When a Catholic is seriously ill, injured, or hospitalized, we call a priest. A traditional and practical part of that process is the "sick call set." It facilitates the Anointing of the Sick at the bedside of a Catholic in need of the sacrament. Sick call sets are beautiful and meaningful gifts for Catholics, but many Catholics today have not heard of this beloved Catholic tradition.
Years ago, Anointing of the Sick was called Extreme Unction and it was only administered to those who were in danger of death, or known to be dying. An important part of Catholic sacramental life, it invoked God's aid for those who would soon meet Him in eternity. Confession and the Eucharist were administered as well, if at all possible, as well as an apostolic pardon. All these sacraments and prayers together were—and still are—called "Last Rites" and they prepared the soul for the death of the body.
A sick call set was a part of this beautiful ritual. The Catholic custom of the sick call set developed long ago, when most people died in their homes. Catholics kept these special sets on hand to provide everything necessary for the Anointing of the Sick.
A sick call set consists of a wooden Crucifix, with hollowed spaces in the interior. The lid is the face of the Crucifix. Sliding the lid downward reveals the interior compartments. Inside the compartments, white taper candles and a holy water bottle can be stored in preparation for a "sick call."
A recessed area in the center of the base allows the Crucifix to be placed in a standing position. Two additional spaces in the base become holders for the taper candles. The standing Crucifix placed by the bedside serves as inspiration, comfort, and hope for the sick Catholic.
The sick call set was not merely a Cross-shaped box, but a sturdy and lovely wall Crucifix used in the home. It was actually a very popular wedding gift generations ago, with great meaning and significance. Intended to be hung over the bed of the married couple, it was a constant reminder of Christ's presence in their marriage and their lives, and their vow to be true to one another in sickness and in health.
The rich symbolism of the sick call Crucifix hanging over their bed reminded the married couple of their role in ushering each other into eternity. It was used by their family and all those cared for in their home. It often became a treasured heirloom.
How to Use a Sick Call Set
If your priest will visit you for Anointing of the Sick or you are caring for a loved one in need of the sacrament, here is how to use your sick call set for the visit:
Bring a small table close to the bedside, or close to the area where you will visit with your priest. It could be a nightstand, folding table or even a collapsible tray. Set it up where it can be easily seen and accessed.
Place a white cloth on the table. This serves a decorative purpose but also a practical one. It adorns the table, like the altar cloth at Mass. This brings greater reverence to the sacrament of the Eucharist if your loved one will be receiving the Body of Christ. It also ensures that no particles are left behind. This same practice is appropriate if an Extraordinary Minister visits your home.
Set up the sick call Crucifix. Remove the taper candles and holy water bottle, then stand the Crucifix in the base. Place one white taper candle in the space carved into each arm of the base. This imitates the altar at Mass. Turn the Crucifix toward your loved one.
Place the holy water bottle on the table. The priest will bring the Oil of the Sick to use during the Anointing. He may need a cloth to wipe his fingers but will probably bring one of his own. If your sick call set is a family heirloom, it may contain a small bell. Bells were once used by the priest to call family members back to the bedside after Confession and private discussion.
For Your Sacramental Life
Sick call sets are a beloved Catholic tradition and a wonderful gift for Catholic families. Rich in symbolism and meaning, they make wonderful wedding gifts. They remind us that this world is not our home, and that our bodies are only part of who we are as children of God. Sick call sets help us prepare for sickness and death with reverence, solemnity, and the proper understanding that fuels our hope in the life to come.