If you have ever been sick, then you know what it is like to want to recover and feel better. If you have ever been so sick that recovery might not be possible, then you know what it is like to want to be at peace. Every moment in the span between both of these situations and conditions is taken into consideration as the Roman Catholic Church offers the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to those who are ill or suffering.
Sickness is a fact of human life and experience. Like death itself, it makes no distinction among persons confronted by its grasp. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Lord Jesus Christ reached out to those who were sick in his day and offered them courage, healing, strength and peace. We read many such occasions in the pages of the Gospels. He likewise invited and directed his Apostles to do the same, a practice that continues in the Roman Catholic Church to the present day. The ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ and his Apostles to the sick and suffering is the foundation and origin of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Just as the Sacrament of Penance is intended for the healing and peace of the soul, this sacrament is intended for the healing and peace of the body and mind.
There is a connection between both of these sacraments of “healing.” In Mark’s Gospel we read that Jesus sent his apostles out among the people:
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits … They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them (Mark 6: 6-13).
This passage does not represent the institution of either sacrament as we have come to know and experience them in the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, the scriptures here demonstrate the intention of the Lord Jesus Christ that people repent for their sins and be healed of their sicknesses through apostolic ministry.
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick finds its most specific exposition in the Letter of James
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven (James 5: 14-15).
The reference here to “anointing them (the sick) with oil in the name of the Lord” makes clear that action is an extension of the power of the Lord Jesus Christ to the “elders” or bishops and priests of the Church.
The Council of Trent, in pronouncing on the institution of this sacrament by Christ, cites this passage and points out that the proper matter, form, minister and effect of the sacrament are enunciated therein … proof that anointing with oil for healing must have had its roots in Christ’s commission and that James was only attesting to that commission (Sean Innerst, “Anointing of the Sick” in Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine, ed. Russell Shaw, Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor Press, p. 16).
The Second Vatican Council declared
By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ (Dogmatic Constitution “Lumen Gentium”, para. 11).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites this passage as it begins its explanation of the Sacrament of the Sick. It states
1511 The Church believes and confesses that among the seven sacraments there is one especially intended to strengthen those who are being tried by illness, the Anointing of the Sick:
This sacred anointing of the sick was instituted by Christ our Lord as a true and proper sacrament of the New Testament. It is alluded to indeed by Mark, but is recommended to the faithful and promulgated by James the apostle and brother of the Lord.
1512 From ancient times in the liturgical traditions of both East and West, we have testimonies to the practice of anointings of the sick with blessed oil. Over the centuries the Anointing of the Sick was conferred more and more exclusively on those at the point of death. Because of this it received the name “Extreme Unction.” Notwithstanding this evolution the liturgy has never failed to beg the Lord that the sick person may recover his health if it would be conducive to his salvation.
1513 The apostolic constitution “Sacram unctionem infirmorum” (Paul VI, November 30, 1972), following upon the Second Vatican Council, stablished that henceforth, in the Roman Rite, the following be observed:
The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given to those who are seriously ill by anointing them on the forehead and hands with duly blessed oil — pressed from olives or from other plants — saying, only once: “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
Different from any other types of “anointing with oil” by any other person, the Code of Canon Law states that Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is validly administered by a Roman Catholic priest.
Can. 1003.1. Every priest and a priest alone validly administers the anointing of the sick.
Can. 1003. 2. All priests to whom the care of souls has been entrusted have the duty and right of administering the anointing of the sick for the faithful entrusted to their pastoral office. For a reasonable cause, any other priest can administer this sacrament with at least the presumed consent of the priest mentioned above.
For this reason, in the exercise of pastoral care, Catholics other than priests (or bishops) engaged in the care of the sick — deacons and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist included — should refrain from any anointing with any oil whatsoever so as not to confuse the faithful regarding the reception of the true sacrament.
The proper oil or “matter” used in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is specifically identified as the “oil of the sick (‘oleum infirmorum’),” olive oil (or some other approved plant oil) blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass during Holy Week. This oil is taken from that Mass and stored in a suitable place (canon 847) in the parish church. Priests can carry this oil with them for the purpose of ministry to the sick (canon 1003.3). When oil blessed by the bishop is not readily available, in the case of necessity, a priest may bless proper oil during the celebration of the sacrament (canon 999).
The ritual prayers and actions for the celebration of the sacrament or “form” should be followed according to the approved Rite for the Celebration of the Anointing of the Sick. It is ordinarily expected that ritual prayers and appropriate scripture readings be incorporated into the administration of the sacrament, whenever possible, although in cases of necessity, the words or formula accompanying the gesture of anointing as mentioned above in CCC 1513 can suffice. The anointing is accomplished by the priest tracing the cross with blessed oil with his thumb on the forehead of the one receiving the sacrament or on some other part of the body, usually the hands (canon 1000.1). When possible contagion or infection is present, the priest may use another instrument such as a ball of cotton (canon 1000.2). The laying on of hands in blessing should also be part of the administration when at all possible.
If the administration of the Holy Eucharist is also included in the celebration of this sacrament, known as “viaticum”, it should be done so reverently according to the ritual, preceded by sacramental confession and absolution, again, whenever possible. Because sacraments are communal celebrations of the Roman Catholic Church, it is encouraged that members of the family or other caregivers be present during the Anointing of the Sick. They may participate in the recitation of some prayers and readings included in the ritual administration of the sacrament.
The questions frequently arise: who may receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, when and how often?
The Code of Canon Law states
Can. 1004.1. The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.
Can. 1004. 2. This sacrament can be repeated if the sick person, having recovered, again becomes gravely ill or if the condition becomes more grave during the same illness.
Can. 1005 This sacrament is to be administered in a case of doubt whether the sick person has attained the use of reason, is dangerously ill, or is dead.
Can. 1006 This sacrament is to be conferred on the sick who at least implicitly requested it when they were in control of their faculties.
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is for the sick, as its name suggests. The ritual includes in this category those who are seriously ill; those undergoing surgery as a result of a serious illness; the elderly who are in a gradually deteriorating state of health, even when no serious illness is present; sick children who have sufficient use of reason, enough to know the purpose of the sacrament. Those whose health is impaired as a result of an accident or other wound may also be anointed. It is preferable not to wait for the administration of this sacrament. Good pastoral judgment by the priest, in consultation with medical professionals and family, is always in order.
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is not given conditionally, that is, to persons who “may” be sick. It may be administered to those who are truly sick who, when otherwise in control of their mental faculties, would ordinarily have requested it.
Sacraments are given to those who are properly disposed to receive them. The Code of Canon Law states
Can. 1007 The anointing of the sick is not to be conferred upon those who persevere obstinately in manifest grave sin.
Much care and good pastoral judgment should be exercised here. If a person has lived a life publicly in contradiction to the practice of the Roman Catholic faith or that is continuously in a public state of sin without any sign of repentance, he or she would not be a suitable candidate for reception of this sacrament. “Ordinarily, one should not presume that a person who is divorced and remarried does not have the proper disposition or had given no sign of repentance. Often the divorced and remarried may have repented of past sins but are unable to quit the second invalid union due to moral obligations to spouse and children. In their conscience and in fact, they may not be in serious sin at all (John Huels, The Pastoral Companion, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, p. 153).” Again, there is no substitute for good pastoral judgment in extraordinary cases.
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is not given to those who are already or certainly dead. Rather than simulating the sacrament in such cases, the priest should, instead, offer prayers for the dead such as those contained in the ritual books and provide consolation and comfort to family members and friends who may be present when he is called to their side.
This sacrament may be repeated whenever the need arises and the circumstances warrant it such as when a sick person shows signs of recovery but then falls back into a precarious or dangerous condition of health. Good pastoral judgment should govern repeated administration of the sacrament.
The Lord Jesus Christ, the “Divine Physician,” showed great compassion toward the sick and suffering throughout his public ministry, and directed that the Church do the same through the institution of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. It is a sacrament of healing and hope for the sick and a moment of sacramental grace and hope to accompany those who are dying on their final journey. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, through its ritual prayers and actions, should bring comfort to those who receive it and help those who are sick and suffering to unite their pain with the sufferings of the crucified Lord until, at last, he comes to bring them home to his Father in heaven.