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When a person is homebound, bedridden, or suffering from a severe ailment, Catholics are taught to call the priest. Decades ago the sacrament reserved for the very ill or dying was known as Extreme Unction (last anointing) or more commonly “Last Rites.” Today we know it as the Anointing of the Sick, and it is not given exclusively to those who are on their deathbed. It is one of the seven sacraments and invokes God’s divine aid for those suffering in a physical way.
In days when people more often died at home, there developed the custom of having a “sick-call” crucifix on hand for emergency visits by a priest. This type of crucifix was hung on the wall of a person’s home (usually above the bed). The crucifix contained a hidden compartment, revealed by sliding the face of the cross. Within the compartment were two candles, a small bottle of holy water and sometimes a white cloth.
The purpose of the sick-call crucifix — they are still made today — is to facilitate the ritual connected to the Anointing of the Sick, making the bedside a sacred space for the sacrament. Interestingly, it used to be a popular wedding present, meant to be hung over the bed of a married couple, ready to be of used when a spouse was in need of an anointing. It reminded the couple of their commitment to be true to each other “in sickness and in health.”