The Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament that is frequently misunderstood. When I receive emergency calls asking me to come to a hospital to minister to a dying patient, the requests are usually for “last rites.” When, during more routine visits, I offer to administer the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, people often react as though I had suggested the patient were dying. The use of the term “last rites” and the association of Anointing of this Sick with impending death are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of this sacrament and its administration in the contemporary Church.
The nature of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick was clarified in the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy more than fifty years ago. It states (SSC 73):
[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.
This teaching was put into practice through the 1972 instruction of Pope Pius VI, who declared, “The sacrament of the anointing of the sick is administered to those who are dangerously ill” (Sacram Unctione Infirmorum). So, for many decades now, the teaching of the Church has been clear: Anointing of the Sick is for the seriously sick and not just for the imminently dying.
This renewed understanding of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, while correcting one misunderstanding – that it only for the dying – has given rise to another – that is not for the dying at all, but for anyone who is sick. This misunderstanding is reflected in some celebrations of Anointing within Mass (sometimes called ‘Healing Masses’) at which Anointing of the Sick is administered to everyone indiscriminately. It is also expressed by some who suggest that, since Anointing is for the sick, the Church’s ministry to the dying need not include this sacrament, but should be confined to prayers and blessings that do not require the presence of a priest.
An authentic understanding of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There the truth is presented unambiguously: Anointing of the Sick is for the sick and also, in a particular way, for the dying.
The Catechism enumerates four effects of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. The first three are of equal benefit to the sick person who hopes to be restored to health and the sick person who is preparing to die. The first effect listed in the Catechism is “a particular gift of the Holy Spirit” by which the sick person receives “strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age” (CCC 1520). This gift of the Spirt intends a two-fold healing: “to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will.” The second and third effects have to do with the sick person’s union with the suffering Christ as a member of his body the Church. The sick person “is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion” (CCC 1521) and thereby “contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all” (CCC 1522).
The fourth effect of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick concerns the sick person’s “preparation for the final journey” (CCC 1523). The Catechism teaches, “The Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to Christ, just as Baptism began it.” For this reason, its concludes:
If the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given to all who suffer from serious illness and infirmity, even more rightly is it given to those at the point of departing this life; so it is also called sacramentum exeuntium (the sacrament of those departing).
When our loved ones are seriously sick and, especially, when they are nearing the point of death, we should call for a priest. That is, we should heed the instruction we find in the Letter of Saint James: “Are their people sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church and let the priests pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14)