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A Thought or Two on the Matter

Rite of Anointing 

The question facing those involved in parish ministry is: “How can we best instruct the faithful concerning the implementation of changes in ‘extreme unction'?” Or perhaps: “How can we give this rite a better pastoral-liturgical expression in our particular parish: The following are a few possible thoughts and suggestions. 

The question, “How can the sacrament of the anointing of the sick find a better pastoral-liturgical expression in the parish?” is in the first instance a catechetical one. Renewal in any area of sacramental life must begin with a balanced educational presentation. This enables the people to better grasp the reason for change and assists them in appreciating the historical continuity that a sacrament holds throughout the ages. People are not unwilling to change; on the contrary they look to change and renewal for growth and strength. Updating helps people to cope adequately with the evolving world around them. 

Nothing, absolutely nothing, destroys more effectively than ignorance. Ignorance, which results from lack of information (offered by competent authority) and integration, breeds fear and distrust, the enemies of renewal. Therefore, if we are to avoid a crisis of ignorance within the Church’s sacramental life, then catechesis becomes our categorial imperative. This is especially true in relation to the anointing of the sick. The reason for our special educational need in this area stems from the hard fact that little knowledge of this sacrament has filtered down through the ranks of the faithful. A second cause is emotional in nature. Anointing of the sick deals with people at a highly emotional time in their lives. Therefore, caution is required if we hope to avoid hard feelings. Countless believers have, in the past, been anointed only when in danger of death or when they appeared to be dead (conditional administration). To reverse this position without a patient catechesis would be a disservice to the Church.  

Primarily, one must begin the process of renewal by convincing the people that this sacrament of the anointing is not a sacrament for the dead or dying or even merely the gravely ill (unto death), but essentially a sacrament for the sick. Once this transition is accomplished the sailing will be relatively clear. 

Secondly, one must help the people to come to a better understanding of the effect of the Sacrament. The desired effect and the actual effect is not merely to heal the soul (spiritual effect), nor merely to heal the body (physical effect), but a blending of the two. The whole person is somehow healed. The people should be exhorted not to look for either effect exclusive from the other, but somehow believe that the sacramental effect is a raced event affecting the whole person. 

Thirdly, the faithful must be instructed so as to see the sacrament for what it truly is: a sacrament of faith and hope. Sickness provides a temptation to despair in the Lord, to cry out in Job-like fashion, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sickness creates the tendency toward selfishness, toward self-pity which makes the sick person Feel: “I’m the only one in the world with any kind of trouble,” or “My trouble is at least worse than others’ troubles.” This concentration on the “me” and “my” illness initiates the temptation to disbelieve in “Yahweh’s mighty hand and outstretched arm and his signs and wonders.” Likewise, sickness provides the occasion whereby many fail at prayer. The sick often give up praying. Sickness in general poses a threat to the sick person’s faith in God. 

What does the anointing of the sick do? From what we know from Scripture and the tradition of the Church regarding the administration of this sacrament, we can say with certitude that a major effect of the 5acrament of anointing is some sort of faith expansion (which also may be the cause of physical healing). The sacrament is one of faith. It inspires confidence within a person’s mind and heart. This is a psychological effect of sorts and could produce a physical effect. Medical 5cience informs us that one of the essentials to true healing is a person’s attitude, that is, his will to live. It is likely therefore that the faithful which anointing inspires, can and often does produce a visible healing effect. 

The final ingredient for true renewal of the sacrament of anointing lies within ecclesiology. The ecclesial dimension of the sacrament is essential to proper renewal. This dimension must be promoted and emphasized. Without it the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is rendered shallow and, in a sense, incomprehensible.

It has been stressed, especially since the close of the Second Vatican Council, that baptism draws us into a relationship with every other Christian. By virtue of this sacrament an ecclesial dimension (a social or communal dimension) of sacramentality is established. We are no longer mere individual believers, detached from or independent of a community, but are members of a Church (people of God) and as such offer praise, thanksgiving and acts of worship together with others in one, true communal enterprise. We are brothers and therefore definitely related. The Eucharist strengthens this fellowship for it is the sacrament of unity and the bond of charity. 

Therefore, when one of the members of this ecclesial family falls sick all are somehow affected. Everyone is concerned with the welfare of this particular individual; blood is thicker than water and we all have the blood of Christ running through our veins. 

Christ established through his Church a vehicle for our response in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Herein lies a graced event; an encounter with the Lord of history and the Lord of our lives. The sacraments are signs of the risen Lord; the sacraments are the sacred signs of the Church; the sacraments are our signs, our means of responding in a most efficacious way to those who have fallen ill. 

All the faithful are caught up in the mystery of grace and have an essential role to exercise in the ministration of the sacraments. They should be so instructed. 

Everyone has a role in the salvation of the world in virtue of the unique relationship to Christ Christians possess as a result of baptism. Likewise the sick have such an appointed task in the salvific activity of the Church. In fact, the sick have perhaps an even greater degree of participation in the ongoing salvation of mankind since they are at present fully capable of realizing the paschal mystery of Christ in their own bodies. Their suffering is visible and their pain can be redemptive, not only for themselves but more properly for those who are in need of the saving merits of noble and God-directed suffering. We must once again educate the people that meritorious suffering is a constitutive element in the sacrament of anointing. 

It would appear that if the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is to be understood by the people of God, the sick person must be made to recognize the value in his suffering. Since the sick have an active role in the salvation of the world, this unique role is so accomplished by the uniting of his suffering with the sufferings of Christ. In this way the sick follow St. Paul’s exhortation that we must make up in our own bodies that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. Herein we discover an essential aspect of the ecclesial dimension of sacramentality operative within this particular sacrament. 

The sick person’s suffering affects the whole people of God. In one manner of speaking, his absence from active participation diminishes the community; yet, in another way, by uniting his pain to that of Christ’s, he contributes to the building up of the Mystical Body of Christ through meritorious suffering. 

When the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is actually celebrated, still another dimension of ecclesiality is operative, that of authentic worship. Since the sacrament of anointing is an act of worship, and worship implies participation, the sick, through the reception of this sacrament, worship God in a special manner unique to their condition. 

The importance of demonstrating to the sick how they contribute to the Church cannot be overemphasized. The sick actually contribute to the general welfare of the Church, if they choose to worship in and through their suffering. 

As for what specifically can be done with regard to the liturgical-pastoral renewal of this sacrament, the new rite speaks for itself. So it would seem that the question confronting us is not: “What should be done?” but rather, “How will we carry out this new format for celebration? How will we educate the people for this change?” 

Education and catechesis are the key to the renewal of this sacrament. However, one important corollary to all of this might consist in the attempt to bring the community to an awareness of their ministry to the sick and dying. That the entire community of believers has the responsibility of helping and healing their brothers in the Lord must be emphasized. In this way the people of God should come to realize the communal dimension of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. 

Guidelines for the Anointing of the Sick 

Special care Anointing of the Sick should be taken that those who are dangerously ill (not necessarily unto death) due to sickness, or old age, receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick as soon as possible. 

It is sufficient for anointing that there be a reasonable and prudent judgment as to the seriousness of the illness. The priest should be the one to make this judgment if the sick person or his family has not as yet requested the anointing. 

The sacrament of anointing may be repeated as often as this becomes necessary. It may be administered during the same illness if in the judgment of the priest the danger of death becomes more serious. 

A sick person ought to be anointed before he or she undergoes surgery whether or not the surgery is the result of dangerous illness (e.g., tonsils, etc.). The reason for this is that in any operation the danger of death is always present to some degree. 

Old persons, even if they are not suffering from a dangerous illness, may be anointed if their age places them in a weakened condition. 

A sick child may be anointed, providing the child has sufficient use of reason to be comforted and uplifted by the sacrament. However, any child who is dangerously ill should always be anointed. 

The unconscious may be anointed if there is reason to presume that had they been conscious they would have requested the sacrament. This also obtains in the case of those who have lost their faculties. This presumption should be broad; the priest therefore should always anoint the unconscious or mentally disabled since he ought always to presume that they would have asked for the sacrament unless he has reason to believe the contrary. 

In the case of those already dead, the priest should pray over the dead person, requesting God to forgive his sins and welcome him into his kingdom. Since the dead are not capable of receiving sacraments, the anointing is not to be administered. However, in doubtful cases those presumed dead may be anointed conditionally. 

In the case where two or more priests are present for the sacrament of anointing, only one of them says the prayer (form of the sacrament) and performs the anointing (matter of the sacrament). Those other priests present may take part in the various parts of the ceremony (readings, invocation, etc). However, all priests present may, each in his turn, lay hands on the sick person. 

The proper matter for the sacrament of anointing is olive oil, but other plant oil may be substituted if the circumstances suggest and need demands. The oil of the sick (oleum infirmorum) is that which is ordinarily blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday. However, a priest may bless the oil used in this sacrament in time of urgent necessity or when his doing so would benefit the faithful in terms of their comfort and instructions. 

After the rite of anointing, wherein oil blessed by the priest was used, the oil remaining should be absorbed into cotton and burned. 

The sacrament of anointing is conferred by the anointing of the sick person on the forehead and hands. The formula (the words which make up the form of the sacrament) is divided into two parts so that the first part is to be said while the forehead is anointed, with the second part to be said while the hands are anointed. 

However, in most urgent cases (cases of extreme necessity), a single anointing, preferably on the forehead, is sufficient. If it is impossible to anoint the forehead, then any other suitable part of the body is anointed. In either case, the entire formula of the sacrament is to be said. 

Since it is incumbent upon all the baptized, who are able, to receive Holy Viaticum, those in danger of death (broadly interpreted) are obliged to receive the Eucharist. Pastors must ensure that the sacrament is readily available to these persons. 

When the priest prepares for the celebration of anointing he should take care, except in emergency cases, to ascertain the condition of the sick person and arrange the ceremony accordingly. If possible, the priest should prepare and explain the sacrament in consultation with the sick person’s family.

Final thoughts on the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick 

The sacrament of the anointing of the sick is administered to those who are dangerously ill, by anointing them on the forehead and hands with properly blessed olive oil or, if opportune, with another vegetable oil and saying, once only, the following words: 

“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. 


In case of necessity, however, it is sufficient that a single anointing,  the whole formula being pronounced, be given on the forehead or, because of the particular condition of the sick person, another more suitable part of the body.

This sacrament can be repeated if the sick person, having received the anointing, recovers and then again falls ill or if, in the course of the same illness, the danger becomes more serious.

Most dioceses grant permission to priests, even curates, to administer the sacrament of confirmation to persons in danger of death, in those parishes which are responsible for hospitals.

The decree granting this power to curates speaks in terms of the pastor being absent which can be interpreted in the broadest sense. The sacrament of confirmation should be given even to those who have not reached the age of reason. Therefore, a priest who baptizes in danger of death would also have a serious obligation to confirm the child at the same time.




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