“Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”
James 5, 14-16
God created man perfect, without illness or suffering. When man turned from God in our sin death and suffering entered the world. God, in his great mercy, provided ways in which we can heal both body and soul. These are the sacraments of healing. The first of the two is the Sacrament of Reconciliation and is responsible for healing the soul and restoring man to God’s sanctifying grace. The second sacrament of healing is the Anointing of the Sick. This sacrament heals the body.
The Anointing of the Sick is not intended to physically heal the anointed, although it can and has throughout Christian history. The primary intention of the Anointing of the Sick is to strengthen those who are being tried by illness. As part of the rite of the anointing of the sick we beg the Lord that the sick person recover his health if it is conducive to his salvation.
Over the centuries the Anointing of the Sick was conferred more exclusively on those closer to death. It became known as “Extreme Unction” or “The Last Rites”. The Apostolic Constitution Sacram unctionem infirmorum, following upon the Second Vatican Council, established that henceforth, in the Roman Rite, the following be observed:
“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.”
The Anointing of the Sick is no longer reserved mainly for those who are close to the point of death. It is a sacrament for anyone who has grave illness due to sickness or old age. Anyone who is in danger of death should be encouraged to receive this sacrament. Like the Sacrament of Reconciliation the Sacrament of Anointing can be conferred more than once, whenever it is needed. It is not a one-time sacrament like Baptism or Confirmation. If the anointed recovers their health and then grows sick again at some point in the future that person may undergo the anointing again.
When I was undergoing my heart surgeries in 2014 I received the sacrament the first time just before my angiogram. I received it a second time three weeks later just before I went in for my open heart bypass. The priest was there to anoint me a third time the day after the surgery. What did the sacrament do for me?
The purpose of the sacrament is to strengthen those being tried by illness. I had every reason to be worried about my heart surgery. I had a wife and five children whose lives depended on the outcome. My youngest was just five months old. Instead of being worried I was oddly at peace, more so than I have been at any point in my life. I put my trust in God, that he would not only take care of me but that he would provide for my family if I were to be called home to him. I was indeed strengthened by the sacrament. I was also physically healed, much faster than what is typical for this type of surgery. The sacrament did exactly what it was intended to do.
“Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church…”
The Greek word for “elder” is “presbyter” from which we derive the word “priest”. Jesus passed his authority to heal on to the twelve who passed it to their replacements through apostolic succession. Holy Scripture calls for this sacrament to be administered by the elders, the presbyters, the priests. Only a bishop or a priest can anoint the sick. This is not a sacrament that can be administered by a deacon or a lay minister.
It is often celebrated in conjunction of the Sacrament of Reconciliation first and followed by the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Within these three sacraments a person is healed both body and soul and brought into full communion with God. At that moment we are as perfect as we can be as mortal men.
A sacrament is a conduit through which God provides grace. The first grace of this sacrament is the strengthening, peace and courage one receives to face the difficulties of the illness. It is meant to strengthen us against attacks and temptations of the evil one who wishes to use the illness to turn us to despair and anguish in the face of possible death. Instead of trusting in the Lord we are filled with doubt and once filled with doubt we begin to rely on ourselves over the saving power of God.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.”
St. Paul, Colossians 1:24
What could possibly be lacking in the suffering of Christ? Quite simply – our participation. Another grace of this sacrament is that we are allowed to unite the suffering of our illness to the sanctifying suffering of Jesus which allows us to share in his redemptive work for the entire body of Christ – the Church.
“An ecclesial grace. The sick who receive this sacrament, “by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,” “contribute to the good of the People of God.” By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father.” – CCC1522
This is where the sacrament as an oath to the death comes into play. When one “receives” this sacrament they are freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ. We are swearing an oath that we trust in God to do his will in our lives, whether that means that he will physically heal us of our illness or use that illness for the greater good of his Church and his people. Just because someone is not physically healed of their illness it doesn’t mean that God did not give that person grace or that the prayers for that person were in vein. Love is never wasted with God.
We renege on this oath when we lose our faith and turn to despair, anguish in our suffering, or fear death. When I was going through my heart surgery my wife was bothered somewhat by how calm I seemed to be with everything. I asked her what the worst possible thing that could happen with the surgery. She said I could die. No. The worst thing that could happen is that I live another thirty or more years.
When I received the Anointing of the Sick I was taking an oath to the death that I trusted God no matter what the outcome may be. I was assured as part of the anointing that my sins were forgiven and if I did not survive the surgery I would be in heaven with My Lord. No more pain, no more suffering. Only perfect love. If living was the worst thing that could happen what did I have to fear?
My wife, on the other hand, was not anointed and did not take the same oath I did. She had every reason to worry and fear the unknown ahead.
The other way that one can renege on this oath is when they turn their back on God if they were not healed in the way they believed they should be. When the sick get sicker and believe that the sacrament did nothing for them. They are not truly putting their trust in God but wanting their will instead of his.
Blessed is the man who can face his death with happiness and joy, trusting in the Lord, his mercy and infinite love. The kingdom of heaven shall be his. Cursed is the man who desperately clings to his life because he fears the unknown. The eternal darkness shall consume him.
In addition to the Sacrament of Anointing, the Church offers those who are about to leave this life the Eucharist as viaticum, or the Last Sacrament of the Christian, Viaticum has a Latin root meaning “food for the journey”. Viaticum is not part of the Anointing of the Sick and therefore can be administered by a deacon or an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. The Eucharist is the perfect food for those who are passing from this life into the next. In addition to, “The Body of Christ” the following is added when the Eucharist is given as viaticum, “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life.”
A bit of trivia on the Sacrament of Anointing – a person receiving the anointing has their palms anointed with oil. When a bishop or priest is anointed the back of their hands are anointed instead. This is done in respect to the chrism oil that was used to anoint their palms when they were ordained as a priest.