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The Recipient, Minister, And Celebration Of Anointing Of The Sick

September 9, 2017 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


The biblical basis of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, as we saw last week, is implicitly found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark when Jesus sends forth His apostles to preach the Good News and to cast out demons. As part of their mission they also “anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13).
The principal text for the sacrament, however, is found in the Letter of St. James: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders 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 insightfully articulated by Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, in volume 3 of his superb explanatory work on the Catholic faith entitled Fundamentals of Catholicism (FoC-3), these two verses encapsulate all the elements of a true sacrament: 1) an outward sign of grace, which consists of the priest anointing with oil and saying the proper prayer over the sick person; 2) an inner operation of grace, through the forgiveness of sins and the communication of sanctifying grace; and 3) institution by Christ, in that the apostles considered themselves merely as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1) in administering the rite (cf. p. 309).
We also saw last week that the name of the sacrament was changed from Extreme Unction to Anointing of the Sick at the time of the Second Vatican Council.
“The new name is more appropriate and more correctly describes the sacrament,” explains Fr. Baker, “since it is not necessary to be at the very point of death in order to receive the spiritual strengthening imparted by the sacred anointing” (FoC-3, p. 307). Indeed, as we will see, the sacrament has come into more common use among the faithful since Vatican Council II.
This serves as a fitting segue into the next topic addressed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), namely who may receive the sacrament, under what conditions, and how often.
First of all, to receive Anointing of the Sick a person must have been baptized since it is “the door which gives access to the other sacraments” (CCC, n. 1213). As specified in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC), the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick can then “be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age” (canon 1004 § 1). Why is it necessary to have reached the age of reason?
As explained in The Pohle-Preuss Manual of Dogmatic Theology: “As one of the effects of [Anointing of the Sick] is the cure of the spiritual debility caused by sin, those only who are morally accountable and capable of committing sin are fit to receive this Sacrament” (volume IV, p. 49).
In the words of Fr. Baker, “Since the anointing is the culmination of the sacrament of Penance, and since it can forgive personal sins, it cannot be administered to infants who have not yet attained the use of reason” (FoC-3, p. 313). If uncertainty exists as to whether the sick person has attained the use of reason, the sacrament should be conferred (cf. CIC, canon 1005).
It is important to note that a person need not be at death’s door to legitimately receive the sacrament. Prudential judgment should be made with regard to the seriousness of an illness and as a general rule, that judgment should be in favor of administering the sacrament if uncertainty arises with regard to the risk associated with the sickness.
Also, as noted by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, in his Basic Catholic Catechism Course (BCCC), the sacrament “may be conferred on the aged who are notably weakened in physical strength, even when there are no signs of dangerous illness” (p. 199).
The sacrament should also be received prior to surgery of a serious nature.
Can the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick be received more than once by an individual? “If a sick person who received this anointing recovers his health,” teaches the Catechism, “he can in the case of another grave illness receive this sacrament again” (CCC, n. 1515).
Furthermore, “if during the same illness the person’s condition becomes more serious, the sacrament may be repeated. . . . The same holds for the elderly whose frailty becomes more pronounced” (ibid.).
It is important to note that Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament of the living and therefore normally presupposes that the recipient is in the state of grace. If possible, reception of the Sacrament of Penance should precede Anointing. However, if the dying person is unconscious and unable to confess, Anointing of the Sick may still be conferred — the sacrament will restore the person to the state of grace “provided that he has turned away from sin and has in some sense made an act of imperfect contrition before falling into unconsciousness” (FoC-3, p. 312).
However, the Code of Canon Law clearly stipulates that “Anointing of the Sick is not to be conferred upon those who persevere obstinately in manifest grave sin” (CIC, canon 1007).
A person who is certainly dead cannot be anointed; if there is doubt, conditional anointing should be administered. Why? As Fr. Baker points out: “Evidence points to the probability that the soul does not leave the body immediately when the signs of life cease” (FoC-3, p. 315).
There are differing theories among moralists and theologians as to when separation of body and soul occurs. “Some authors accept that anointing may be legitimately carried out until three hours after apparent death has taken place, but not after rigor mortis has set in” (Fr. Paul Haffner, The Sacramental Mystery, p. 187). The priest conferring the sacrament conditionally would precede the anointing prayer with words such as: “If you are capable of receiving the sacrament. . . .”
Who can validly administer the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick? “Only priests (bishops and presbyters) are ministers of the Anointing of the Sick” (CCC, n. 1516). This is an article of faith as solemnly proclaimed in 1551 by the Council of Trent. Referring to previously cited words from St. James, the Church declares that by “elders of the Church” is meant “not the elders by age, or the foremost amongst the people, but, either bishops, or priests by them rightly ordained” (session 14, chapter 3).
Fr. Hardon elaborates: “It is never permissible; indeed, it is not possible, for deacons, consecrated persons, or members of the laity to confer the Sacrament, even in an emergency. Only priests have received the power to forgive sins through sacramental anointing and/or absolution” (BCCC, p. 200).
The oil used in Anointing of the Sick (oleum infirmorum) is consecrated for that purpose by the bishop of the diocese on Holy Thursday at the Chrism Mass. Until 1972, it was necessary that olive oil be used. However, in that year Blessed Paul VI decreed in his apostolic constitution Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum that oil derived from other plants may be used in those areas where olive oil is not available or is very difficult to acquire.
In case of necessity (i.e., when oil of the sick is unavailable and a person is in danger of death), any priest may bless oil for conferral of the sacrament, but only within the actual celebration of the sacrament.
“Like all the sacraments,” teaches the Catechism, “the Anointing of the Sick is a liturgical and communal celebration, whether it takes place in the family home, a hospital or church, for a single sick person or a whole group of sick persons” (CCC, n. 1517).
In fact, in Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum (PCS), approved for use by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, it is stated that “because of its very nature as a sign, the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick should be celebrated with members of the family and other representatives of the Christian community whenever this is possible” (n. 99).

The Prayer Of Faith

Pastoral Care of the Sick specifies three rites for the sacrament: anointing outside Mass, anointing within Mass, and anointing in a hospital or institution (cf. PCS, n. 97).
Furthermore, “there are three distinct and integral aspects to the celebration of this sacrament: the prayer of faith, the laying on of hands, and the anointing with oil” (PCS, n. 104).
In the prayer of faith, the entire Church is made present, represented by at least the priest, family, and/or friends who have assembled (cf. PCS, n. 105). The laying on of hands is a sign of blessing, that the sick person may be restored to health or at least strengthened (cf. PCS, n. 106). The anointing with oil (on the forehead and hands) signifies healing, strengthening, and the presence of the Spirit (cf. PCS, n. 107).
“These liturgical actions,” says the Catechism, “indicate what grace this sacrament confers upon the sick” (CCC, n. 1518).
As mentioned earlier, the Sacrament of Anointing should be preceded, if possible, by the Sacrament of Penance; furthermore, it should be followed by reception of Holy Communion.
“As the sacrament of Christ’s Passover the Eucharist should always be the last sacrament of the earthly journey, the ‘viaticum’ for ‘passing over’ to eternal life” (CCC, n. 1517).

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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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