Anointing of the Sick
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Fr. Joachim Trytania

This sacrament was called Extreme Unction (last anointing), not because it was the last sacrament you received before departing this life but because it was it was the last anointing a person received. (Baptism and Confirmation were the first two times a person would have been anointed.) It was called the Last Rites because over the centuries many died rather than recovered from the injury and disease for which they were anointed. Modern medicine has given people a great hope for recovery and remission from diseases, and many surgeries are now quite successful. Not so long ago, when sickness and injury was expected to result in death, Catholics called for the priest to anoint based on St. James' Epistle: "Are there any sick among you? Then let them send for the priest and let the priest pray over them, anointing them with oil." (Letter of James 4:14). The Extreme Unction was the sign that no more could be done, so the sick and injured were spiritually preparing for death. That is why even today many Catholics shudder when in a hospital the Catholic priest brings his purple stole and oils. They presume the worst and only see the sacrament as the beginning of the end.

In reality, the Anointing of the Sick serves to offer prayers for possible recovery. The intention of it is to give strength to the soul of the sick person. The Church believes that the sacrament offers a special grace to calm the spirit. If physical recovery is God's will, so be it. If not, then the person needs grace, strength and encouragement to bear the illness with dignity. The Sacrament of the Sick also remits (absolves) all sins the person is sorry for but did not previously confess in the Sacrament of Penance. On occasion, there is not time for the person to make a confession, so the anointing compensates by forgiving sins, which the person would have confessed were he able to do so. Because of this aspect of absolving sins, deacons cannot anoint, but bishops and priests can.

The Anointing of the Sick involves using Oil of the Sick (oleum infirmorum) - olive oil blessed by the bishop during Holy Week. Anointing with oil is not a magical or good-luck gesture but a sincere sign of supernatural assistance to coincide with the physical medicine and treatment already given. (Those suffering are reminded of the words of St. Paul: Colossians 1:24, 2 Corinthians 1:5.) Catholic Christians firmly believe in redemptive suffering, whereby a person willingly offers up their personal aches and pains, trials and tribulations with Christ on the Cross.

The Catholic notion of the redemptive suffering, that is, uniting your own suffering with the crucified Jesus gives a person's unavoidable suffering meaning and purpose. Most of the time, it is the innocent who suffer, and guilty sinners seem to escape pain and misery. So instead of seeing suffering as punishment, Catholics are asked to see suffering as (in the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta) being personally kissed and embraced by the Crucified Lord (analogously, of course).

Because many sick and injured people recover nowadays, or may go into remission, Catholics are able to receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick more than once - as many times as needed. The elderly, people with many ailments, and those with deadly or serious disease, chronic pain and suffering, or recurring illness, can and should be anointed often. Some Catholics see Anointing of the Sick as a spiritual oil change, and feel that every three months (or 3000 miles) is a good time to anoint the bedridden, people in nursing homes, and others with chronic and pathological conditions. The Sacrament of the Sick is for those in danger of death or in serious and critical condition medically speaking (before surgery, for example). In minor cases, a prayer for healing is appropriate. The sacrament should not be overused or trivialized for every upset stomach and toe ache.

The priest anoints the forehead saying: "Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen." Then, if possible, he anoints the palms of the person, saying: "May the Lord Who frees you from sin, save you and raise you up. Amen.

If it is an emergency, the priest can anoint any part of the body that is available if the doctors and nurses are working on the head and hands of the injured person. The sick person, if able, receives Holy Communion, too. Holy Communion given to a dying person is called viaticum, which is Latin for something for the journey. The Catholic Church suggests that a dying person have a crucifix nearby to meditate on, a rosary, a Bible, holy water, and candles, if safe to use. These items make the setting sacred because the suffering person is going through his own form of Calvary and literally walking with the Lord as he approaches the place where Jesus was crucified.

Priests and bishops are not anointed on the palms when given the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, because their hands were already anointed at their ordination. Priests and bishops are anointed on the back of their hands instead.

Holy Cross Catholic Church - Batavia, IL -- Page Last Updated 03 Apr 2007