Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Anointing the Sick:
A Parish Sacrament
Have you ever been seriously ill? Have you ever been
anointed during a celebration of the Sacrament of the Anointing
of the Sick? If you answered yes to the first question, I hope
you answered yes to the second also. When the Sacrament of the
Anointing of the Sick becomes a more normal part of Catholic experience
the primary thrust of the Second Vatican Council's renewal of
the sacrament will have been achieved.
The revision's intent, said Pope Paul VI in 1975,
was "to lead to a wider availability of the sacrament and to extend
itwithin reasonable limitseven beyond cases of mortal
Jesus, sacrament of healing
Our mission as Church is to do what
Jesus did. And on nearly every page of the Gospels we read of Jesus'
concern for the sick. Healing was essential to the mission of the
disciples: "He summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two
by two.... They anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them"
(see Mark 6:7-13). After Jesus ascended into heaven, the Church
continued to be a sacrament of healing: "Are any among you sick?
They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray
over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The
prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them
up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven" (James 5:
In the course of time, the focus of the
sacrament shifted from healing to forgiveness of sins and the time
for receiving the sacrament was delayed to the deathbed when forgiveness
of sins would also be the final preparation for heaven. "Over the
centuries the Anointing of the Sick was conferred more and more
exclusively on those at the point of death. Because of this it received
the name 'Extreme Unction" (Catechism of the Catholic Church,
#1512). The Sacrament of the Sick had become the Last Anointing,
the unction in extremis.
The Second Vatican Council wanted to
remedy this situation. The Council reminded us that "the liturgy
is made up of immutable elements, divinely instituted, and of elements
subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with
the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of
anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy" (Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, #21). This was the case with Extreme
The Second Vatican Council placed the
sacrament once again in the context of mutual prayer and concern
described in the Epistle of James. Anointing "is not a sacrament
for those only who are at the point of death" (Liturgy, #73)
but is intended for all those who are seriously ill. Consequently,
what we formerly called "Extreme Unction" is now more properly called
"The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick" (see #73).
More has changed than the sacrament's
name. Our experience of the revised Sacrament of the Anointing has
brought about a change in the way we think about the sacrament.
For example: 1) This sacrament (like all sacraments) is a community
celebration; 2) sickness involves more than bodily illness; and
3) anointing heals us through faith.
Sacraments are community celebrations
The practice of administering Extreme Unction to those
who were at the point of death brought with it a certain privatization
of the sacrament. While we have become accustomed to the sacrament's
new name, many Catholics still think of it as a private sacrament,
administered by a priest to a single individual.
If I asked you to close your eyes and picture the
Sacrament of Anointing, what image would come to your mind? I
think many Catholics would picture a priest standing at a hospital
bedside. For an increasing number of Catholics, however, the mental
picture would be different. They would picture a parish gathered
for Sunday Eucharist, with 30 or so peoplesome visibly ill,
some apparently perfectly healthycoming up the aisle to
be anointed, some with their spouses or caregivers.
That public, communal sacrament is the sacrament celebrated
to its fullest. One of the general principles of the Council's
renewal of Catholic worship states: "Liturgical services are not
private functions, but are celebrations belonging to the Church....Therefore
liturgical services involve the whole Body of the Church; they
manifest it and have effects upon it;—..Whenever rites...make
provision for communal celebration involving the presence and
active participation of the faithful, it is to be stressed that
this way of celebrating them is to be preferred, as far as possible,
to a celebration that is individual and, so to speak, private"
We are gradually experiencing this change among other
sacraments, too. I can remember priests often saying their private
Mass at the side altars of the parish church where I served Mass
as a child. Today side altars have disappeared from our churches
as we have come to see Eucharist as a community celebration. The
Baptism of adult converts at the Easter Vigil has become public
in a way and to an extent I would never have imagined before the
Even the Baptism of infants is more and more frequently
being celebrated publicly, during Sunday Eucharist. The sacrament
is not only for the good of the infant, it is a grace to the whole
parish. The child held in the arms of its loving father or mother
is an effective sign of who we are before God. "Amen, I say to
you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will
not enter it" (Luke 18:17). The celebration of the Sacrament of
Matrimony gives grace not only to the couple getting married;
their love for one another is a sign and sacrament of God's faithful
love for us. Their commitment strengthens ours.
We are coming to see the Sacrament of the Anointing
of the Sick in a similar fashion: "By the sacred anointing of
the sick and the prayer of priests the entire Church commends
the sick to the suffering and glorified Lord, asking that he lighten
their suffering and save them (see James 5:14-16); the Church
exhorts them, moreover, to contribute to the welfare of the whole
people of God by associating themselves freely with Christ's passion
and death (see Romans 8:17; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 2:11-12;
1 Peter 4:13)" (Church, #11).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states
that when the sick are anointed they should be "assisted by their
pastor and the whole ecclesial community, which is invited to
surround the sick in a special way through their prayers and fraternal
attention" (#1516). "Like all the sacraments the Anointing of
the Sick is a liturgical and communal celebration....It is very
fitting to celebrate it within the Eucharist" (#1517).
More and more parishes today are scheduling celebrations
of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick within the community
Eucharist. Pastors have told me that these communal celebrations
educate the parish about the meaning of the sacrament and help
to break down some of the fear that still remains from the days
of Extreme Unction. These celebrations speak eloquently about
key themes of Christian life: mortality, vocation, responsibility,
limits, suffering, care-giving. Communal celebration of healing
and trusting in God speaks loudly to a society which stresses
individual responsibilities and tends to avoid discussing limits
Healing body, soul and spirit
When I first learned about Extreme Unction and about
how sick one would have to be in order to be anointed, I thought
of "sickness" exclusively in terms of bodily illness. I never
thought that there might be serious illnesses whose principal
causes or manifestations were not physical. Nor did I realize
as I do now the holistic unity of body, soul and spirit.
I should have known. For years I suffered from a colon
disorder which the doctors said was caused by my unreasonable
desire to make straight A's in every possible subject in school.
That experience alone should have made me aware of the intimate
relation of mind and body, but I never thought of "perfectionism"
as a disease. Nor did I think of alcoholism as a disease; and
I never even heard of codependency (a description of unhealthy
relationships in a family affected by addiction). I was unaware
of the way in which the actions of one member of a family can
cause serious physical, mental and spiritual illness in other
members of the family.
Today one does not have to be a doctor to know that
physical health is related to mental and spiritual health. We
all know how a divorce can cause ulcers; how being overworked
and run-down can make one more susceptible to the flu. Often a
person who decides to withdraw from an addiction experiences not
only physical pain but also suffers from anxiety and depression.
Mothers have told me of how, after the physical trauma of childbirth,
the joy of having a baby can be completely covered over by the
hormonally induced postpartum depression that sometimes follows.
Today we are all aware that tensions, fear and anxiety
about the future affect not only our mind but our body as well.
These illnesses can be serious. They can move us to ask for the
healing touch of Christ in the Sacrament of Anointing.
Persons with the disease of alcoholism or persons
suffering from other addictions can be anointed. So can those
who suffer from various mental disorders. The anxiety before exploratory
surgery to determine if cancer is present is a situation in which
Christ's power can be invoked in the sacrament. Often the spouse
or the principal caregiver of the person who is seriously ill
also asks to be anointed when he or she, too, is seriously affected
by the illnessthe debilitating fear of an elderly husband
("How will I be able to live if she dies?"); the anguish of young
parents whose child is dying ("How can a just and loving God allow
this to happen?").
Our pastoral experience of the revised rite and the
Church's desire for wider availability of the sacrament has helped
pastors realize that serious mental and spiritual illnesses are
also opportunities to celebrate this sacrament.
In these cases the person does not have to wait until
the illness is so grave that he or she is in the hospital or institutionalized
to celebrate the sacrament. Sacraments, after all, are community
celebrations. It is preferable to celebrate them in the context
of family and parish even before going to the hospital. The sick
person has a better opportunity to appreciate the prayers and
symbols of the rite when in her or his customary worshiping community.
There are times when old age and the fears and isolation
that can sometimes accompany it need to be brought to the healing
and comforting touch of Christ in this sacrament. It is a powerful
sign for a parish community to see their senior members place
their limitations and dependence in the hands of Christ, who accepted
human limitation and freely embraced suffering and even death
The Anointing of the Sick is a different kind of healing
than a chemical placed into our body as medicine or a surgical
intervention to cut out diseased tissue. Sacraments are acts of
faith; they grace the whole personbody, soul and spirit.
The blessing over the oil for anointing asks God to "send the
power of your Holy Spirit, the Consoler, into this precious oil.
Make this oil a remedy for all who are anointed with it; heal
them in body, in soul and in spirit, and deliver them from every
affliction" (Pastoral Care of the Sick, #123).
What gets healed?
Does it work? Will I experience healing? These are
the questions that I am most frequently asked regarding the Sacrament
of Anointing. And I always answer by saying yes. In my experience
with this sacrament as a priest, healing always takes place. That
healing, of course, is not restricted to mere physical healing.
When our attention is directed toward physical illness,
it is natural to think of the effects of the sacrament in terms
of physical healing. Sacraments, however, are celebrations of
faith, expressions of who we are before God. This understanding
of sacrament, together with the realization that we are more than
our physical body, has led us to look again at the effects of
the Sacrament of Anointing.
The Second Vatican Council has reminded us: "The purpose
of the sacraments is to make people holy, to build up the Body
of Christ and finally to give worship to God" (Liturgy,
#59). The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick accomplishes
this by helping us gain insight into the religious meaning of
A quote from the General Introduction to the ritual
itself, Pastoral Care of the Sick, explains more: "Suffering and
illness have always been among the greatest problems that trouble
the human spirit. Christians feel and experience pain as do all
other people; yet their faith helps them to grasp more deeply
the mystery of suffering and to bear their pain with greater courage.
From Christ's words they know that sickness has meaning and value
for their own salvation and the salvation of the world. They also
know that Christ, who during his life often visited and healed
the sick, loves them in their illness" (#1).
The celebration of the sacrament does not explain
human suffering; sacraments are more than mere words of explanation.
The sacraments celebrate faith. In the very celebrating we experience
more and more who we are and what we believe. As the Catechism
says, "Christ invites his disciples to follow him by taking up
their cross in their turn. By following him they acquire a new
outlook on illness and the sick" (#1506).
What does this new outlook involve? It helps us understand
what St. Paul meant when he said: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings
for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking
in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the
church..." (Col 1:24).
It also sheds light on what St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians:
" '[P]ower is made perfect in weakness.' I will rather boast most
gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may
dwell with me" (12:9). In the sacrament, the sick come to see
that "Jesus associates them with his own life of poverty and service.
He makes them share in his ministry of compassion and healing"
In the sacrament we pray that the sick be healed in
body, in soul and in spirit. God alone knows what kind of healing
the sick need most: that a wound be healed; that a fear turn to
confidence; that loneliness be embraced by the support of a praying
community; that confusion in the face of all the whyswhy
me, why suffering, why nowturn to insight.
The Sacrament of Anointing does not remove the mystery
of human suffering. Yet its celebration gives us a window into
the mystery of a loving God. Our loving God raises up the crucified
Son to display his victorious wounds, sitting triumphant at the
Father's right hand.