Anointing of the sick


Like all the sacraments, the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is intended to be celebrated communally, that is, in the midst of a gathering of the church. The members of the church offer the sick person(s) the support of shared faith and shared prayer.
Sometimes the community that gathers for the sacrament will be a full assembly, as when the anointing is celebrated at a parish Mass. This could be a special Mass or one of the regular Sunday celebrations of the parish.
When someone about to enter hospital for major surgery is anointed during a weekday Mass, the gathered community is made up of those who come to Mass that day. For an anointing in a hospital setting, the assembly may consist only of those members of the family who can gather.

There will also be times when an emergency requires that the sacrament be celebrated with only the priest and the sick person present. Such a celebration is still a valid sacrament, yet it should be the exception rather than the rule.
There still seems to be some confusion over who is eligible for the sacrament. The appropriate recipients for the anointing of the sick are described in the General Introduction of the rite:
“Great care and concern should be taken to see that those of the faithful whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age receive this sacrament.
A prudent or reasonably sure judgment, without scruple, is sufficient for deciding on the seriousness of an illness; if necessary a doctor may be consulted.
The sacrament may be repeated is the sick person recovers after being anointed and then again falls ill or if during the same illness the person’s condition becomes more serious.
A sick person may be anointed before surgery whenever a serious illness is the reason for the surgery.
Elderly people may be anointed if they have become notably weakened even though no serious illness is present
Sick children are to be anointed if they have sufficient use of reason to be strengthened by this sacrament. In a case of doubt whether a child has reached the use of reason, the sacrament is to be conferred”. (#8-12)
This listing makes it clear that the anointing is intended for those who are seriously ill. The sacred and unique character of the sacrament is compromised if:

it is viewed as some sort of insurance policy or inoculation against illness.
everyone present at a communal celebration comes forward to be anointed on the spurious grounds that ‘we are all sick in some way’.
it is used as a sacrament of forgiveness. That’s penance. Anointing of the Sick is the sacrament of physical and mental – not spiritual – healing.
the oil of the sick is passed around for participants to anoint one another in communal celebrations. Anointing is reserved to the priest.

On the other hand, the list of appropriate recipients in the introduction to the rite makes it clear that the anointing is intended for all who are seriously ill, not just for the dying. The proper sacrament for the dying is not the anointing but viaticum, or communion for the dying.

As with all things liturgical, good practice is a matter of striking the right balance, in this case between reserving Anointing of the Sick solely for those on their deathbeds and administering it to all and sundry.


Elizabeth Harrington