Friday, March 27, 2009


I recently had an impromptu conversation with a rather senior Enlisted Soldier whom I encountered on the way to lunch. (He, of course, is younger than me, but at least *he's* made something of himself along the way.)

He'd been balking at visiting the Combat Surgical Hospital to have an injury looked at, so it was suggested to me by my boss that I try to look him up and anoint him.

I just love the Sacrament of Anointing, and believe it's a sadly underused sacrament.

After not having been able to find the Soldier all morning, I was delighted to meet up with him as he was heading back from lunch. We chatted a bit, and then I anointed him. Afterward, he started talking about his experiences during a previous deployment to Iraq.

The battalion he was assigned to at that time took very heavy casualties in a very short time. They had no Chaplain, and when the Theater Commander visited them in the next few days, the Soldiers asked him for warm meals and a Chaplain. The Commander was so moved by their request -- not for the air conditioning, or hot meals, or more permanent housing that other units had asked for -- he had a priest flown in by helicopter.

The Soldier had had a very difficult time, given all the casualties in his battalion, and especially because one of those casualties was a young Soldier in his vehicle, when they were hit by an explosive. He was an officially certified Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist, and would lead Sunday worship in the absence of a priest (which was allowed at the time).

He knew she was dying, and because there was no priest present, he placed one of the consecrated hosts he always carried with him in her mouth.

The medic pronounced her dead shortly after the Soldier gave her Communion.

They radioed for a priest from another Service to come, but when he heard that she had already died, he refused to come.

The Soldier who'd given her Communion has agonized over the lack of a priest to anoint her for all the years since she died; he still stays in touch with her parents, whom he'd written after her death to let them know he'd given her Communion.

It was a heart-rending story, not least for the lasting effect on the Soldier.

Fortunately, I was able to share with him the fact that the Sacrament of the Dying is NOT the Sacrament of the Sick (Anointing; "Exterme Unction), as most people believe. It is actually Viaticum (Holy Communion). The Sacrament of the Sick presumes that the one anointed has a reasonable expectation of recovering health.

Viaticum is 'food for the journey', so the Soldier did the exactly correct thing in giving Communion to his dying Soldier.

Of course, in a similar situation today, he'd not be able to do this, since Soldiers are no longer permitted to lead Sunday services with Communion in the absence of a priest.

The Soldier I was talking with is not the only one who's upset about this.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ
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