FAQ About Anointing of the Sick

What is Anointing of the Sick?Anointing_of_the_Sick1.jpg
Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven Sacraments.  It is received by those who are gravely ill, approaching serious surgery or in danger of death.  Along with Reconciliation, it is characterized as a Sacrament of Healing.

In what way is Anointing of the Sick believed to be “healing”?
In the Sacrament, the Church prays that the person anointed will regain physical health.  It is also intended for interior healing, as the person is comforted by the help of the Lord who is present in the Sacrament.  And there is a spiritual healing, since the Sacrament brings the remission of sins to a person who is no longer able to make a verbal confession.

What is the origin of Anointing of the Sick?
The Gospels relate many occasions when the Lord Jesus encountered the sick, healed them, and forgave their sins.  While He was still on earth, the Lord sent His Apostles out with the instructions to cure the sick.  And in the Epistle of St. James (5:14-15), we have a very clear indication of the practice of this Sacrament in the early Church.

What is physically done in this Sacrament?
The two principal actions of the Sacrament are the laying on of hands, and the anointing itself.

What is the laying on of hands?
The priest lays his hands on the head of the sick person in silence.  The laying on of hands is an ancient gesture by which the Holy Spirit is invoked.  In the laying on of hands, the healing and strengthening power of the Holy Spirit is asked.  (It is interesting to note that this very same gesture is used over the bread and wine at Mass, just prior to their consecration.  In some sense, the suffering of the sick person is “consecrated” to God by being joined to the sufferings of Christ.

How is the anointing itself done?
The priest uses “Oil of the Sick” – one of the three holy oils blessed each Holy Week by the bishop.  He anoints the forehead and the palms of the hands of the sick person, with very brief accompanying prayers.

What about the expressions “Extreme Unction” and “Last Rites”?
“Extreme Unction” is an older expression for the same Sacrament.  “Unction” means anointing; and this is the anointing for someone who is in extremis (Latin for “near death”).  “Last Rites” would refer to the Anointing of the Sick, along with the two other Sacraments that may be received at the same time if the patient is conscious:  Reconciliation and Holy Communion.  Holy Communion received shortly before death is called “Viaticum” – Latin for “[food to take] with you on the journey.”

Where is the Anointing of the Sick celebrated?
Since those who receive the Sacrament are seriously ill, people are most often anointed in their homes, a hospital or a nursing facility.  People anticipating surgery sometimes ask to be anointed at church, after Mass on a Sunday or weekday.  Some parishes have “Communal Anointing” where a relatively large number of people present at a particular Mass are all anointed.

Should a person’s loved ones be present when he or she is anointed?
It is beautiful to have family members or friends present when one is anointed, but it is not required.  Those who are able to be present can share in many of the prayers of the ritual.  But of course, if the patient is able to make a confession, others are asked to step out of the room for that time.

May someone receive this Sacrament only once, or should we be anointed often?
Really, neither.  Anointing is not an Sacrament that can be received only once (like Baptism); nor is it intended to be frequent (like Holy Communion).  The Church allows for this Sacrament to be administered several times for the same person, if necessary.  One might certainly become seriously ill more than once in a lifetime, or may face serious surgery on several occasions.  In each instance, one should be anointed.  Or again, if one has an illness which worsens over time, it would be appropriate to receive the Sacrament more than once in the course of that illness – certainly including when near death.  Generally, at least a month would pass between anointings.