Sancta Missa - Rituale Romanum (Roman Ritual) - Anointing of the Sick - Introduction



The Church presupposes ideal circumstances, or at least normal ones, as witnessed by the Roman Ritual, for carrying out her many prescriptions with dignity, edification, and effectiveness. Take, for example, the rubrics for processions, for the burial service, for communion brought to the sick, and for the sacrament of anointing of the sick. Yet how often her wishes in these matters are interfered with by enfeebled faith, by adverse conditions of weather, by an urge to rush through everything, or by inadequacies as to place, appurtenances, and participants. This is especially true in the case of conferring the sacrament of Christian consolation to the sick or dying. How often in our day, when negligence or violence or accidents or sudden seizure with fatal illness are by no means the exception, it is impossible to give this sacrament at all, or it is administered only in greatest haste, with curtailment of all but the essential anointing, thereby losing for the recipient as well as the bystanders so much of its signification as the Christ-mystery which heals, soothes, strengthens, purifies, consecrates, and ushers the Christian's soul into the joys of everlasting beatitude.

Last anointing is the sacrament of Christian consolation, through which a member of Christ is made ready to share mystically by his suffering and bodily death in the suffering and sacrificial death of the head of the human race. It is the sacrament of consolation for the subject directly concerned as well as for his brethren in the faith. The note of consolation is so marked a feature that any illness which could prove fatal calls for its administration, long before the death rattle announces that the end is at hand. As the rubric below directs: "It must be received if possible while the sick person is still conscious and rational, so that the recipient himself, in order to receive the sacrament more fruitfully, may assist with faith and devout intention while he is being anointed with the holy oil." Hence it is utterly reprehensible to delay this sacred anointing until the last agony has begun. Rather than delay until the final moments of illness, the rubrics provide that, should there be any doubt about the illness being critical, the sacrament may be administered conditionally. Better too early than too late! Moreover, the last sacraments are three. Penance may, and the holy Eucharist should ordinarily accompany the anointing. And instead of the sorry and unbecoming spectacle of the priest racing with death to the bedside of the sick, the Church prescribes a devout and dignified procession from church to home, with the minister assisted by clergy and acolytes and accompanied by devout layfolk, all of whom are to assist in imparting the consoling mysteries to the one afflicted on his bed of pain, and by their prayerful attendance give comfort and encouragement to him in the loneliness of suffering or of the final combat.

On the other hand, the Church feels that it is hardly too late, unless rigor mortis has set in, to come with her saving compassion to a stricken child of hers, even when all hope is abandoned by human reckoning. For if the dying person is no longer conscious or rational, her last sacrament is endowed by Christ with so much power that it does extraordinarily what sacramental absolution does normally, cleansing the soul even of grievous sin, provided the subject has remained habitually attrite. Suarez does not hesitate to maintain that this sacrament administered to a dying person deprived of his senses is a means of salvation by far more secure than even sacramental absolution. Or if the subject to all appearances is dead, but there can be, nevertheless, some slight doubt, the rubrics direct that he be anointed conditionally. In the discipline regarding anointing of the sick every advantage is given to the afflicted Christian, for in her sacramental mysteries the Church is always conscious of herself in the role of a solicitous mother, and of Christ as the hound of heaven, watching over us from the cradle and pursuing us to the grave.

It is necessary, then, for priests and all the people of God to recapture the consoling meaning and purpose of the final sacrament of Christian life, to view it as Christ intended and as the Church has traditionally understood it. Although it may have about it a certain ring of finality, it is not exactly a last resort when everything else fails; it is not a substitute for any other sacrament, but it has a purpose all its own and a mystery all its own. It is not a substitute for the sacrament of penance; rather it is a complement of penance, for it accomplishes what penance leaves undone. Penance heals us of our sins, but not infrequently the scars of sin remain. Whereas anointing of the sick, if it proves to be the very last anointing, wipes away all scars or remains of sin, and heals the soul so perfectly that St. Thomas can conceive of it as an immediate anointing for glory, a carte blanche admittance to the beatific vision.[1]

This sacrament can be regarded as a complement both of baptism and confirmation. In relation to the former it is a gratuitous restoration to the innocence of Christian rebirth. In relation to the latter it strengthens the member of Christ for the final and decisive battle against the infernal powers. For as the Council of Trent declares: "Extreme unction was regarded by the Fathers as being the finishing process not of penance alone but also of the whole Christian life."[2] The coming of the Lord is anticipated for the benefit of the one departing this life. In this coming the Son of God appears as judge, it is true; however, in virtue of the sacrament He comes above all as the Redeemer full of mercy, "Who shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.... 'See, I make all things new.'"[3] Anointed and consecrated with the holy oil of the sick, the subject can approach the divine judgment seat confident that his personal merits and demerits are swallowed up in the infinite satisfaction which the Savior has sacramentally communicated to him.

Thus far the emphasis has been mainly on one aspect of this sacrament, namely, the aspect stressed by theologians like St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure, who consider as its primary effect procuring for a departing soul such perfect condition that it can wing its way into the arms of its Maker immediately on shaking off the shackles of earthly existence. But theologians today are saying that this is altogether a too one-sided view. Basing their argument on the words of St. James, as well as on the prayers and actions that constitute the sacramental rite, not only its present forms but also those found in the ancient sacramentaries, they say that a better balance is necessary when speaking of the purpose and effects of the sacrament of anointing. In their view the sacrament is not primarily or exclusively a preparation for death. Nor is it exactly the last time Christ comes to man in a sacrament, for Viaticum is ideally the last sacramental encounter with Christ. Rather it is to be seen as the sacrament in which Christ comes to the Christian who is in suffering and in pain from serious illness or from a serious accident, to heal, soothe, strengthen, and purify. He comes to the sick person to extend to him His personal love and care, that compassion, that out-pouring through His sacred humanity of the divine power "which went forth from Him."

In the Church today, by this sacramental action, are renewed to the eyes of faith such scenes as the evangelist describes "Wherever He went, into village or hamlet or town, they laid the sick in the market places, and entreated Him to let them touch but the tassel of His cloak; and as many as touched Him were saved."[4] Sacred Scripture sees sin and sickness as intimately related, as two aspects of a fundamental disorder in man. Therefore, God's saving action includes the deliverance of man not from sin alone nor from sickness alone, but from both. A rather strange attitude to bodily suffering is found in some works on the spiritual life, where it is supposed that the Christian is bound to regard suffering as primarily a real benefit and to accept it as a pure blessing. The truth of the matter is that suffering, whether of mind or body, is at once a trial and a call. Suffering and illness came into the world not from God but from sin. And bodily suffering can by its unnerving property engender in man not necessarily heroic virtue but also blasphemy and despair. So we find in the Gospel that our Lord was oftentimes the enemy of sickness and combatted it in one and the same action of eradicating sin from the human heart and sickness from the body and mind. Consequently, it is a duty for the Christian to strive for and to pray for bodily and spiritual health, as the Church's official prayers make plain. And the sacraments were instituted precisely for the purpose of sanctifying the soul through the body.

In a collection of liturgical prayers called the "Sacramentary of Serapion" (ca. A.D. 350), a prayer used in the blessing of oil of the sick calls on God to endow the oil with power of healing, so that it may wipe out every weakness and infirmity, and act as a remedy against every devil and expel every unclean spirit; that it may eradicate fever and chill and weakness; that it may be a good grace for the remission of sins, a remedy for life and salvation; that it may bring health and integrity of soul and body and spirit; that it may impart perfect well-being." That Christ, with His deep understanding of human nature, should institute a sacrament for the sick which alleviates body and soul at a single stroke ought not to cause wonderment. In this sacrament, then, as the anointing with soothing oil signifies, we may see Christ coming to the sick person to soothe, to comfort, to console by His presence, and to fully cure him if He so sees fit. We speak of the sacraments as encounters with Christ. We leave it to our blessed Lord to determine whether the encounter in the instance of this sacrament will result in health for the body as well as for the soul. Even if the sacrament does not bring a complete bodily cure--and in the opinion of doctors and nurses this happens more often than people think--it brings an interior peace and purity. It gives the sick person courage, helping him to a trusting self-surrender into the hands of a compassionate Savior.


1. "S. Theol.," q. XXIX, a. 1, p. 2.

2. Denziger, Sess. XIV, "Doctrina de sacramento extremae unctionis".

3. Apoc. 2.4-5.

4. Mk 6.56.

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