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US study finds priest shortage restricts access to Anointing of the Sick

With fewer priests available to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, it is becoming increasingly difficult for seriously ill patients to receive the sacrament when requested by pastoral caregivers.

That was the key finding of a new study released during the international symposium of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, held last week in the US city of Baltimore.

The association commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University to conduct the study. It was based on a written survey of 3365 hospital chaplains and a random sample telephone survey of 2,100 Catholics across the United States.

According to the study, launched in November, one in three chaplains who responded said a priest is on call no more than "occasionally" to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Nearly one in five chaplains said they minister in situations where there is "never or almost never" a priest on call.

While nearly 90% of Catholics reported that a priest was available the most recent time they or a loved one requested the sacrament, more than two-thirds of chaplains said the number of priests trained for and interested in hospital ministry is decreasing. Some 60% of chaplains believe that the amounts of time priests are available for administering the sacrament is also decreasing.

Fr Richard Leliaert, president of the chaplains' association, said the study shows that it is time for the church to explore ways of making the sacrament of the anointing of the sick more accessible -- including the possibility of allowing lay people to administer the sacrament.