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Scriptural Basis And History Of Anointing Of The Sick

September 2, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


As we initiated our consideration of Anointing of the Sick last week, the second of two sacraments that are designated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) as “sacraments of healing” (the other is Penance), we were promptly given a sobering reminder that our mortal bodies are subject to sickness, suffering, and finally, death.
“Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life” (CCC, n. 1500), and there is no escape for anyone — rich or poor, man or woman, powerful or homeless — from drawing his or her final breath.
In His great mercy, however, God has given us this special sacrament as a powerful aid to assist us as we prepare to pass from corporeal life on earth to eternity — to give us the strength necessary to confidently face what lies ahead with great hope.
The focus of sickness in the Old Testament, as expertly summarized by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, is “the mysterious relation between sickness and sin. Sin and pain are related as condition and consequence” (The Faith, p. 128). Even before the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, “the prophets intuited that sickness could also have a redemptive value for one’s own sins and those of others. Thus sickness was lived out in the presence of God from whom the people implored healing” (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 313).
With the New Covenant, “the compassion of Jesus toward the sick and his many healings of the infirm were a clear sign,” continues the Compendium, “that with him has come the Kingdom of God and therefore victory over sin, suffering, and over death” (ibid., n. 314).
He is the Divine Physician who, by His Passion and death, “gave suffering a new meaning. His followers can unite their sufferings with His and thus enable them, through love, to become like Him and cooperate with Him in the redemption of the world” (Hardon, p. 129).
In a very real sense, we can “fully become ‘God’s fellow workers’ and co-workers for his kingdom” (CCC, n. 307).
The Catechism continues its treatment of the foundations of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick in the economy of salvation by relating that Jesus invited His disciples “to follow him by taking up their cross in their turn” (CCC, n. 1506). And how did they respond? They took to heart His invitation — following in His footsteps, “they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:12-13).
In fact, the Church teaches that these verses from the Gospel of St. Mark implicitly point toward the holy Anointing of the Sick as being a true and proper sacrament. Moreover, after His Resurrection, Jesus renewed this apostolic mission and proclaimed: “In my name…they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18).
Text from the Letter of St. James more explicitly identifies the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders [priests or bishops] of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).
As elucidated by the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Here we have the physical elements necessary to constitute a sacrament in the strict sense: oil as remote matter, like water in Baptism; the anointing as proximate matter, like immersion or infusion in Baptism; and the accompanying prayer as form.”
What about divine institution of the sacrament? “The institution by Christ of the sacrament is not explicit,” explains Fr. Paul Haffner, “but is implicit in the words ‘in the name of the Lord,’ that is according to the mandate and authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, with which He had sent out the Apostles” (The Sacramental Mystery [TSM], p. 174).
As the Catechism clearly teaches, “Tradition has recognized in this rite one of the seven sacraments” (CCC, n. 1510) and cites text promulgated by the Council of Constantinople II in 553, the Council of Florence in 1439, and the Council of Trent in 1551 as confirmation of the Church’s continuous teaching.
Fr. Haffner attests that relatively little was written about Anointing of the Sick in the early centuries and suggests that “one reason for this may be that while the sacrament of Penance was carried out publicly, Anointing was administered privately” (TSM, p. 175), and therefore attracted less attention.
Nevertheless, there is ample evidence that the sacrament was celebrated from the beginning. For example, St. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235) wrote of a rite for the blessing of the oil for the sick by the bishop in his Apostolic Tradition. In 416, Pope Innocent I wrote a letter to Decentius (the bishop of Gubbio) which made a direct reference to previously cited verses from the Letter of St. James that indicate a clear understanding and practice of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick (see Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, n. 216).
It is interesting to note that the letter of Pope Innocent I to Decentius indicates that “the holy oil of chrism, which [is] prepared by a bishop, is permitted not only to priests, but also to all as Christians for anointing in their own necessity” (ibid.).
Likewise, in his eighth-century commentary on the Letter of St. James, the Venerable Bede also makes reference to oil blessed by the bishop being employed by lay persons to anoint the sick.
However, a distinction must be made in that its use by laymen would be regarded as a sacramental rather than a sacrament. “By the Middle Ages,” states Fr. Haffner, “the oil was always exclusively reserved to the priest or bishop in the context of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick” (TSM, p. 176).
In any event, “from ancient times in the liturgical traditions of both East and West, we have testimonies to the practice of anointings of the sick with blessed oil” (CCC, n. 1512). In the Middle Ages, however, “the idea developed that the sacrament of anointing was not so much a healing of the body but more a preparation of the body and soul for the glory of the beatific vision” (TSM, p. 177).
Fr. Haffner cites several renowned theologians, among them the Angelic Doctor, who hold that “the fundamental purpose of this sacrament was the preparation of the soul for glory, and indicated that the Anointing should be conferred when the recipient was close to death; hence the expression Extreme Unction was formulated” (TSM, p. 178).
In his Basic Catholic Catechism Course (BCCC), Fr. Hardon explains this terminology: “The word extreme refers to the Sacrament’s conferral on someone in an extreme physical condition, someone who is on the verge of death; the word unction refers to the sick person’s anointing with oil” (p. 197).
In fact, prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick was most commonly referred to as Extreme Unction. At the same time, however, “the liturgy has never failed to beg the Lord that the sick person may recover his health if it would be conducive to his salvation” (CCC, n. 1512). Indeed, the Council of Trent taught that Anointing helps the recipient bear “more lightly the miseries and pains of his illness and…sometimes attain bodily health, when it is expedient for the salvation of the soul” (Denzinger, n. 1696).

The Fitting Time

In 1921, in his apostolic letter Sodalitatem Nostrae Domine, Pope Benedict XV encouraged a broader interpretation of what constituted the appropriate time for administration of Anointing of the Sick. The Holy Father instructed that those who are extremely ill should not delay reception of Anointing and Viaticum until they are about to lose consciousness, but rather “be strengthened by these sacraments as soon as their condition worsens and one may prudently judge that there is danger of death” (Neuner and Dupris, The Christian Faith, n. 1661).
Vatican Council II renewed the rite of Anointing to reflect its purpose as a sacrament of healing and not simply a preparation for death. In its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Council Fathers instruct: “ ‘Extreme Unction,’ which may also and more fittingly be called ‘anointing of the sick,’ is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one 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” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 73).
Subsequently, in November of 1972 Blessed Paul VI issued the apostolic constitution Sacram unctionem infirmorum in which he decreed:
“The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given to those who are seriously ill by anointing them on the forehead and hands with duly blessed oil — pressed from olives or from other plants — saying, only once: ‘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’” (as cited in CCC, n. 1513).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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