The Anointing of the Sick

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is not a well-understood sacrament.  Many people who grew up prior to the Second Vatican Council still understand it as “Last Rights.”  Understood as “Last Rights” one would only call for the priest to come when the person was thought to be near death.  Occasionally, when I visit parishioners at the hospital and offer to anoint them they have a momentary look of panic.  These are the people who understood the anointing as “Last Rights.”  So, they hear my offer to anoint them to mean the person is dying.

When the renewals of the Second Vatican Council, the history of the sacraments was reviewed.  For centuries the understanding of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was exclusively “Last Rights.”  However, if you look at the biblical foundation of the Anointing of the Sick (James 5:13-15), you will see an invite to anoint all who are sick. 

James 5:14 says

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.

The presbyters were leaders of the local churches.  In our understanding today, the presbyters are the priests.  Hence, priests are the ministers of the Anointing of the Sick.

What is the understanding of “sick” for Anointing?  A person with a common cold is ‘sick’ but would be expected to make a full recovery.  We can (and should) always pray for anyone who is sick but we generally use the sacrament for those with “serious illness.”  “Serious Illness” is anyone who is dying but also includes people with diagnosis of diseases like cancer, major surgery, or heart issues (There is no definite list of “serious illnesses”).  It would also include those who are limited in what they can do by old age.

When is it time to be anointed?  Generally, one should first be anointed when they learn of the illness.  If the disease becomes worse, then it can be repeated with any significant changes.  There is no prescribed interval to repeat the Sacrament.  It is not something to do weekly or even monthly but rather at points of significant change.  One person may not get any worse for months while another may get sicker quickly.

What does the priest do when he anoints a person?  There are various occasions when a person might be anointed.  The first is to anoint the person (people) at a Mass.  Generally, the anointing would be done after the homily.  If done at a Sunday Mass, the readings and prayers of the Sunday are used.  If a special Mass is done during the week, there are special readings and prayers that may be done.

Outside Mass, a person can be anointing at home or in the hospital.  Depending on the urgency, the priest may do a reading, and some introductory prayers.  The most essential part of the Anointing of the Sick is to anoint the person with the Oil of the Sick on the forehead and the palms of their hands (or another place on the person if the forehead or hands are not accessible).  As the priest anoints the person he prays

Through this holy anointing may the Lord, in his love and mercy, help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit (Amen).  May the Lord who frees you from sin and raise you up (Amen).

The Anointing of the Sick should include an opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession).  If the person is expected to pass soon, the apostolic pardon is offered.

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is a pray for healing.  Spiritual healing is an important component of this.  The person may not be physically healed but the Lord offers spiritual healing.  It is offered not just for the dying but for all who are “seriously ill.”  You don’t have (and shouldn’t wait for the final moments) to ask the priest to come.


Fr. Jeff

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