In the past, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was often kept strictly for those close to death. It was known as “Extreme Unction”; “unction” means anointing and the anointing was for someone who is in extremis (Latin for “near death”).
In addition to Extreme Unction, the patient would often receive Holy Communion; Holy Communion received shortly before death is sometimes called “Viaticum” – Latin for “food to take with you on the journey.” Together, these rituals (Extreme Unction and Holy Communion) were known at the “Last Rites.”
In more recent years, the Church has encouraged greater use of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick for people suffering from illnesses that are not necessarily life-threatening. The sacrament helps unite those who are suffering with Jesus’ saving and healing power.
In the past, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was often reserved only for those close to death. In more recent years the Church has encouraged greater use of this sacrament for illnesses which are not necessarily life-threatening. It can be received by any baptised Catholic who has reached the age of reason (the Church suggests that the age of reason is around seven years old) and who identifies in his or her life some need for healing and desires God’s grace in the sacrament. Persons who choose to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick would include, for example, those who are ill in any way, infirm, ageing, or preparing for surgery.
The Anointing of the Sick is a beautiful way in which the Church continues the healing ministry of Jesus. The sacrament reminds us that God wants to give comfort to those who are suffering and wants us to relieve suffering where we can. Check out what Pope Francis has to say about this in this engaging and moving short clip.
Only a priest can administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
There are two principal actions in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick: the laying on of hands, and the anointing itself. The priest lays his hands on the head of the sick person in silence. The laying on of hands is an ancient gesture in which the priest calls upon the strengthening power of the Holy Spirit. For the anointing, the priest uses the Oil of the Sick – one of the three holy oils blessed during Holy Week by the bishop. The priest first anoints the sick person on the forehead, saying, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (The person responds with “Amen.”) The priest then anoints the sick person on the palms, saying, “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” (Again, the person responds with “Amen.”)
In addition to the Anointing of the Sick, the sick person is often given Holy Communion; this is often the case when the Anointing is given in the person’s home, or a hospital or similar facility.
Often when people are sick they get discouraged, depressed, angry, annoyed, and afraid. The Church believes that the Anointing of the Sick offers a special grace to heal and calm the spirit. The healing offered by this sacrament is forgiveness of sins, hope and inner peace, sometimes physical healing, and an assurance of God’s steadfast care, even in death. Often in the prayers offered with this sacrament, those who care for the sick are also included, that God will guide their actions, decisions and caregiving.
The Anointing of the Sick may be celebrated individually or communally. It often takes place in homes, nursing homes, and hospitals. People anticipating surgery or other medical procedures sometimes ask to be anointed at church after Mass on a Sunday or weekday – or they contact their local priest to request to receive the sacrament at some other time. Some parishes have a monthly celebration of the Anointing of the Sick during a weekday Mass where a relatively large number of people are anointed.
Yes, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick can be received more than once. A person might certainly become seriously ill more than once in a lifetime, or may face surgery or other medical procedures on several occasions. Or again, if one has an illness which worsens over time, it would be appropriate to receive the sacrament more than once in the course of that illness – certainly including when near death.
To find out more about the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, have a chat with your parish priest. You can also check out the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1499-1532. Finally, listen to Pope Francis’ beautiful words about the Anointing of the Sick in this short clip.