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Sacraments Part 7: Anointing of the Sick

What we do is what we believe

No longer just a sacrament for the dying

Human sickness has always been among the greatest problems that trouble the human spirit. Sickness diminishes our capacity to function normally, it affects our relationships, and it isolates us from the community. It can give us a glimpse of our own mortality. Sometimes, in a state of despair, a person’s faith can be tested; at other times, illness can be a way to conversion, causing the sick person to evaluate what is essential in life and to turn to God for forgiveness and healing.

Jesus understood this. In his earthly life, Jesus always had compassion for those who were sick or suffering. He cured their infirmities as well as their troubled souls. By his own passion and death, Jesus gave new meaning to suffering – a sacrificial, redemptive act. Our illness, then, is not punishment for sin, but a participation in the suffering of Christ.

Christ commissioned His apostles to heal in His name (Mk 16:17-18). James offers us evidence that a practice of anointing and healing existed in the early Church (James 5:14-15). This compassionate care continues in the Church’s sacrament of the anointing of the sick. In the place of isolation, we offer the community’s support; in the midst of fear and sorrow for sins, we offer God’s mercy and forgiveness; and in the face of human infirmity, we offer anointing for physical and spiritual healing. For both the sick person and the family, this sacrament can sanctify illness.

It is appropriate that the name of the sacrament was restored after Vatican II. It is no longer called ‘extreme unction,’ since it is no longer reserved for ‘last rites’ and deathbed scenarios. It is not a sacrament only for the dying, but a sacrament to support the living in their most difficult moments. The sacrament may be given multiple times to those who are seriously ill due to illness or advanced age.

The ‘matter’ of the sacrament is oil – olive oil blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass or any plant oil blessed by the priest within the rite itself. The celebration of the sacrament consists especially in the laying on of hands, the offering of the prayer of faith, and the anointing. As the priest says the first part of the formula, he anoints the sick person’s forehead. As he recites the second part, he anoints the sick person’s hands. Depending on exceptional circumstances (such as a burn victim) he may also anoint any suitable body part instead of or in addition to the head and hands.

The revised rite provides a variety of prayers for various ages, conditions, and circumstances. The Pastoral Care of the Sick (1972,1983) contains the rites to be used for the anointing of a sick person; it assumes regular, pastoral visits by the priest and the parish staff are already taking place, including Communion calls. It is fitting to celebrate this sacrament within a Eucharistic liturgy and to offer sacramental penance before Mass.

Viaticum (‘provisions for the journey’) is the name we give to the final reception of the Eucharist by a dying person. It is the most appropriate last sacrament. The Pastoral Care of the Sick provides such rites for the dying, including a continuous rite of penance, anointing, and viaticum if the condition of the person permits.

As a community, we should regularly pray for the sick, especially in the General Intercessions at Mass. Eucharistic ministers should bring Communion to those who are absent from our assemblies due to illness. Family members and healthcare workers offer physical comfort and healing. Many parishes have regular communal celebrations of the anointing of the sick – a wonderful opportunity for all of us to support those who share in the suffering of Christ.

Who May Receive the Sacrament of the Sick?

Any member of the faithful whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age

Anyone facing surgery for a serious condition

People who suffer from chronic illness

People who suffer from mental illness

Elderly people if they have become noticeably weakened even though no serious illness is present

Sick children, if they have sufficient use of reason to be strengthened by the sacrament

The sacrament may be repeated if the sick person recovers and then falls ill again or if the person’s condition worsens

The sacrament may be conferred on a sick person who has lost consciousness, but who, as a Christian believer, at least implicitly asked for it when he/she was in control of his/her faculties

When a person is in danger of death from sickness or old age

Pastoral Care of the Sick, nn. 8-15 (cf. Canons 1004.1 and 844.3,4,5)


Timeline: the history of healing

Old Testament

There is evidence of the use of oils and balms for healing from early civilizations. Medicines were used, but it was God who healed. Pain, sickness, and death are not envisioned as part of God’s original plan. Genesis 1, 2.

New Testament

Healing is a major theme:

Cure of the paralytic Mt 9:1-8

Man born blind John 9: 1-39

Ten lepers Lk 17:11-19

Centurion’s servant Mt 8:5-13

Peter’s mother-in-law Mt. 8:14-5; Mk 1:29-31

Jesus, a living sacrament of God’s compassion and God’s power over sickness and death, healed by word and touch; healing presence brought inward renewal and outward cure. Zaccheus – Luke 19:1-10

The Apostles “expelled many demons, anointed the sick with oil, and worked many cures.” Mark 6:13

sick brought to the presbyters of the church for anointing James 5:14-15


Rite of anointing mentioned in early Church Orders

Lay faithful led rituals of spiritual and physical healings with olive oil blessed by the bishop. Usually not a priestly duty.

Also used oil for catechumens – exorcism, post-baptismal anointings, and reconciliation

5th-12th centuries

Innocent I provides a prayer for the blessing of the oil for a sick person (c. 410)

The sacrament of anointing is joined to reconciliation and viaticum (normative sacraments for the dying). Becomes the sacrament of the dying – “extreme unction.” Priest becomes primary anointer since it was associated with penance.

Venerable Bede wrote commentary on the rite in England noting its similarity to the French rite. (7th c.)

Since public penance was typically made only once, one waited for their deathbed. Rites take on a more penitential character; but still accompanied by prayers for physical recovery as well as forgiveness of sins (11th c.)

prayers for recovery dropped from the rite; emphasis on remission of sins and hope for salvation. (12th c.)

Roman Pontifical – anointing of the senses, no longer just the body part which needed healing.

Anointing becomes more dominant as last, deathbed ritual.

Peter Lombard (Sentences, c 1158) includes anointing as one of his seven official sacraments. It was “instituted for a dual purpose, ... for the remission of sins, and for the relief of bodily infirmity.” He notes that it may be repeated.

13th-20th centuries

Form varied, but ‘matter’ (oil) was universally agreed upon.

only one priest, ritual simplified (13th c.)

anointing only when death was imminent

Great debate about difference of this sacrament from Penance

Thomas Aquinas taught that the sacrament removed remnants of sin; physical healing if sin was result of sinful habit. – Council of Florence (1438-1445) defines essential elements.

Council of Trent (1548-1563) 1 “a sacrament instituted by Christ our Lord” 2 grace of the sacrament removes sin 3 “raises up and strengthens soul of sick person,” occasionally even bodily health to the sick 4 only given to those dangerously ill 5 priest is proper minister

1614 Ritual – eliminates abuses and gives elaborate rituals; person must have attained the age of reason to receive it. Ritual remains unchanged for centuries.

1747 – Benedict XIV gives plenary indulgence to anyone who receives the sacrament.

Vatican II

Liturgical and biblical scholarship enlightens theology and history of sacrament and restores name to reflect this – “anointing of the sick.”

1972 – new rite approved (revised again in 1983)

assumes previous visits and pastoral care of the sick

provided rites for various ages, conditions and circumstances

added Scripture, song, responses, ritual

Participation of the community stressed, including family, healthcare workers, and the parish community. Allows for regular communal celebrations with bishop’s permission.

anointing of head and hands rather than senses

additional rite for emergencies (imminent death); continuous rite of penance, anointing, (confirmation) and viaticum.