The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick

Learn about the practice of the sacrament of the sick in the Catholic church

Service of the Sacrament of Holy Unction (Anointing of the Sick), during the Feast of the Dormition of Theotokos. The Holy Oil (Chrism) is blessed by the Holy Spirit, and is used for anointing the faithful for the healing of infirmities of the soul and body. Annunciation of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
ΙΣΧΣΝΙΚΑ-888/Wikimedia Commons

As the central sacrament of Last Rites, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was, in the past, most commonly administered to the dying, for the remission of sins, spiritual strength, and the recovery of physical health. In modern times, however, its use has been expanded to all who are gravely ill or are about to undergo a serious operation. In broadening the use of the Anointing of the Sick, the Church has stressed a secondary effect of the sacrament: to help a person recover his health.

Like Confession and Holy Communion, the other sacraments commonly performed in Last Rites, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick can be repeated as often as is necessary.

Other Names for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is often simply referred to as the Sacrament of the Sick. In the past, it was commonly called Extreme Unction. 

Unction means an anointing with oil (which is part of the sacrament), and extreme refers to the fact that the sacrament was usually administered in extremity—in other words when the person receiving it was in grave danger of dying.

Biblical Roots

The modern, expanded 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 (para. 1514) 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 Form of the Sacrament

The essential rite of the sacrament consists in the priest (or multiple 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, the Anointing of the Sick may restore the recipient's health.

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Richert, Scott P. "The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick." ThoughtCo, Feb. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/sacrament-of-anointing-the-sick-542129. Richert, Scott P. (2017, February 6). The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sacrament-of-anointing-the-sick-542129 Richert, Scott P. "The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sacrament-of-anointing-the-sick-542129 (accessed December 16, 2017).