The Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, formerly known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction, is a ritual of healing appropriate not only for physical but also for mental and spiritual sickness.
The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was previously most commonly administered to the dying, for the remission of sins and the provision of spiritual strength and health. In modern times, however, its use has been expanded to all who are gravely ill or are about to undergo a serious operation, and the Church stresses a secondary effect of the sacrament: to help a person recover his health. Like Confession and Holy Communion, to which it is closely linked, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick can be repeated as often as is necessary.
To support and strengthen those who are sick, the Church gathers to pray and anoint those who are ailing with the healing oil of the sick. This oil symbolizes the presence of God at a time of great physical and emotional need and assures the recipient of God’s love and healing presence to give strength and hope.
The modern celebration of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick recalls the early Christian use, going back to biblical times. When Christ sent His disciples out to preach, "they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them" (Mark 6:13). James 5:14-15 ties physical healing to the forgiveness of sins:
Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man: and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.
Who May Receive the Sacrament?
Following this biblical understanding, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that:
The Anointing of the Sick "is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived."
When in doubt, priests should err on the side of caution and provide the sacrament to the faithful who request it.
The authentic tradition of the Catholic Church regarding the anointing of the sick is reflected in the theology of the Council of Trent, which states that anointing was for the sick and the dying. However, because this anointing was often connected with Viaticum, the last communion one receives before dying, this sacrament was commonly referred to as part of the last rites. Since the second Vatican Council, great progress has been made to return the sacrament of the sick to its original theology.
According to the Letter of James 5:14-16, the people are to bring the sick to the priest so that they can be anointed and prayer can be offered on their behalf. Jesus showed great care for those who were sick and was concerned with their bodily and spiritual well being.
Because of this, the Church has developed a ritual to pray with and for those who are ill. It is our belief that through the sacrament of the sick, Christ strengthens those who are ill so that they might be at peace and have the courage to fight their illness.
Any baptized Catholic who is seriously ill and has sufficient reason to be comforted by the sacrament may receive it. Children dealing with chronic or serious illness may be anointed if they have sufficient understanding of the sacrament; and elderly persons may be anointed if they are in weak condition although no dangerous illness is present. Those struggling with mental and emotional illness may seek the sacrament. Persons anticipating serious surgery are candidates for the sacrament as well. Those who experience severe chronic and/or debilitating illnesses are also encouraged to receive the sacrament.
The Form of the Sacrament
The essential rite of the sacrament consists in the priest (or priests, in the case of the Eastern Churches) laying hands on the sick, anointing him with blessed oil (usually olive oil blessed by a bishop, but in an emergency, any vegetable oil will suffice), and praying "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."
When circumstances permit, the Church recommends that the sacrament take place during Mass, or at least that it be preceded by Confession and followed by Holy Communion.
The Minister of the Sacrament
Only priests (including bishops) can administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, since, when the sacrament was instituted during Christ's sending out of His disciples, it was confined to the men who would become the original bishops of the Church.
The Effects of the Sacrament
Received in faith and in a state of grace, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick provides the recipient with a number of graces, including the fortitude to resist temptation in the face of death, when he is weakest; a union with the Passion of Christ, which makes his suffering holy; and the grace to prepare for death, so that he may meet God in hope rather than in fear. If the recipient was not able to receive the Sacrament of Confession, Anointing also provides forgiveness of sins. And, if it will aid in the salvation of his soul, Anointing may restore the recipient's health.
We celebrate this sacrament with a special Anointing Mass. Anyone who is suffering from a medical or physical illness or who will be undergoing surgery or any other medical procedure is invited to attend this Mass with family and friends. We will pray for patience, strength and good health and anoint those in need with the oil of the sick.
Anointing of the Sick is the sacrament that is received by those who are ill or suffering. By the sacred anointing and the prayer of the priest, the whole Church commends those who are sick to Christ. The sick person receives the Holy Spirit’s gifts of strength, faith, peace and courage, and his or her suffering is united with the suffering of Christ, for the building up of the Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1520-23).
Through the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, the Church carries out Jesus’ mission of compassion and healing for the sick. The one who is ill can also be a minister to others. By uniting their suffering to Christ, those who are sick can be signs of faith and witnesses of Christ’s resurrection to the entire community (John Paul II, Christifideles Laici 54).
A Communal Celebration
The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is both “a liturgical and a communal celebration.” In the family home, hospital or church, members of the Body of Christ gather for the sacramental rite led by a priest. The penitential rite followed by the Liturgy of the Word and sacramental anointing of the sick can inspire and comfort both those who are ill and their family and friends who are gathered (Catechism 1517-18). Many parishes have communal celebrations at which many persons receive the sacrament. These sacramental celebrations are a “source of strength amid pain and weakness, hope amid despair” and a “joyful encounter” for the entire community (Christifideles Laici 54).
Connection to the Communion of Saints
Anointing with sacred oil is a sign of blessing by the Holy Spirit of the one who is sick. Oil of the Sick, which receives a different blessing from the Chrism Oil used during Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders, recalls the community’s sharing of the Holy Spirit and the sick person’s connection to the entire Body of Christ and communion of saints.
Imitation of Christ’s Compassion
In the Gospels, Christ’s great compassion toward the sick is expressed in the miraculous healings he performs—which heal the entire person, both body and soul. Parables such as the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:29-37) and the Judgment of the Nations (Mt. 25:31-46) urge Christ’s followers to share his ministry of compassion and healing and to imitate his “preferential love for the sick” and all who suffer (Catechism 1503, 1506; Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis 22).
Solidarity with All Who Suffer
We care for the sick because we see them as children of God and part of our human family. When one part of the Body of Christ suffers, we all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26). The suffering of one impacts everyone. Thus, we are called to solidarity, which is “responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone” (John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 38; Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate 38).
By our compassion, we remind those who are sick that “[the Church] shares your suffering. She takes it to the Lord, who in turn associates you with his redeeming Passion” (Synod of Bishops, Per Concilii Semitas ad Populum Dei Nuntius 12). We are called to comfort, pray for and with, and be in solidarity with all who are sick or suffering.
Caring for those who suffer is not a burden, but a gift. Those who care for the sick do holy and important work; they walk with Christ’s suffering people and in doing so, serve Christ himself (Mt. 25:31-46). Those who minister to the sick and who work to secure decent health care for all become “the living sign of Jesus Christ and his Church in showing love towards the sick and suffering” (Christifideles Laici 53).
Union with Christ’s Passion
While it is possible that the sacrament could bring physical healing, Anointing of the Sick is primarily about the healing of hope and of the spirit. Above all, the sacrament allows the person who is ill to unite more closely to Christ's Passion. This gives suffering a new meaning: a participation in the saving work of Jesus. This is a powerful witness that is for the good of the whole Church (Catechism 1521-22).
Beacons of Hope
John Paul II wrote, “Even the sick are sent forth as laborers into the Lord's vineyard.” As the sick unite their sufferings to those of Christ, they become bearers of the joy of the Holy Spirit in the midst of affliction and witnesses of Christ’s resurrection (Christifideles Laici 53). Anointing of the Sick testifies to the fact that all are called to participate in the redemption of the world (Sacramentum Caritatis 22). We all have a role in sanctifying and building up the Church, whatever our physical condition. As the Synod of Bishops told an audience of sick and suffering persons, “We need you to teach the whole world what love is” (Per Concilii Semitas ad Populum Dei Nuntius 12).
A Witness to Dignity
The sacrament reminds us that each person is made in the image of God and has dignity that remains unchanged, whatever the body suffers. The ministry of those who are sick is a powerful witness to the fact that human dignity is intrinsic and does not increase or decrease based on a person’s physical state or abilities. This is why the Church works to protect the life and dignity of the person at every stage of life—the embryo, the person suffering from AIDS, the family in poverty, and the person nearing death—and why she works to secure access to decent health care for all.
For those who are ill: The Second Vatican Council said…
All of you who feel heavily the weight of the cross… you the unknown victims of suffering, take courage. You are the preferred children of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of hope, happiness and life. You are the brothers of the suffering Christ, and with Him, if you wish, you are saving the world.
For those who are healthy: Pope Benedict XVI noted…
Following [Christ’s] example, every Christian is called to relive, in different and ever new contexts, the Parable of the Good Samaritan who, passing by a man whom robbers had left half-dead by the roadside, ‘saw him and had compassion’.