The Anointing of the Sick was known for centuries as the ‘Last Rite’, because people used to receive this Sacrament only at the end of their life. The Catholic Church promotes good use of this Sacrament, but there is still a tendency among many Catholics to reserve the use of the Sacrament for the dying. Lack of knowledge regarding the grace that the Anointing of the Sick brings to the lives of the faithful who are afflicted by physical, mental and spiritual sickness remains a cause for many not to receive the Sacrament. Vatican II clearly teaches that the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is not solely for those who find themselves at the conclusion of their life in this world (SC73). This Sacrament together with Holy Eucharist can sustain the last moments of a dying person. But Our Lord entrusted this Sacrament to the Church in order to give consolation and healing to the sick and above all, help the sick to make their infirmity an occasion of grace and blessing at whatever time in their lives they are suffering from serious infirmities.
Like all other sacraments, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is also an extension of Our Lord’s redemptive work in the world. Through this sacrament, the Church continues the healing ministry of Our Lord. All four Gospels speak extensively about the preferential love of Jesus for the sick and His compassionate healing ministry. Physical healing was a vehicle for Jesus, to show God’s love. Jesus healed many people, to show that God’s love is always at work in the world.
There are many ways that Jesus’ healing hands reach us. He touches us through the Sacraments of Confession, the Holy Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick and all the other sacraments. Jesus uses counselors, doctors, friends and even strangers in His healing ministry; but all healing comes only from God. Jesus sometimes heals people from their physical infirmities, in order to save their souls. The healing of Jesus is not always physical but mainly spiritual. It is not uncommon to hear people on their death bed saying, that they were greatly healed by God.
Jesus brought healing to many but He gave more importance to preaching and teaching than to healing, because the ultimate mission of Our Lord is to lead us to eternal life. Both infirmity and health direct our souls to eternal glory. Infirmity is a painful reality, but trusting in God, infirmity can become a vehicle to attain eternal glory. The sacrament of the sick teaches and helps us to bear our infirmities and sickness with God. Vatican II makes it clear by saying: With the sacred anointing and the prayer of the priest, the whole Church offers the sick to the Lord Jesus. The sick enter into union with the passion of Christ in order to experience the Resurrection (LG 11). The Anointing of the Sick not only brings spiritual and physical salvation but also brings a meaning to our infirmities as we unite them with the cross of Christ.
The Apostolic Constitution on the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick by Pope Paul VI begins by stating its divine origin: “The Catholic Church professes and teaches that the Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven sacraments of the New Testament, instituted by Christ Our Lord.” The early evidence of the use of this sacrament is made known to us by the Gospel of Mark (6:3) and Saint James’ Epistle (5:14-15). The very rite of the sacrament of the sick begins with the exhortation by St. James: “Is there anyone sick among you? Let him send for the presbyters of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick person and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, they will be forgiven him.”
Here, St. James makes clear some important aspects of the Anointing of the Sick. St. James exhorts the sick to invite the priest, who has the responsibility and authority given by God. The rite should be performed ‘in the name of the Lord’. This means with the authority which comes from the proper source that is the Church. No other healing ministry or healing prayers can substitute this Sacrament. The priest is the only proper minister of this sacrament. The rite should be performed on the sick person who is seriously ill. This sacrament is not just an act of the priest and sick alone but the whole Church. “By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayers of its presbyters, the whole Church commends the sick to the suffering and glorified Lord so that He may raise them up and save them” (Pope Paul VI). The presence of family members and the faithful are highly recommended during the administration of the Sacrament. This is why we celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick during Holy Mass, encouraging the faithful to participate more actively in this divine mystery. We pray for the sick, helping them join their suffering to the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord.
Serious illness which compromises the pace of daily life impeding work and the inability to serve others can become a font of temptation. In addition to physical suffering, the sick are tempted to discontent, disgust, helplessness, sadness, solitude, anxiety, worries for the future and fear of being abandoned by God. The Sacrament of the Sick helps us overcome all these temptations that derive from a serious illness. Helping the sick to overcome the temptations attached to infirmities, the Church wants to assure them that their sickness is not a punishment inflicted on the individual for their personal sins. There are people who associate their illness with their sins and there are sects who promote these ideas which do not reflect the teaching of Our Lord Jesus.
Christ himself, who is without sin, in fulfilling the words of Isaiah, took on all the wounds of His passion and shared in all human pain. It is the responsibility of the sick to fight strenuously against all sickness and all temptations attached to sickness. They need to carefully seek the blessing of good health, so that they may fulfill their role in human society and in the Church. The Anointing of the Sick is a sacramental help offered by Our Lord to the sick in order to fight against their illness ant the temptations attached to it. The sacrament reminds us that we are not alone in our sufferings and Jesus is fighting with us. Moreover, we are given the assurance that our mortal life must be redeemed through the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.
The general introduction of the Rites of Anointing of the Sick approved by the Bishops of USA and confirmed by the Apostolic See speaks about the Recipients of the Sacrament.“The letter of St. James states that the sick are to be anointed in order to raise them up and save them. The faithful whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age can receive the sacrament. The sacrament may be repeated if the sick person recovers after being anointed and then again falls ill, or if during the same illness the person’s condition becomes more serious. A sick person may be anointed before surgery whenever a serious illness is the reason for surgery. Elderly people may be anointed if they have become notably weakened even though no serious illness is present. Sick children are to be anointed if they have sufficient use of reason to be strengthened by this sacrament. In case of doubt whether a child has reached the age of reason, the sacrament is to be conferred. In public and private catechesis, the faithful should be educated to ask for the Sacrament of Anointing, as soon as the right time comes, to receive it with full faith and devotion. They should not follow the wrongful practice of delaying the reception of the sacrament. The Sacrament of Anointing can be conferred on sick people who, although they have lost consciousness or the use of reason, have, as Christian believers, at least implicitly asked for it when they were in control of their faculties.” It is highly encouraged to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before being anointed whenever it is necessary.
The rite of the Sacrament of the Sick consists in three important elements: the laying on of hands by the priest of the Church; the offering of the prayer of the faith; and the anointing of the sick with oil made holy by God’s blessing. The rite signifies the grace of the sacrament and confers it. However, the recipient should be prepared to receive the anointing through the proper form of penitential rite. It is highly encouraged to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before being anointed whenever it is necessary. Considering the condition of the sick, the reception of Holy Communion should be incorporated in the rite of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The laying of hands on the sick is meant to invoke the Holy Spirit because every sacrament is a transforming work of the Holy Spirit. The prayer of the faith, which manifests the faith of the Church, is a fundamental element in the rite of the Sacrament. Even when there is no group present during the administration of the Sacrament, the whole Church is mystically present in the person of the priest and in the one who is ill. The introduction of the sacramental rite makes it clear by stating that “Above all this faith must be made actual both in the priest administering the sacrament and, even more importantly, in the recipient. The sick person will be saved by personal faith and the faith of the Church, which looks back to the death and Resurrection of Christ, the source of the sacrament’s power (see James5:15), and looks ahead to the future Kingdom that is pledged in the sacraments.”
Anointing of the Sick with Oil made Holy by God’s Blessing: “The oil used for anointing of the sick must be blessed for this purpose by the bishop or by a priest who has the faculty, either from the law or by special concession of the Apostolic See. The law itself permits the following people, besides a bishop, to bless the oil of the sick: 1) those who the law equates with diocesan bishops; 2) in case of necessity any priest, but only within the celebration of the sacrament. The oil of the sick is ordinarily blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday (see the introduction of the rite). The oil for the sacrament is olive oil. However, Pope Paul VI through his Apostolic Constitution, allowed the use of another kind of oil in some parts of the world where the olive oil is unobtainable or too difficult to obtain. This oil should be derived from plants, and is thus similar to olive oil. The sacrament is given by anointing the sick on the forehead and hands with blessed olive oil and saying only once these 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 be given on the forehead or, because of the particular condition of the sick person, on another suitable part of the body, while the whole sacramental form is said. Through the anointing with blessed oil a special consecration of the sick in the crucified Christ takes place.
We need to reflect on how fervently we participate in the healing ministry of Our Lord in our families, parishes and communities. “If one member suffers in the Body of Christ, which is the Church, all the members suffer with that member (ICor12:26). For this reason, kindness shown toward the sick and works of charity and mutual help for the relief of every kind of human want are held in special honor. Every act of care for the sick may be considered a sharing in Christ’s healing ministry” (Int. of Rite). The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is one of the best ways that the Church continues the healing ministry of our Lord. It is our Christian duty to encourage the faithful to make more use of this heavenly help so that they can face their infirmities with more serenity and comfort that comes from the Holy Spirit. Sick persons who regain their health after being anointed should be encouraged to give thanks for the favor received by participating in a Mass of thanksgiving or by other spiritual means. As a parish community we need to find respectful and adequate ways to reach out to the sick of our parish and their family members who are indifferent to the faith. Suffering and illness have always been among the greatest problems that trouble the human spirit and faith can bring peace and give answers to their questions. We all need to grow in our faith so that we can grasp more deeply the mystery of suffering and to bear the pain with great courage and help others to do so. May God grant us great love for the sick and deep faith in the healing power of God so that we and people around us recognize the importance of the great gift of God to the sick in the Sacrament of the Anointing.