Another gift idea

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | May 2, 2015

Having this cross around the house used to be common

Looking for a good wedding gift this summer?

How about something that gives strength, cleanses and even offers healthy food?

Give a sick call cross.

What, you might ask, is a sick call, much less a cross for it? And why would that cross be a good wedding gift?

Until about 50 years ago, every new Catholic bride received a sick call cross or sick call box. The cross was hung over the married couples’ bed, and even some of the boxes were constructed so they could hang on the wall.

Most of us have seen a sick call cross, but may not have known what it was. It consists of a crucifix with a cross-shaped, frame-like container behind it. The crucifix slides off to reveal a compartment holding two candles and a vial for water. There may even be a small plate, a piece of a blessed palm, a couple of cloths and a small bell inside, but these items are usually contained in the sick call box.

In days when the sick and elderly were cared for at home rather than in a hospital or nursing care facility, the sick call cross was kept on hand for “the final anointing.” This used to be called “extreme unction.”

If someone was in danger of dying, the family would call a priest to come and administer this final anointing, hear the person’s confession, if possible, and offer the Blessed Sacrament. Usually the priest would only bring his stole (for hearing confession), the sacred oil of the sick (oleum infirmorum) and the Blessed Sacrament. The family provided everything else needed.

As the priest was coming, the family prepared for the visit with the sick call cross. Most sick call cross cases are able to hold the crucifix upright, with the two candles — blessed candles — on either side. Each family got new blessed candles on Feb. 2, Candlemas Day. The candles were lighted and family members would take one of them to the door to greet the priest — and Jesus, in the Sacrament.

Upon his arrival, the priest would use the holy water to bless the sick person and those gathered in prayer. If there is a bit of palm from Palm Sunday, this was used for sprinkling the holy water.

If the priest heard the sick person’s confession, the family withdrew and returned when the priest rang the bell. Reception of the Blessed Sacrament followed — and a separate dish of water could be used for the priest to cleanse his fingers after touching the consecrated host. This water could be drunk by the sick person, or poured outside on the ground.

Anointing of the sick followed. Sometimes the sick call box also contained cotton balls, or the family could provide a piece of bread. The cotton balls were used to wipe up the excess oil after the priest anointed the head, hands and feet of the sick person. The bread was for the priest to wipe the oil from his fingers.

These events were from a time when anointing of the sick was more rare than it is today. It’s important to remember that, whenever a person feels the need for the prayers of the church and the sacrament of anointing, they should ask for it. Despite the fact that earlier generations believed anointing was only for the dying, this is not the case. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the sacrament of anointing should be received by anyone suffering illness (and anointing may be repeated in the course of that illness), facing surgery, or in increasingly frail health due to old age (n. 1515).

From the Letter of James, we know that “calling the priest” for anyone who was sick was a common event for early Christians: “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven” (5:14-15).

Only in the Middle Ages, around the ninth century, did the notion of delayed anointing of the sick arise. It had also become common to delay the sacrament of reconciliation — often linked with anointing of the sick — until the end of life. Confession was often delayed until the deathbed, so anointing was also delayed and became associated, almost exclusively, with death. The link between confession and death grew stronger and, by the later Middle Ages (around the 12th century), anointing was seen strictly as a sacrament for the dying. The theologian Peter Lombard (1095-1160) coined the phrase extrema unction, or “last anointing” to define anointing as a preparation for final glory.

However, the true last sacrament is not anointing, but Viaticum, the final Eucharist — literally “for the final journey.”

With the advent of home care and in-home hospice, there is reason again to have a sick call cross in the household, even without the bell, plates or cotton balls. Visits to the sick are commonly offered by parish staff. And, even if no one needs a sick call, having a sick call cross in a prominent place, or over a bed, reminds us that we belong to Christ who calls us to unite ourselves with him, both in life and death, in suffering and the grace of good health.


Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church;;;; “The New Dictionary of Theology”; “Southern Cross” newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego; and “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism.”


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