Anointing of the Sick

A number of years back there was a TV series on CBS called “Magnum P.I.” It was a huge hit – it featured a rough and tumble detective (Magnum) living in luxury in Hawaii and his refined friendly-nemesis, Higgins. Guys watched this show because it was full of action, car chases and gunplay. He drove the incredibly cool Ferrari 308 GTS! Now, women also watched the show in droves, very much so because it starred actor Tom Selleck. The show had many successful years, but at the end of season seven it looked like the end was near; ratings started to sag, and it looked like the show might be in danger of cancellation.


Realizing this, the show’s writer pre-emptively planned for a proper and fitting finale; a final episode script in which Magnum is killed. That episode was produced – and aired. But then CBS thought better of cancelling this show; it announced that there would be an eighth season. The writers had to do some fancy footwork to un-kill Magnum. Then at the end of the eighth season, just as was the case previously, the end looked near… and once again, the writer began to write a final episode. This time they were correct; the final episode aired and then the show passed-on into the afterlife of reruns.

In this article, I would like to tackle the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick – a sacrament that is most commonly ministered when the danger of a potentially life threatening illness is at hand. Much like the writers of Magnum, P.I. preparing for that end-of-the-series finale, the ministering of this Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is commended to be done at the onset of the serious illness, but can be ministered at any moment right up until the last breath of life.


What is Anointing of the Sick?

The Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament, thus it was instituted by Christ to confer grace. The Sacrament finds a person who is sick or in advanced old age being anointed with the Oil of the Sick (Oleo Infirmis) on the head and the hands, by a Priest. In that anointing, the grace of the sacrament yields a type of healing and the forgiveness of sins. The Sacrament was instituted by Christ and made known most clearly by his Apostle James, who wrote:  “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters [priests] of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15). From this Scriptural basis we take our fundamental understanding of this precious Sacrament: It is to be ministered by a Priest who prays over the sick person, and anoints him with oil. The person of faith will have their sins forgiven and have the hope of salvation.


Extreme History

So, now that we identified the Sacrament in a general sense, let’s step into the Way-back Machine and get a little background on this sacrament: The Anointing of the Sick for the better part of 1,500 years was referred to as Extreme Unction (from the Latin, meaning “final anointing”). Until recent times, this Sacrament was reserved to be ministered not to just any sick persons, but more specifically to the dying (those in extremis – in final moments). When a person was on his deathbed, the family would send for the Priest to administer this Sacrament. The general understanding of the Sacrament was that it provided healing for eternity, preparation for the Beatific Vision (the sight of God), and forgave sins. Because this Sacrament was reserved for a person near the end of life, it was commonly called, in the vernacular, “The Last Rites.” In the ministration of the Sacrament, in the old rite, the person’s head, hands, feet, eyes, nostrils, lips and ears were all anointed; in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church that is still the case.


The Name Game

In the years following the Second Vatican Council, a renewal of the liturgical life of Church came to the fore. All of the Sacraments and their respective Rites were reviewed. In the case of “Extreme Unction” many changes were made in the ministration of the Sacrament, but most visibly, a change in nomenclature was set in place to re-focus the purpose and understanding of the Sacrament. Thus, while “Extreme Unction” is still an acceptable name for this Sacrament, “Anointing of the Sick” became the proper name. Same sacrament, new name, sharpened focus.

The focus of the Sacrament was widened from anointing a dying person (a person in extremis) to anointing a sick person whose illness might cause him to face the real possibility of death. That season seven Magnum P.I. series finale – the one created because it seemed that possibility of “the end” was coming – was written, produced and aired. But as we know, the show didn’t die -- instead it recovered; it continued to air for a whole additional season. In just such a way, a sick person who is anointed may physically recover, by the grace of the Sacrament – but conversely, he may not recover. In either event, the Sacrament gave the person an encounter with Christ – with God.  That person received His sanctifying grace, the grace of the Sacrament! As for whether the person is healed in the earthly sense or in the eternal sense, rests, as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “in the hands of God alone, for which reason they are committed to Him by prayer.”


Say Please!

In order that the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick be confected validly, the proper “Form” and “Matter” must be present.

The proper form of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is unique among all of the Sacraments in that is in deprecatory form. What the heck does that mean? Well, in all of the other six Sacraments, the proper “form” finds the minister of the Sacrament making an “indicative” or commanding statement. For example, in the Sacrament of Penance the Priest says: “I absolve you…” In the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Priest says: “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” In the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Bishop says, “Be sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” In Anointing of the Sick, the statement is deprecatory – that is, it is not a command, but a petition, a request.

Specifically, in the proper form of the Sacrament, the Priest petitions God (emphasis added): “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.” This is said as he anoints the head of the recipient of the Sacrament. Then he says: “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” This is said as he anoints the palms of the hands of the recipient of the Sacrament. These petitions comprise the form of the Sacrament.


The Matter of Fact

The matter of the Sacrament is the Oil of the Sick (oleo infirmis). This oil is blessed by the Bishop annually during Holy Week at the Chrism Mass. He blesses enough for the entirety of the Diocese and it is distributed to the parishes. If for some reason, in an emergency situation, a priest finds himself without the Oil of the Sick, he may bless olive oil (or another natural oil) for use in Anointing only during that one emergency.

Thus, when the proper minister, having the intention of the Church, anoints a sick person with the Oil of the Sick (matter) on the head and hands, while saying the proper deprecatory petitions (form), the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is confected, and an encounter with Christ occurs.


Who’s on First?

The recipient of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick must be a baptized Catholic who has achieved the age of reason (i.e., seven years of age) or has sufficient use of reason to be comforted by this sacrament. Thus, an infant or a very young child may not be anointed (to put this in TV terms, Greg Brady can be anointed, young Bobby Brady, probably not). Why? Is the Church being mean? No! In order to receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick the Church maintains the discipline that one must be at such an age as to understand the possibility of reality of death. Infants and very young children lack that understanding or anxiety about death. Again, the Sacraments are not magic tricks: they require by discipline a reasoned consent or an expected consent from the person being anointed.

Also, no matter how upsetting or emotional the situation, a person who has died must not be anointed. Sacraments are for the living. Sometimes people ask the Priest if he can do something that “looks like anointing” because it makes the family feel better. I’m not trying to be cold-hearted here, but that type of duplicity should never be engaged in; it is called simulating a Sacrament and it is gravely sinful on the part of the Priest, if he does it.


The Way You Do the Things You Do!

Okay, now we know what we need (form and matter), and who we need (the recipient of the Sacrament), but once the Sacrament is ministered, what exactly does it do? The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, validly ministered, yields five effects, according to the Catechism. It confers a special grace, a sanctifying grace (a share in the Divine Life of God), that serves to:

  • unite a sick person to the passion of Christ;
  • give one strength, peace, and endurance for the sufferings being undergone;
  • forgive ones sins, if present;
  • prepare one for death and eternal life; and
  • restore one’s health, if it is helpful to the salvation of the person’s soul.

What about that last item? What about healing? Many folks might say that the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is really about healing the sick person and making them better. Not exactly. While the Anointing of the Sick is designated, along with Penance, as a Sacrament of healing, we must be careful not to confuse the effect of this Sacrament with some kind of 1-2-3 Acme Instant Healing Kit. If the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick automatically made sick people all better, the Church would have to open up a booth at the local Wal-mart to handle the crowds, and medical research could simply stop. But that’s not the case. This is a Sacrament; it is not some revival tent faith-healing moment.

Physical healing is what one might want to understand as a possible or potential effect of Anointing of the Sick. That is to say, the Anointing might bring about physical healing; but that is not the main purpose of the Sacrament. So, why in some cases do people get healed and in some cases, they don’t? The Church’s Council of Trent (1545-1563) said it well; it posited that Sacrament will provide physical healing, "When it is expedient for the soul's salvation." That is to say, if it is a spiritual good that Aunt Agatha gets healed from her lumbago, she will be healed.



A secondary effect of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is the forgiveness of sins. “Now wait a second,” you may say, “In your last column, you said the Sacrament of Penance was the Sacrament instituted by Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” That is correct. It is further true that a sick person who is conscious of mortal sins to confess must receive the Sacrament of Penance before he receives the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. However, be aware that the Anointing of the Sick does forgive mortal sin if a critically ill person is unable to receive the sacrament of Penance (for instance if the person was comatose or not in his right mind).

In some cases, following Anointing, especially in the case of a person in the throes of death, the Priest is also deputed to grant the person Apostolic Pardon, which is an indulgence. The pardon is given by the Priest saying, “By the authority which the Apostolic See has given me, I grant you a full pardon and the remission of all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This is an absolution of sorts that blots out the sins of the person and the temporal punishment due for sin. Of course, it also presumes contrition on the part of the person receiving it.


Are You Lonesome Tonight?

With all of this explanation about the nature of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and our understanding of it, an important question might remain in your minds. What about the person that dies without access to this Sacrament? That is a very good question indeed and one that deserves a clear answer, not platitudes like “we can only hope for the best” or “it’s a mystery.”

The Church has a text called, “Enchiridion Indulgentiarum” or in its common English translation, The Handbook of Indulgences. This book, formerly called The Raccolta, contains a listing of indulgenced acts and prayers – that is acts and prayers that through the ministry of the Church grants us certain access to God’s grace. That Handbook of Indulgences states the following:

“[I]f a priest cannot be present, holy mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis, at the approach of death, provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross is recommended in obtaining this plenary indulgence. In such a situation, the three usual conditions required [i.e., pray for the Pope, go to confession, receive Holy Communion] in order to gain a plenary indulgence are substituted for by the condition, 'provided they regularly prayed in some way.'”

Thus the Church generously and graciously uses the Power of the Keys, given by Christ to St. Peter, in the care of God’s children.


Setting Things Rite

One other topic, I must address in this article is the term “Last Rites.” Some folks who are -- as some might say -- too smart by half, often correct people who ask for “last rites.” They’ll say, “The Church doesn’t have ‘last rites’ anymore… it did away with that, now it has Anointing of the Sick.” Let me say such a distinction made to a person seeking the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is neither pastoral nor helpful; in some sense it can even be seen as incorrect. You see, the Church does has “last rites.” Let’s remember that rites are rituals and liturgical formularies of the Church that express its faith, and allow Christ’s grace to pour forth. In the Church’s sacramental text, “Pastoral Care of the Sick” – in which the Rite for Anointing of the Sick is contained – there are other rites and ritual texts listed. For example, there is the Continuous Rite for the Sacrament used in emergencies when a person is dying; there are prayers for the commendation of the dying as one is in the throes of death; and there is the ministration of Viaticum (final reception of Holy Communion as ‘provisions for the journey’). All of these are frequently rites that occur after the Anointing of the Sick, thus they are meant as “last rites.” More to the point, if a person is sick and dying, and as a Priest, I minister to them the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and soon thereafter that person dies, that Sacramental ministration was in fact, the “last rites” for that child of God.


Final Thoughts

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick should be sought when a person is sick. Not sick like sniffles or a cough, but sick in a manner such that the effects on that person’s health can be ultimately life threatening. Likewise, the Church says that old people may be anointed if they are in weak condition even though no dangerous illness exists, as their weakness in that age of life could put them in consideration of death. So, if you find yourself, young or old, in the dire straits of illness, avail yourself of it this beautiful Sacrament of Healing. Let the Oil of the Sick and words of petition in this Sacrament bring you closer into the Divine Life of God. Perhaps the best way of facing sickness and death, in term of this Sacrament might be to recall the words of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions from their 1965 hit: “People get ready!”