The Anointing of the Sick is a remarkable sign of God's great love for us. In his merciful efforts to bring us safely to himself in heaven, God seems to have gone to the very limit.
Jesus has given us the sacrament of Baptism, in which original sin and all pre-Baptismal sins are cleansed from the soul. Allowing for mankind's spiritual weakness, Jesus also gave us the sacrament of Penance, by which post-Baptismal sins could be forgiven. As though he were impatient lest a soul be delayed a single instant from its entry into heaven, Jesus gave to his Church the power to remit the temporal punishment due to sin, a power which the Church exercises in the granting of indulgences.
Finally, as though to make doubly sure that no one, except through his own deliberate fault, would lose heaven or even spend time in purgatory, Jesus instituted the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
A special sacrament for the sick & suffering
The Catechism of the Catholic Church's section on the Anointing of the Sick defines the purpose of the sacrament as "the conferral of a special grace on the Christian experiencing the difficulties inherent in the condition of grave illness or old age." (Catechism, 1527)
In his Gospel St. Mark (6:12-13) gives us an indication of this sacrament of the sick when he tells us that the apostles, going forth, "preached that men should repent, and they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many sick people, and healed them."
However, the classical description which the Bible gives of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is found in the Epistle of St. James:
Is any one among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters [priests] of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.
The Oil of the Sick
The oil used in administering the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is called Oil of the Sick. It is one of the three Holy oils blessed by the bishop of the diocese at his cathedral on Holy Thursday morning, the other two Holy Oils being Holy Chrism and the Oil of Catechumens, which is used in Baptism.
Oil of the Sick is pure olive oil—nothing being added except the blessing of the bishop. Its appropriateness as part of the outward sign of Anointing of the Sick is evident from the healing and strengthening effects which are characteristic of olive oil.
The essence of the sacrament lies in the actual anointing and the short prayer which accompanies the anointing.
In giving the sacrament, the priest anoints the sick person on the forehead and hands. During this anointing, the priest says: "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."
Counteracting undue fear
When faced with the danger of death, a person normally will experience a feeling of great anxiety.
This is to be expected. God has planted in human nature a strong attachment to life which we commonly call the instinct for self-preservation. He has done so precisely in order to assure that we take due care of our physical well-being and do not expose ourselves to unnecessary danger to our life.
We need not feel ashamed, therefore, nor convicted of lack of faith if we find ourselves apprehensive when the shadow of death looms over us.
To counteract this fear of death when it needs to be counteracted, and to remove all cause for fear, God has given us the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
Graces of the sacrament
In common with all the sacraments, Anointing of the Sick confers sanctifying grace.
It is an increase in sanctifying grace that Anointing of the Sick gives, since it presupposes that the recipient already is free from mortal sin. Thus there is intensified in the soul that supernatural life, that oneness with God, which is the source of all spiritual strength as it is also the measure of our capacity for the happiness of heaven.
Besides this increase in sanctifying grace, Anointing of the Sick gives its own special sacramental grace.
The primary purpose of the special grace of Anointing of the Sick is to comfort and to strengthen the soul of the sick person.
- This is the grace that quiets anxiety and dissipates fear.
- It is the grace which enables the sick person to embrace God's will and to face the possibility of death without apprehension.
- It is the grace which gives the soul the strength to face and conquer whatever temptations to doubt, despondency, or even despair may mark Satan's last effort to seize this soul for himself.
Doubtless some who read this have already received Anointing of the Sick, perhaps even several times. If so, they know by experience, as does the writer, what peace of mind and confidence in God this sacrament bestows.
This spiritual tranquility and strength is further increased by the second effect of Anointing of the Sick. This is the preparation of the soul for entrance into heaven by the forgiveness of venial sins and the cleansing of the soul from the remains of sin.
If we are so blessed as to receive the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick in our last illness, we may have every confidence that we shall enter into the happiness of heaven immediately after death. We hope that our friends still will continue to pray for us after death, since we never can be sure of the adequacy of our own dispositions in receiving this sacrament; and if we do not need the prayers, someone else will profit by them.
Yet we should have a high degree of confidence, once we have received Anointing of the Sick, that we shall look upon the face of God moments after our soul leaves our body. The soul has been cleansed from all that might hold it back from God, from venial sins and from the temporal punishment due to sin.
The "remains of sin" from which Anointing of the Sick cleanses the soul include that moral weakness of soul which is the result of sin, both of original sin and our own sins. This weakness—even to the point of spiritual indifference—is likely to afflict that person especially who has been a habitual sinner.
Here again, the soul of the sick person is tempered and prepared against the possibility of any last-moment conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The Anointing of the Sick Complements Confession
Since Penance (Confession) is the sacrament by which God intends our mortal sins to be forgiven, a sick person who has mortal sins to confess must receive the sacrament of Penance before he receives the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
However, it is a comfort to know that Anointing of the Sick does forgive mortal sin also if the critically ill person is unable to receive the sacrament of Penance. This could happen, for example, if Anointing of the Sick were administered to an unconscious person who had made an act of imperfect contrition for his mortal sins before losing consciousness.
Healing the sick
It is plain that the principal purpose of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is a spiritual one: to prepare the soul for death, if death is to eventuate.
However, there is a secondary and conditional effect of Anointing of the Sick: the recovery of bodily health by the sick or injured person. The condition under which this secondary effect can be expected to operate is stated by the Council of Trent: "When it is expedient for the soul's salvation."
In other words, if it will be spiritually good for the sick person to recover, then his recovery can with certainty be expected.
The recovery, however, will not be a sudden miraculous recovery.
God does not multiply marvels unnecessarily. Whenever possible he works through natural causes. In this instance, recovery will be the result of the powers of nature, stimulated by the graces of the sacrament.
By eliminating anxiety, abolishing fear, inspiring confidence in God with resignation to his will, Anointing of the Sick reacts upon the bodily processes for the physical betterment of the patient. It is evident that we have no right to expect this physical result from Anointing of the Sick if the priest is not called until the body is hopelessly ravaged by disease.
But perhaps "hopelessly" is not a good word. Every priest who has had much experience in caring for the sick can recall some remarkable and unexpected recoveries that have followed after Anointing of the Sick.
This article contains material adapted and abridged from Father Leo Trese's classic book,The Faith Explained. That work is Nihil Obstat: Louis J. Putz, C.S.C., University of Notre Dame. Imprimatur: Leo A. Pursley, D.D., Bishop of Fort Wayne, Indiana.