Anointing of the Sick

Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death.

 

The anointing of the sick is administered to bring spiritual and even physical strength during an illness, especially near the time of death. It is most likely one of the last sacraments one will receive. A sacrament is an outward sign established by Jesus Christ to confer inward grace. The Catholic Church professes and teaches that the Sacred Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven Sacraments of the New Testament. In more basic terms, it is a rite that is performed to convey God’s grace to the recipient, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

In his epistle, James the apostle says, “If any one of you is ill, he says, he should send for the elders of the church, and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again, and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven”.

 

When these words were written, the official name of the sacrament in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church was Extreme Unction (meaning, Final Anointing), a name attached to it when it was administered, as one of the "Last Rites", only to people in immediate danger of death. To reflect the restored discipline whereby, in the Latin Church as in other ancient Christian Churches, the sacrament is to be conferred on those who are "dangerously ill", the Church now always uses the name "Anointing of the Sick". "Extreme Unction" naturally continues in popular use, and is always used by those who prefer to keep the terminology that was customary before the Second Vatican Council.

 

The term "Last Rites" is not equivalent to "Anointing of the Sick", since it refers also to two other distinct rites: Penance and Eucharist, the last of which, when administered to the dying, is known as "Viaticum", a word whose original meaning in Latin was "provision for the journey".

 

"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".

 

God does not always heal the physical infirmities that afflict us. Paul preached to the Galatians while he was afflicted by a "bodily ailment" (Gal. 4:13– 14). He also mentions that he had to leave his companion Trophimus in the town of Miletus because he was too sick to travel (2 Tim. 4:20). In his first letter to Timothy, Paul urges his young protégé to "no longer drink only water, but to use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments" (1 Tim. 5:23).

 

The last passage is especially informative. Not only does it reveal that illnesses were not always healed in the apostolic age, but it also shows an apostle’s practical advice to a fellow Christian on how to deal with an illness. Notice that Paul does not tell Timothy to pray harder and have more faith that God will heal him from his stomach ailment. Rather, he tells him how to manage the illness through medicinal means.

 

Of course, our healing, like all things, is subject to God’s will. As James pointed out "You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that’" (Jas. 4:14–15. We have a promise of healing, but not an unqualified one. It is conditional on the will of God.

 

Even though we must face a certain amount of suffering and affliction in this life, we know God’s grace is sufficient to sustain us. All of God’s graces, including physical health, are bestowed to lead to the salvation of our souls. The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrament brings "the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul".

 

This applies also to the physical suffering of death, which will come for each of us one day. The Bible reminds us, "As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more" (Ps. 103:15–16).

 

The most important part of the last rites is the reception of the Lord in one’s final Communion, also called "Viaticum" (Latin for “that which you take on the road”, i.e., provisions for a journey) This special Communion prepares us to travel with the Lord on the final part of our journey. The comfort of Viaticum has been valued by Christians since the beginning of Church history. The first ecumenical council, held at Nicaea in 325, decreed: “if any man be at the point of death, he must not be deprived of the last and most indispensable Viaticum". Having repented of our sins and received reconciliation, we travel with the Lord Jesus out of this earthly life and to eternal happiness with him in heaven.


The "Last Rites"

Though the psalmist teaches us to ponder our mortality, he immediately comforts us by saying, "But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments" (Ps. 103:17–18).

 

In his steadfast love for us, the Lord gives us the sacraments involved in the last rites to comfort us in our final days and prepare us for the journey ahead. "These include penance (or confession), confirmation (when lacking), anointing of the sick . . . and Viaticum (which is meant to be the last reception of Communion for the journey from this life to eternity). . . .

 

"The present ritual orders these sacraments in two ways. The ‘continuous rites of penance and anointing’ include: Introductory Rites, Liturgy of Penance, Liturgy of Confirmation, Liturgy of Anointing, Liturgy of Viaticum, and Concluding Rites. The ‘rite for emergencies’ includes the sacrament of penance, Apostolic Pardon, Lord’s Prayer, Communion as Viaticum, prayer before anointing, anointing, concluding prayer, blessing, sign of peace" (Fr. Peter Stravinskas, Catholic Encyclopedia, 572).

 

"Concerning the departing, the ancient canonical law is still to be maintained, to wit, that,

From the earliest times, the sacrament of the anointing of the sick was cherished among Christians, not only in immediate danger of death, but even at the beginning sign of danger from illness or old age. A sermon of Caesar of Arles (ca. A.D. 470-542) contains the following: "As often as some infirmity overtakes a man, let him who is ill receive the body and blood of Christ; let him humbly and in faith ask the presbyters for blessed oil, to anoint his body, so that what was written may be fulfilled in him: ‘Is anyone among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he be in sins, they will be forgiven him. . . . See to it, brethren, that whoever is ill hasten to the church, both that he may receive health of body and will merit to obtain the forgiveness of his sins" (Sermons 13[325]:3).