What Catholics Believe - Chapter Nineteen

Anointing the Sick and the Dying

The woman looked up from her hospital bed and in a nervous voice said, “Father, do you know something that I don’t know?” Her husband added with alarm “The doctors said her illness is serious, but they are sure they can cure her. Isn’t it a little early for her last rites?” And I had barely had a chance to introduce myself. I assured them that I did not have any inside knowledge of her condition. I asked them, if they wished, to share with me what was going on with them, and then we would decide together what might be helpful for them.

The above reaction is not all that uncommon, as many people still associate having a priest visit them in the hospital with needing “Extreme Unction”, more commonly referred to as the Last Rites. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is listed as one of the sacraments of healing, yet the reaction of some people would make it seem that this sacrament is always a harbinger of death. I must often take the time to help people understand the current teaching of the Church, and then to help them decide if they are in need of this sacrament.

Death need not be imminent for one to receive the Anointing of the Sick. As soon as one is diagnosed as being seriously ill, or age has rendered them infirm and this could lead to death, then the time to consider the Sacrament of the Sick has arrived. “Each time a Christian falls seriously ill, he may receive the Anointing of the Sick, and also when, after he has received it, the illness worsens” (CCC 1529). People facing major surgery, beginning difficult treatments for major illnesses, or whose lives are impacted by major injuries, may wish to consider receiving the Anointing of the Sick.

A bishop or priest is the proper minister of this sacrament. It is celebrated by the laying of hands on the sick, followed by the anointing of the forehead and the hands with oil, usually of the olive tree, that has been blessed by the bishop for this purpose. As the celebrant anoints the person, he uses the 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.”

This sacrament is usually celebrated in the context of a liturgy of the word, beginning with a penitential rite and, when possible, followed by the reception of the Eucharist. Many parishes will celebrate the Anointing of the Sick in a communal celebration during Mass, inviting the elderly, the infirm and the sick of the parish to gather with the community. This more fully brings out the concern of the whole community for the sick. Yet even if the sacrament is celebrated in a hospital room with only the priest and the patient, it is still the expression of the concern of the entire community.

“The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects:

  • the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church;
  • the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age;
  • the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of penance;
  • the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul;
  • the preparation for passing over to eternal life.” (CCC 1532)

I had just celebrated the sacrament with a gentleman, who was having major surgery the next day, and his wife. The surgeon walked in, and the wife looked up at him and said, “We have every confidence that you will do a good job tomorrow. In fact, my brother, who is the greatest surgeon in the world, will be on your team.” The surgeon looked a bit confused, and she continued “My mother will be there as well, holding on to my husband’s hand.” The puzzled look on the surgeons face increased, and she concluded, “My brother Jesus is the Divine Surgeon, and he will guide your hands. The Blessed Mother Mary will hold my husband’s hand. We just celebrated the Anointing of the Sick, and we know God is now in charge. However it turns out, we are ready for God’s will!” This is one of countless stories that express the grace and peace and acceptance that can flow from this wonderful sacrament of healing.