The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Sep. 26, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

By Abbot Marcel Rooney, OSB

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This article is part of an on-going series which examines the theology, history, and spirituality of the seven sacraments.

The Church’s teaching on the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is deeply rooted in the teaching of sacred Scripture.

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Abbot Marcel Rooney's DVD series, “Reflections on Holy Mass” may be ordered through the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music, and Art via the institute’s Web site at or by phone at 608-203-6735.

Biblical proof of the sacrament

To mention only two passages, from the New Testament:

  • Mark 6:13 — “So [the Twelve] set off to preach repentance; and they cast out many devils, and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them.”
  • James 5:14-15 — “If one of you is ill, he should send for the presbyters of the Church, and they are to anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again; and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.”

The latter text is particularly significant, since it will be cited again and again throughout the Church’s history as the basis for this sacrament.

Details of the sacrament

I don’t want to get into a detailed exegesis in this article; let it suffice to say that a couple of things are emphasized: calling in the leaders of the Church, first of all.

This means that when a member of the Church community is sick, that person is not alone, and needs to know that the whole community (represented here by its leaders) surrounds him/her with love and concern during the illness.

A second point: besides the anointing, the Letter of James recommends prayer — and a specific kind at that — viz., the prayer of faith.

Dealing with illness for the Christian must always be a matter of faith. Illness, and the possibility of death, is always fraught with great emotional stress for family and friends.

This letter wants to make sure that every Christian, whether sick or healthy, looks upon this moment as a moment of grace, of faith-opportunity.

Sacrament in early centuries

By the early Fifth Century, Pope Innocent I writes that the oil to be used is chrism, which must be consecrated by the bishop. It is noteworthy also that he states that not only the leaders of the community may anoint, but any faith-filled lay member of the Church also may do so.

The Sacramentaries and other official books of the Church’s liturgy, in the centuries following the teaching of Pope Innocent, take pains to detail both a spiritual and a physical benefit from the Sacrament of Anointing.

One Sacramentary mentions that the sacred oil may be received by the sick either by regular anointing, or by touching the oil — even by tasting it. There is no single approach to the sacrament in this early medieval period. That will come later.

Further development of the sacrament

During ensuing centuries, the administration of the sacrament came to be limited to the priest or bishop. In the later medieval period another very significant change happened: the sacrament came to be looked upon no longer as for the living sick with great hopes for their healing.

Rather, it was seen as more of a preparation for death. (Perhaps cultural considerations, such as the high prevalence of death in the period, had something to do with this shift.) Hence, the name of the sacrament was changed in common parlance: it would now be known as Extreme Unction.

Than means the Church was thinking of the sacrament as to be used only at the very end of one’s life.

Other sacraments were inserted within the anointing, when the person was well enough to celebrate them. Thus, confession became common for the forgiveness of sins — even though the Letter of James had indicated that the anointing and prayer of the Church would forgive sins.

Further, Holy Communion was also celebrated when possible. It was given a special name to go with the understanding that this was anointing at death, Extreme Unction; that name was Viaticum.

The Latin means that this Communion is the special Gift of God, in the Body of Christ, to accompany the dying person “on the way” to heaven — that Jesus would be “with you” (tecum) on that final “way” (via).

Reaction against heresy of the Protestants

The Council of Trent sanctioned all this medieval development. Because the sacrament had been denigrated by the Protestant Reformers, the Council’s teaching is found as much in its condemnations of the Reformers’ positions as in anything else.

The Second Vatican Council called for a complete renewal of this sacrament. It began by demanding a change in its name — moving away for the idea that it was Extreme anointing, back to the “Anointing of the Sick.”

Reform of the sacrament

In 1972, Pope Paul VI directed the Congregation for Divine Worship to proceed with the publication of a new Rite. This includes rituals for Visits to the Sick, with special attention for sick children. It allows for anointing to be done within Holy Mass, outside of Holy Mass, in a hospital or institution, as well as at home.

A whole series of readings from sacred Scripture are made available, so that both the sick person and those present at the conferral of the sacrament might have their faith stirred by the presence of God in the Word.

Modern form of anointing

The Rite itself, in a way, follows the outline of Holy Mass. Beginning with a greeting and sprinkling of Holy Water, it proceeds to a Penitential Act and the Liturgy of the Word. The possibility of a short homiletic explanation is also in the new Rite.

Following the Word of God, there is a litany prayer for the sick person in particular. Then the laying on of hands is done — in the spirit of the New Testament examples and directives. The anointing prayer emphasizes that we are asking the Lord “in his love and mercy” to help the sick person, free him/her from sin and “raise you up” — which is a direct reference to the Letter of James in the New Testament.

After the Anointing, a solemn prayer of the Church follows, along with the Lord’s Prayer — after which may come Holy Communion. The Rite ends with a prayer after Holy Communion and a final blessing. One can see easily how this Rite parallels that of Holy Mass. The Church wants to make the sick person feel “at home” with the ritual.

What a blessing this Rite is to the Church! When the opportunity to celebrate it in its fullness is present, because the sick person is strong enough to appreciate it, a wonderful grace is made available to that sick person, as well as to all present.

But whether celebrated in its fullness or because of circumstances in a shorter form, the sacrament should be a great spiritual uplift to strengthen our faith during illness, often a difficult and stressful period.

Abbot Marcel Rooney, O.S.B., is president of the Orate Institute of Sacred Liturgy, Music and Art, resident in the Madison Diocese. The Institute is devoted to helping people understand more and pray better the sacred liturgy.