From the beginnings of the Church, then, this Sacrament has been part of the Christian response to sickness, though the particular ways in which it has been celebrated have varied. Initially, as St James describes, it was offered to anyone who was seriously ill. Later it became more focused on those who were dying and was known as Extreme Unction (the final anointing). Since the Second Vatican Council the Sacrament’s more general use has once again been promoted.
There are two dimensions to the Sacrament, which are closely linked—healing and forgiveness. Physical healing is not the primary purpose of the Sacrament, though it is by no means ruled out. More important is the inner or spiritual healing it offers, which is closely connected with the forgiveness of sins. It assures the sick person of the presence of God. Overcoming the sense of isolation that is often associated with sickness.
Who should be anointed?
Any baptised Catholic who is seriously ill, understanding illness in the broadest possible way.
Examples would include:
- Anybody with a disease that could be life threatening or seriously disabling
- Anybody who has had a serious accident
- Anybody who is about to undergo an operation under general anaesthetic
- Anybody who has chronic disabling condition, including those who are housebound.
- Anybody with a serious psychiatric or psychological disorder
For accidents operations or acute illness (illness of relatively short duration) it is normal to anoint the person only once, though the Sacrament can be repeated if the person’s condition deteriorates significantly. For chronic illness the Sacrament should be celebrated periodically, usually a couple of times a year.
How is the Sacrament celebrated?
The sacrament is usually celebrated in the sick person’s home, or in a hospital or hospice. Where possible it is desirable that family and friends be present to support the sick person.
It is also possible for people to be anointed in church, either during or outside Mass. This might be particularly appropriate for someone who is going into hospital for an operation.
From time to time a Mass may be organized in the parish in which the Anointing of the Sick is celebrated and special arrangements are made to bring those who cannot normally get to Mass.
The main element of the Sacrament itself is the anointing of the sick person by the priest on the head and hands with the Oil of the Sick, which has been blessed by the Bishop at the Chrism Mass. Even if the Sacrament is celebrated outside the Mass it is usual to offer Holy Communion to the sick person after the anointing.
Is this the “Last Rites”?
No. The so-called “Last Rites” are performed when a person is near to death. The main elements of the “Last Rites” are:
- The Apostolic Pardon — a prayer which is said by the priest either after Confession (if possible) or after a Penitential Rite (similar to the beginning of Mass) which effectively grants a plenary indulgence to the dying person.
- Holy Communion as Viaticum — “Viaticum” is a Latin term which means “food for the journey”. In the Eucharist the dying person receives Christ, died and risen, in order that he or she may rise with Christ.
- The Prayer of Commendation in which the dying person is commended to God.
If the person has not recently been anointed then anointing should be included in the “Last Rites”, but anointing itself is not the “Last Rites” and should not be delayed until the person is close to death.
If you are caring for a Catholic who is close to death, please do not delay calling for the priest. It is very difficult to predict the moment of death and it would be unfortunate if the person were to die without the comfort and support of the rites of the Church.