Anointing of the Sick
The Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, formerly known as Last Rites or Extreme Unction, is a ritual of healing appropriate not only for physical but also for mental and spiritual sickness.
Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven sacraments and helps those who are seriously ill. The sacrament prays for the physical healing of the ill person, if that be the will of God. Its primary purpose, however, is spiritual. It offers us grace to strengthen our faith and our ability to accept and endure the trials, challenges, and struggles that come with serious illness.
The sacrament was commonly known before Vatican II as Extreme Unction or Last Rites. This name arose because over time the sacrament became more identified as a preparation for death. Vatican II sought to bring the administration of the sacrament back to its original and fuller meaning. Specifically, they desired that the sacrament be administered to those with serious illness at the beginning or first diagnosis of the illness. One should not wait until death is immanent to receive the sacrament and we should no longer use the term “last rites” to refer to the sacrament because it is misleading.
What is this spiritual assistance?
Illness can be scary, especially a serious or life-threatening illness. In the sacrament, the Church commends the ill person to our Lord Jesus Christ, that He might support and save the ill person. The sacrament gives us special grace to strengthen our faith in times of illness, to trust in the saving power of God, and to turn our sufferings and trials over to Lord. As Christians, we are called to offer our sufferings to Jesus, uniting them to the suffering He endured on the cross. In doing so, our suffering has true meaning as it shares in the redemptive power that Jesus’ own suffering possesses.
The sacrament also forgives the sins of the person anointed. If the ill person is aware of any grave or mortal sins that have not been previously confessed, he or she should first ask the priest for sacramental confession and then be anointed. If the ill person is unable to first confess his sins (for example, if he or she is unconscious) the sacrament will forgive even grave or mortal sins.
Who can receive the sacrament?
The following criteria is necessary:
- The person must have a serious illness or be susceptible to serious illness due to advanced age.
- The person must be a baptized Christian.
- The person must have attained the age of reason (considered to be the age of 7; the age when one can also receive their first confession and first communion).
What does “seriously ill” mean?
According to Canon Law seriously ill means that one has begun an illness that is serious enough that it could potentially cause death. This can be interpreted somewhat broadly, but within reason. Some examples:
- Major surgery with general anesthesia: Surgery, especially if general anesthesia is administered, always has certain, if small, risks. Those that will be having surgery are encouraged to be anointed before to strengthen them do endure the spiritual struggles of surgery and recovery.
- One is diagnosed with a serious, potentially life-threatening illness. Today many illnesses such as cancer can be put into remission or completely cured with surgery or treatment. Still, even when the prognosis is good, anyone that suffers from cancer, heart disease, etc. or chronic illnesses (such as Parkinson’s) can and should be anointed.
- Those whose general health has been weakened due to advanced age can be susceptible to sudden life-threatening illness. Those persons that have reached this age may be anointed. They also might be anointed for illness that would not normally be considered life-threatening. For example, the flu is unpleasant but not a reason to be anointed for most people; but for an elderly person with a weakened immune system, the flu can be fatal, such a person can and should be anointed.
- Those with serious psychological illness or depression that is potentially life-threatening may also request the sacrament.
When in the illness should the sacrament be received?
At the beginning! Remember, the sacrament is the Anointing of the Sick, not the “anointing of the dying.” The purpose of the sacrament is to help the person cope with the trials and struggles of chronic and/or life-threatening illness. By definition it should be administered as soon as the serious illness is detected or diagnosed.
That said, should the illness take a turn for the worse and the person is close to death, he or she may request the sacrament again. And, if a person is at a point were death is immanent and they have not yet been anointed, they should be anointed immediately.
Can the sacrament be repeated?
Yes, the sacrament can be repeated, but only in certain instances. One can be anointed multiple times due to different illnesses. One can also be anointed a second time for the same illness if there is a significant change for the worse in the illness. The following examples explain different scenarios:
- A person was anointed a year ago for one illness (e.g. heart attack). He has been recently diagnosed with a new illness (e.g. cancer). This is a new illness. He can and should be anointed again.
- A person was diagnosed with cancer two years ago and anointed at that time. The cancer went into remission but has recently returned. This is seen as a new illness. The person can and should be anointed again.
- A person was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and was anointed. The cancer has since gotten worse (more severe or perhaps has spread) the person may be anointed again.
- A person developed a chronic or life-threatening illness a year ago. He was anointed at that time. The illness has progressed and/or the person is expected to die soon. The person may be anointed again.
What are some cases when a person should not be anointed or re-anointed?
- Minor illness for a person otherwise in good health and not advanced in age.
- When one has previously been anointed for the same illness and there has been no significant change in the illness since the last anointing, even if that anointing was months or even years prior.
- Infants and very young children are not anointed because they have not yet reached the age of reason. If such children have not been baptized and are in danger of death they should be baptized immediately.
Why should a person go to confession first?
The first and proper sacrament for the forgiveness of sins is the sacrament of confession. Our Lord Jesus gave the Church the power to forgive sins and instituted this sacrament for this purpose. All Catholics have a responsibility to seek the sacrament of confession as soon as possible should they find themselves in a state of grave or mortal sin. This sacrament should be received before one is anointed if at all possible.
What is a communal anointing service?
Oftentimes the sacrament is administered to a person with only the priest or with the priest and a few family members present. This is acceptable, especially if necessity dictates. Still, all sacraments are communal, that is they are the prayer of the Church. As such it is appropriate that the faithful be present when the sacraments are administered so that they may join the sick person, the minister and the Church in prayer.
A communal anointing service is a prayer service done either within or outside of Mass where those that are seriously ill can come together with the Church as a whole to receive the anointing of the sick. Like most communal services it includes an introductory rite, liturgy of the Word, intercessory prayer, the sacrament proper, and a final blessing for all present.
Can people who are not sick or sick enough to receive the sacrament attend a communal anointing service?
Yes! Not only is it allowed, it is encouraged. Though you will not receive the sacrament, you can support and pray for and with those that will. The purpose of the communal celebration is to allow for the sick to receive the sacrament in the presence of the faith community. If the only people that are present are those that are receiving the sacrament an element of the “communal” nature of the service is missing.