, Fr. Juncer got a phone call from a family at Rush University Medical Center.
A 42-year-old cancer patient’s father was urgently searching for a priest: The doctors had just said his son wouldn’t make it through the night.
“I remember it was snowing and slushy outside as I went in,” he recalled. “This family was from out of town, so the dad called the nearest parish and asked if I would come down and give his son the Last Rites.”
Fr. Juncer administered the sacrament and left, sad for the young man who was dying. He never expected to hear from the family again.
The second phone call
Instead, he received a shocking phone call about four months later, in April of that year. “I remember it was a nice sunny spring morning when I got a call at the rectory office,” he said.
The voice on the other end said, “Do you remember coming out in January and giving the Last Rites to a 42-year-old man who was dying of cancer?
“I remember that very well,” Fr. Juncer replied.
“I’m the man. I’m still alive,” said the voice on the other end. “And here’s the more amazing thing, Father. I just came back from the doctor and they said there’s no more sign of the cancer. They can’t explain how it’s gone. But it’s gone.”
The man went on to send Fr. Juncer a letter containing the details of the entire story so he could have a record of it.
Healings are not uncommon
Fr. Juncer emphasized that this kind of miraculous healing is not uncommon with the sacraments, as in the story of a young woman who was healed while adoring the Eucharist.
“I’ve seen similar things of people rebounding after receiving the sacraments, but that was the most dramatic one I can recall,” he said. “We were even advised in the seminary when we were studying this particular sacrament, that sometimes there are miraculous healings and to be ready for that. And it’s one thing when you’re a seminarian, studying and hearing about it, but then it’s wild to actually have it happen to you.”
Fr. Juncer’s story reveals exactly why Catholics call a priest in an emergency. Of course, in most cases, the sacraments will probably not bring about a dramatic physical healing. But the spiritual healing and emotional peace one receives from the sacrament is just as important.
The importance of chaplains
When Fr. Juncer served as a chaplain at a Catholic hospital, he said that doctors would regularly stop to tell him, “Father, you’re more important to this hospital than I am. We can’t do it without your prayers.”
Even if these medical professionals were not Catholic or even religious, they recognized the importance of the chaplain’s prayers and presence for the patients in their care.
The power of the sacraments becomes clear in these dramatic life-and-death situations, in a way that we might forget in the course of our busy daily lives. But even if we forget, the sacraments are still there, always ready for us when we need them. Thanks be to God!