THE SACRAMENT OF THE ANOINTING OF THE SICK
And He said, “If you will listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God,
and do what is right in His sight, and listen to His commandments,
and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which
I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the LORD, am your healer.”
Exodus 15, 26
Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters 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, 14-16
In the Catholic Church, the Anointing of the Sick, also known as Extreme Unction, is a sacrament that is administered to a Catholic “who, having reached the age of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age,” except in the case of those who “persevere obstinately in manifest grave sin.” The sacrament provides physical and/or spiritual healing according to God’s will. It offers necessary graces so that the sick person may prepare for death; it pours out consolation and hope and provides an opportunity for the forgiveness of sins even when the sick person is too ill to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Anointing of the Sick is often administered near the time of death to bring the person receiving the sacrament spiritual and physical strength. As a sacrament (an outward sign of something internal), it is performed to give God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. Only priests (presbyters and bishops) have the authority to minister the anointing of the sick using oil blessed by the bishop since Christ gave his apostles and the men they appointed in the ministry special power over natural and supernatural phenomena.
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has its foundations in “the economy of salvation.” Because sin has entered the world, illness and suffering plague our human condition. “In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude.” Those who are gravely or chronically ill catch a glimpse of death and are humbled by their illness. They acquire the wisdom of the fact that health and happiness aren’t permanent, and their lives must eventually come to an end (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1500). The acquisition of wisdom is a good thing, but illness, suffering, and the thought of approaching death do carry a negative influence. Although an ill or dying person might become more mature and able to discern the more important things in life than what one had previously thought were essential for happiness and contentment but, in reality, were temporal and fleeting in their shallowness, “illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God.” Still, suffering and/or dying can be good in that it often prompts a person to search for God and be reconciled to Him (CCC, 1501).
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is particularly important in the life of the Church because it is a medium through which Jesus extends his love to the sick and dying. Our Lord heals the person in body and soul by conferring his graces to help them overcome their anguish and despair and make peace with God for peace of mind and spiritual rest.
God’s chosen people of the Old Covenant lived their sicknesses in the presence of God. They lamented their illnesses and misfortunes before God because they believed God was punishing them for their sins. Illness served as a means of conversion and prompted the Israelites to seek God’s forgiveness. With forgiveness should come restoration. The true Israelite in spirit sought the grace of being at peace with God in spite of their unfavorable condition unlike those who were seeking a temporal change of fortune for the better. In any event, “illness was linked to sin and evil, while faithfulness to God restored life” (CCC, 1502).
In the New Covenant, Christ is the physician in his consubstantial oneness with the Father. Christ’s compassion for the sick and the lame and his numerous miraculous healings of a variety of infirmities was a radiant sign that God had visited his people and that the kingdom of God was in their midst (Lk 7:16; Mt 4:24). Our Lord came into the world to heal the whole person, body, and soul, with the forgiveness of sin. The physically and spiritually infirm were in need of him (Mk 2:5-12). Jesus went so far as to identify himself with the sick to remind us that we should have the same love and compassion for them as he had (Mk 25:36).
The Magisterium of his Church reminds us that “His preferential love for the sick has not ceased through the centuries to draw the very special attention of Christians toward all those who suffer in body and soul. It is the source of tireless efforts to comfort them” (CCC, 1503). In carrying out the sacramental rite, the priest acts in persona Christi as a physician. He is essentially a spiritual healer, but there have been occasions in which physical healing has been miraculously brought about with the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God by the grace of sanctification or justification bestowed through the sacrament.
Jesus offered his apostles a share in his priestly ministry and invested in them the authority to preach the gospel and call people to repentance. And this commission included the power to cast out demons and heal the sick by anointing their heads with oil (Mk 6:12-13). In the Catholic rite, a priest prays over the person and anoints their head and hands with chrism (holy oil). The anointing is the means by which there are supernatural results. The act of anointing someone is a power in itself that comes with the manifestation and operation of the Holy Spirit. The anointing is the presence and power of God through which the efficacy of divine grace heals the soul and restores it to good health.
If miraculous physical cures accompany spiritual restoration, they serve as visible signs to remind us of the connection between suffering and sin. Jesus healed the paralytic to show that he had the authority to forgive sins. If he hadn’t had this authority, he couldn’t have produced the miracle that happened (Mt 9:1-8; Mk 2:1-12; Lk 5:17-26). The scribes and Pharisees who told Jesus in their rage that only God could forgive sins had no idea that he was, in fact, God incarnate. Nor did they see that as a man Jesus was given the divine authority from the Father to absolve people of their sins and the power to miraculously cure them in the power of the Holy Spirit. It was this authority and power that was transferred from Jesus to his apostles since it was in his humanity that the divine Person carried out his priestly ministry.
This same authority and power lie with the Catholic priest. The chrism that he uses in conjunction with the formula of prayer is symbolic of its effects. When a priest anoints the head and palms of the hands (Roman rite) of those who are gravely or chronically ill and close to death in most circumstances, the primary purpose is to give spiritual strength, notably the graces of faith and hope, though the sacrament does address the physical, bodily conditions of the illness. The anointing is regarded as a means of health and comfort and as a symbol of being consecrated to God. For the sacrament to be effective, the recipient must have faith in God and in His power which is communicated through the sacrament. He or she must also be repentant for the forgiveness of sin.
The Universal Magisterium of the Catholic Church teaches: “A particular gift of the Holy Spirit. The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death. This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will. Furthermore, “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (CCC, 1520).
Again, in almost all cases, the body isn’t physically healed and restored to health by God’s will as a grace of this sacrament. But there are beneficial psychological and emotional effects produced by the Holy Spirit. Miraculous cures are extremely rare because suffering unites us with the passion of Christ. “ By the grace of this sacrament, the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus” (CCC, 1521).
Christ conferred redemptive value on suffering and death which are penalties for original sin. He transformed what was evil into something good. But our Lord and Savior’s objective act of redemption must be joined with our subjective redemptive participation. We remit our temporal debt of sin by joining our suffering with Christ’s suffering so that we reap the full benefits of the eternal debt he alone has paid on our sinful behalf, provided we accept our suffering as a means of temporal reparation for our sins. The grace of the sacrament gives us the power and wisdom to discern this truth and the strength to accept our cross and carry it together with Christ so that we might be saved and rewarded with eternal life (Mt 16:24; 2 Tim 2:11-12).
By the grace we receive, we may be configured to Christ in his passion, death, and resurrection. Thus, the grace in the sacrament not only benefits the person receiving it but also the whole Church and the people of God. In this sense, it is called “ecclesial grace.” By “freely uniting themselves to the passion of Christ,” the sick who receive this sacrament “contribute to the good of the People of God.” The Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person by celebrating the sacrament, while he or she “contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father” (CCC, 1522). By configuring themselves to Christ in his passion and death, and having a share in his self-sacrifice, the sick person can merit grace (de congruo) for the entire body of Christ (cf. Col 1:24).
Finally, in preparation for the final journey, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick should be ministered to by a priest or bishop without hesitation when death is imminent. In addition to the anointing, those who are gravely ill or dying should receive the Holy Eucharist as Viaticum. “Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of passing over to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ (Jn 6:54). The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father” (CCC 1524).
The Latin word viaticum means “provision for a journey,” from “via” or “way”. For Communion as Viaticum, the Eucharist is given in the usual form, with the added words “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life”. The sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist form a triad called “the sacraments of Christian initiation.” The sacraments of Reconciliation or Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist as Viaticum constitute the end of the Christian life. These latter are the sacraments that “‘prepare for our heavenly homeland’ and the sacraments that ‘complete the earthly pilgrimage’” (CCC, 1525).
Perseverance is a particularly important character trait for us to have to be successful in life. It means determination at working hard regardless of any odds or obstacles that may exist. It is to insist and to be firm on getting something done and not give up. This practical definition can be applied in a spiritual sense and in a Christian context:
“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do:
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ
Philippians 3, 13-14
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,
for he who promised is faithful.”
Hebrews 10, 23
“For you have need of endurance,
so that when you have done the will of God
you may receive what is promised.”
Heb 10, 36
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete,
lacking in nothing.”
James 1, 2-4
Early Sacred Tradition
O God who sanctifiest this oil as Thou dost grant unto all who are anointed
and receive of it the hallowing wherewith Thou didst anoint kings and priests
and prophets, so grant that it may give strength to all that taste of it and health
to all that use it.”
St. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 5:2
(c. A.D. 215)
“In addition to these there is also a seventh [sacrament], albeit hard and laborious
In this way there is fulfilled that too, which the Apostle James says: ‘If then, there is
anyone sick, let him call the presbyters of the Church, and let them impose hands
upon him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith
will save the sick man, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.’”
Origen, Homily on Leviticus, 2:4
“Of the sacrament of life, by which Christians [baptism], priests, kings, and prophets
are made perfect; it illuminates darkness [in confirmation], anoints the sick, and by
its secret sacrament restores penitents.”
Aphraates the Persian Sage, Treatises, 23:3
“Why, then, do you lay on hands, and believe it to be the effect of the blessing, if
perchance some sick person recovers Why do you assume that any can be cleansed
by you from the pollution of the devil? Why do you baptize if sins cannot be
remitted by man? If baptism is certainly the remission of all sins, what difference
does it make whether priests claim that this power is given to them in penance or at
the font? In each the mystery is one.”
St. Ambrose, Penance, 1,8:36
“Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions,
and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you.”
Luke 10, 19