Chapter Seven - The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick

They drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them (Mark 6:13).

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven (James 5:14-15).

These Scripture verses reveal the foundation for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  Furthermore, we can find numerous passages in the Gospels where Jesus Himself cured the sick and showed compassion toward them.  Jesus loves those who are suffering from illness, as well as all forms of suffering, in a very direct way.  He is concerned and wants to be present in that suffering.  He wants to bring healing and hope!

Below is the introductory passage from the Catechism on anointing:

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 (#1499).

The best place to start so as to gain a good understanding of this sacrament is the problem it addresses.  It addresses human suffering due to illness.  Let’s ponder the reality of illness and suffering so as to set the stage for Jesus’ answer to it.


The Suffering of Illness

The Catechism reveals the fact that illness has been among the “gravest problems confronted in human life.”  With illness comes various experiences.  Let’s look at some of them:

Powerlessness, Limitations, Finitude: When one is ill, especially seriously ill, there can be an experience of human weakness and powerlessness like never before.  Suddenly, the person may be limited to bed, or a hospital, and this experience changes everything that made up normal daily life.  When you cannot go about your normal daily life, you find that you are suddenly dependent upon others in a way you have never been before.  This powerlessness can either be the cause for anger and despair, or deeper surrender to God and reliance upon the love and care of others.

Glimpse of Death: Certainly, not every serious illness will end in death; but every serious illness can give us a glimpse of our mortality.  Many of us do not think much about dying.  It’s as if it is something that is far in the future and not relevant to us at this time in our life.  But illness can suddenly lead us to face our human mortality and cause us to look at life in a whole new way.

Anguish, Self-absorption, Despair and Revolt Against God: When one experiences a serious illness, there are many temptations present.  Physical pain can cause interior anguish.  The experience of loss is real and that loss hurts.  As a result, those with a serious illness are often tempted to become self-absorbed.  And who can blame them?  It’s hard to think about others when you are experiencing pain and weakness.  The tendency is to become focused upon that pain to a point that it leads to despair.  Despair is one of the darkest experiences we can go through.  It’s a loss of hope and trust in God.  It produces a deep interior darkness and leaves one desiring a way out.  And, at times, this deep interior pain can cause one to question God and His goodness.  The classic question being, “How can an all-powerful and all-loving God allow me to go through this?”  As a result, there are some who turn from God in anger and revolt.

Christian Maturity: But illness does not have to end in despair, anger or revolt against God.  There are many who allow the suffering they endure to deepen their faith and make them stronger in their Christian life.  Illness forces one to move from mediocrity to a choice.  And that choice is to either grow stronger in virtue, trust and goodness, or to turn inward, away from God and others.  The hope for any illness or any suffering we endure is that it brings us to a greater reliance on God and a deeper faith.  Suffering and illness have great potential to make us much stronger in our character and virtue.  Make sure you let any suffering you endure do just that.

Search and Return to God: The ultimate “blessing” that can come from illness is a search for and return to God.  Many people of faith have found that, in a moment of grave illness, their faith was strengthened and their love increased.  Suddenly, the many idols and “things” of this world seem of little importance.  Instead, illness can have the effect of reprioritizing life and focusing in on what is important and on what is eternal.  “You can’t take it with you” as the saying goes.  So the suffering of illness can be a great blessing in disguise when it evokes a return to God and Christian virtue.

What we have to remember, above all else, when one encounters a serious illness, is that Christ is the Great Physician. He always has and always will have the greatest compassion toward those who are ill.  We see this so clearly in the Gospels as we witness the many healings Jesus performed.  And though Jesus does not always heal physically, He does always heal spiritually.  He always acts as the Divine Physician of our souls.


Who Can Be Anointed By Whom?

Some sacraments can be administered by those who are not priests.  For example, deacons can witness marriages and administer baptism.  In fact, laity can do the same under special conditions.  But most sacraments are reserved to priests and bishops by virtue of the special grace of their ordination.  Anointing of the Sick is one of those sacraments and can only be administered by a priest or bishop.  And normally, the oil that is used is blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday and distributed to all the priests of his diocese.

The Sacrament of Anointing is not for everyone.  It’s not for ordinary daily life and ordinary struggles and weaknesses.  The Sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist are for these daily needs.  Anointing of the Sick is specifically for those who, as a result of some serious illness, face the possibility of death.  This is a very general definition so let’s look at some practical examples.

Danger of Death: As mentioned above, every serious illness can offer a glimpse of death, even if death is unlikely.  The Sacrament of Anointing is to be given to those who in any way are in danger of death due to an illness.  This could be the person going in for surgery, even if it’s somewhat routine.  Or it could be administered to just about anyone who has been admitted to a hospital for an illness.  The guiding principle is to be cautious and generous with the grace of this sacrament.  Even if there is only a small possibility of death, it’s wise to be anointed. 

Of course common sense should come into play.  For example, if you have a common cold, you should not be anointed.  However, if there are other serious complications which cause the common cold, according to the doctor, to possess some serious risk to you, then you should be anointed.

At the Beginning of an Illness: Sometimes it is thought that one should wait until the moment of death to call the priest and be anointed.  This is a mistake.  Anointing should be given at the beginning of a serious illness so that the grace of that sacrament can assist throughout.  If, however, the person is anointed at the beginning of a serious illness, and then becomes worse, it is appropriate to anoint again, including at the time of death. 

Elderly: When ones “frailty becomes more pronounced” due to advancement in years, the time to anoint has arrived.  In this case, the elderly can be anointed on a regular basis as long as their frailty and weakness continues which it most likely will.  Some suggest that once a month would be an ideal.  Those who are entrusted to the care of a nursing home are ideal candidates for regularly receiving the Anointing of the Sick.  Old age is not an illness, but, as we will see later in this chapter, the elderly most certainly are candidates for anointing given their needs, physical weakness, suffering of ailments, and proximity to the end of their lives.

Mental Illness:  Mental illness brings with it unique challenges and sufferings.  As a general rule, those who suffer from some form of mental illness or another serious mental anguish can be anointed.  Mental illness can be life threatening at times for a variety of reasons.  This should be used with caution though.  Just having a bad day, or being particularly down is not a reason for anointing.  Minor illness is not a sufficient reason either.  Sometimes people seek healing in a general way or in a spiritual way such as from some past struggle or hurt.  Again, this is not what this sacrament is for.  The Eucharist and Confession will offer the grace needed for this type of healing.  Discernment on the part of the priest will help in deciding if the person is in need of anointing.  So if there is a question about it, speak to your parish priest and let him decide.

The bottom line is that the Sacrament of Anointing should be given generously to those who are in need.  If in doubt, it’s probably best to anoint.  And it’s best to do it sooner rather than later.  The fact that God made Anointing a sacrament tells us that He has a special concern for those who are ill or weakened and wants to pour forth His grace upon them.


Effects of the Sacrament

The Sacrament of Anointing has powerful effects, but perhaps some of the effects are not what we initially expect. We most likely think the purpose of anointing is to ask for a physical healing. That may be the result, but it may not be. This section will present the various effects of this sacrament. Reflecting upon them will especially help us see illness and human suffering in the way God sees it. These effects are outlined in the Catechism #1532. The various emphasis below is added (underlined words) so as to highlight some of the specific effects of this sacrament. 

The uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church: This is key to understand and live.  It’s the great and wonderful mystery of “Redemptive Suffering.”  So often when we suffer we fall into the trap of thinking that it’s bad for us.  We can even fall into the trap of thinking that God must not care.  But this is simply not the case.  The fact of the matter is that Jesus set for us the perfect example of the value of suffering.  He endured the greatest of suffering in His life and He did it for a reason.  What is this reason?  It’s twofold:  First of all, suffering, illness and death were introduced into this world and our lives as a result of original sin.  God’s answer was to send His Son into the world to transform death, illness, and all forms of suffering.  He transformed it by making it the very means of our eternal salvation.  Secondly, He invites us to unite our own sufferings to His so that our suffering can share in His redemptive power.  This is glorious and is so often missed.  It means that our suffering can have great power and can become a wonderful instrument of grace in our world if we but unite it willingly, freely and joyfully to Christ’s.  Our suffering, in this way, becomes like a prayer.  It takes on meaning and value.  In a sense, we can say that our suffering becomes “divinized.” 

The Sacrament of Anointing offers a special grace to those who are anointed which enables them to more fully unite their suffering to Christ. This will affect their lives greatly, but it will also benefit the entire Church! St. Paul spoke of this when he said, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (Colossians 1:24). Jesus invites us to share not only in His sufferings, He also invites us to share in the redemptive power those sufferings can take on as a result of His Cross. 

Those who are anointed should anticipate this grace in a special way and are invited to make a very conscious gift of their sufferings to Christ for their own good and for the good of the entire world. 

The strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age:  Suffering is not an end in itself.  It is now a means to become closer to Christ.  In order to fully unite ourselves in our sufferings over to Christ, we need strength, peace and courage.  The Anointing of the Sick also offers that grace.

Patient endurance is very inspiring to those who witness it.  When one is in much suffering but retains an aura of peace and strength, this is an inspiration.  The suffering isn’t inspiring, the strength and peace are.  This is also true of those who are frail due to old age.  It’s easy for the elderly to think that their life is at the end and it’s better to simply go.  Though this is understandable, it would be a mistake to miss the fact that God wants the elderly to offer a special witness to His strength and courage.  They do have a mission in life even while in a nursing home or in the hospital.  Their witness is one that is greatly needed and is a source of grace to many.

The forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance:  Often times, when a serious illness or tragedy befalls a person, they do not have time to go to confession.  This is obviously the case when they are suddenly unconscious due to some serious illness.  In that case, as long as the person to be anointed would have wanted to go to confession, all of their sins are forgiven.  God is not picky.  He does not say, “Sorry, you missed your opportunity for confession because you were unconscious.”  No, God’s mercy is great and He freely gives forgiveness of sins if it is desired.  And God knows our heart so He knows whether we would have desired it and chosen it. 

This grace of sacramental forgiveness is an incredible blessing especially at the time of death when the person is unconscious.  First and foremost, it’s a blessing to the one receiving the sacrament.  But it is also a great consolation to the family members in that they are reassured that God is fully present to their loved ones offering mercy and forgiveness. 

The restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul:  This is a sort of tricky effect you might say.  Often times, we pray for healing and expect that the Sacrament of Anointing is primarily for that purpose.  But the key language is that healing will take place if, and only if, “it is conducive to the salvation of his soul.”  Of course, only God knows this so it requires we enter into trust.  But what is important to remember is that the ultimate goal we must have in life is salvation!  Death is not the end, Heaven is.  When we understand this, we will also be faced with the great mystery when, at times, God sees it is better to take a person from this world even if it seems to be before his/her time.  Death is a mystery and we are called to trust and surrender to God knowing that He will sort it all out properly.

So what should we pray for when a loved one is close to death and is anointed?  The ideal prayer is simply a prayer of entrustment to God.  Entrust your loved one, or yourself in your own illness, and believe that God knows best and will provide the grace necessary to achieve what is best.

The preparation for passing over to eternal life:  Lastly, it’s important to note that this sacrament prepares the soul for the grace of death.  God knows what the soul needs at the moment of death.  Therefore, whatever that soul needs most, God will offer it to them in a way that they are free to receive it.  Again, Heaven is our goal and we must never forget that!

In the past, it was common to call the Sacrament of Anointing the “Last Rites” or “Extreme Unction.”  This emphasized this last aspect of the anointing.  And though it is proper at the moment of death, it is now more commonly referred to as Anointing of the Sick so as to emphasize the importance of receiving it not only at the point of death, but also at the beginning of an illness. 

Ideally, at the point of death the Holy Eucharist should also be given under the form of Viaticum.  Viaticum is simply receiving Jesus in the Eucharist with certain prayers that emphasize that this reception of the Eucharist is for the final journey to Heaven.  “Viaticum” means, “for the journey.”

It’s worth noting here that the Sacraments for the beginning of the Christian journey are Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist.  The Sacraments for the final journey are Penance, Anointing and, once again, the Holy Eucharist.


How and When it is Offered

The Sacrament of Anointing can be offered at any time and in any place.  It can be offered in a home, in a hospital, at a nursing home, at church, or wherever the sick person is.  The sacrament can come to them. 

Practically speaking, if you are going in for surgery it’s a good idea to stop by the parish church the day before to be anointed.  Perhaps just call ahead and make an appointment.  Some priests are even able to offer anointing in between Sunday Masses to those who ask. 

If someone is suddenly admitted to a hospital and is in critical condition, tell the nursing staff you want a priest to come.  The nursing staff should know how to contact the local priest quickly. 

For those who are elderly, it’s helpful if either the elderly person or a caretaker keep the local parish informed of his/her health and request anointing from time to time.  When the elderly person is in a nursing home, this may already take place each month so inquire about it at the local parish.

The bottom line is that you should make sure you seek out this sacrament.  Talk to the local parish priest and let him guide you or your loved one on when and how to receive this grace.