EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in an occasional series addressing current procedures for preparation and administration of the church’s seven sacraments.
Quite often, the sacrament of anointing of the sick is administered when human life is about to pass into eternal life. Yet the Second Vatican Council emphasized that this anointing can be given much sooner, and also more frequently.
The sacrament, formerly known as extreme unction, was administered as part of the last rites. Out of Vatican II grew the new terminology “anointing of the sick,” as well as an emphasis for wider use of the sacrament — not only when death is imminent, but also in such instances as a serious illness or impending surgery.
According to Father Winfried Kellner, this differs from the former understanding — still held by many — that anointing of the sick is received only once, during the last rites.
“It was the last thing the church did for you before you left this earth. You were literally ready to depart. Now (the anointing) starts a lot earlier,” said Father Kellner, priest chaplain for Unity Health System in Rochester.
“People had the idea it’s reserved for when they’re on their death beds. I think the church has recognized it’s much more than that,” added Deacon John Brasley, who, as diocesan coordinator of community services, oversees health-care ministry.
Sister of St. Joseph Elaine Hollis, chaplain at St. James Mercy Hospital in Hornell, said telling people that they could benefit from the sacrament of the sick often has an unintended effect. They “jump right to last rites,” she said. “They’re alarmed … they don’t understand it as a sacrament that’s meant to embrace the person with love, care and support, at a time when they most need it.”
Guidelines issued by the Diocese of Rochester note that the anointing can be given not only to people in danger of death, but also to those who have lost consciousness, have any serious illness or are about to have a significant surgery. The sacrament may also extend to elderly people who have weakened or children who are ill. People with emotional or mental illness — “those who are suffering physically, mentally or spiritually” — can also receive the anointing, the guidelines note.
The anointing can be repeated, especially when a significant period has elapsed since it was last received or a person’s condition has changed.
“As soon as there’s a new level for cause of concern, you can anoint again,” Father Kellner said.
In accordance with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1513, a priest bestows the anointing of the sick by placing previously blessed oil on a person’s forehead and hands, saying: “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.”
The catechism lists several benefits to be derived from the special grace of this sacrament: “the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church; the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age; the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of penance; the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul; the preparation for passing over to eternal life” (1532).
Church law permits priests alone to administer the anointing. With fewer and fewer priests available in hospitals, Deacon Brasley said it’s best to seek an anointing before being admitted — through a communal anointing of the sick, often offered by parishes after Sunday Mass; or by making individual arrangements with a priest to receive the anointing at church or home. Family and friends should encourage those eligible to receive the sacrament, and they are also invited to pray with the sick while the sacrament is being administered.
Sister Hollis agrees that the anointing should be sought as soon as possible. However, for whatever reason, a great number of anointings don’t take place until patients reach the hospital.
Like several hospitals in the Rochester Diocese, St. James Mercy does not have priest chaplains and relies on parish priests from the surrounding area.
Father Kellner works part time for Unity, while also serving as sacramental minister at Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Greece. He said he administers the anointing up to 25 times on a typical Tuesday, his one full day of duty at Greece’s Park Ridge Hospital. He relies on on-site chaplaincy departments to compile referral lists.
“It’s very, very important, when people are admitted, to state they’re connected to a parish so we can act accordingly,” Father Kellner said. He noted that the sacrament can prove valuable not only for the faithful, but also for people who haven’t attended church in many years but still wish to see a priest.
When death is clearly imminent, the last rites are administered. They begin with the sacrament of penance; follow with an anointing of the sick, if appropriate; and conclude with holy Communion — also known as viaticum, the final sacrament before death. In the absence of a priest, Deacon Brasley noted that lay people can oversee the last rites provided they are valid extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. In this instance, however, the dying person would simply make an act of contrition rather than receive the sacrament of penance.
Sister Hollis observed that the church has a ways to go to get people to view the anointing of the sick as a potentially separate act from the last rites.
“Vatican II is hoping to show that this sacrament can stand alone,” she said. “We’ve done such a good job of teaching people about last rites, they have a hard time understanding that.”
Deacon Brasley — observing that he continued to hear the term “extreme unction” for several years after “anointing of the sick” was introduced — said the emphasis with this sacrament should be more on healing than on death.
“We need healing — we’re human, we’re frail,” Deacon Brasley said, pointing out that Jesus often healed seriously ill people, even bringing the dead back to life. This activity was carried on by the apostles, as indicated in Mark 6:13: “And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.”
He noted that these biblical examples underscore the sacrament’s great value, providing spiritual healing even if physical healing may not be possible.
“I think that it shows how much our God wants us to be healed, whole and complete,” the deacon said. “We are responding to that tradition that was started by Jesus and the early church.”