Anointing of the sick


Most Catholics today understand the sacrament of anointing as a source of healing for the sick rather than the final act of the church for the dying.  However, there still seems to be some confusion about how the rite is celebrated and who can receive it.

Like all the sacraments, the anointing of the sick is ideally celebrated in the midst of a gathering of the church.  It is a celebration of the church community, not a quasi-magical act that needs only to be performed to be effective.  The members of the church offer the sick person(s) the support of shared faith and shared prayer.

The size of the gathered community will vary widely, of course, according to the circumstances in each situation.  Sometimes it will be a full assembly, as when the anointing is celebrated at a parish Mass for all those who are able to come to church despite their illnesses.  This might be a special Eucharist, or it might be one of the regular Sunday celebrations of the parish.  Sometimes the assembly will be a smaller group at the church, as when someone requests anointing before entering the hospital for major surgery.  Such a person should be anointed during a daily Mass, so that the gathered community is made up of those who come to Mass that day.

The assembly may even be smaller.  When someone is anointed in a hospital setting, it may only be members of the family who gather for the celebration of the sacrament.  There will also be times, of course, when an emergency requires celebrating the sacrament 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.

A major point of confusion that needs to be addressed is 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 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.


Elizabeth Harrington