You see it depicted in Hollywood all the time – a priest praying “the last rites” over a dead/dying person. However, as many of us know, “last rites” is a misnomer. It is a combination of the Sacrament of the Sick and Viaticum (the Eucharist received at the time of death). However, the Sacrament of the Sick is not exclusive to the time of death. On the contrary, it is one of the three repeatable sacraments (along with Confession and Communion).
The “great unction,” “anointing of the sick,” and “sacrament of the sick” are all terms used to describe this healing sacrament – an external sign of grace, established by Jesus as described in the Bible.
“These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages… They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Mk 16:17-18
It is for
- the living,
- baptized Catholics (some exceptions in extreme circumstances), and
- those who have reached the age of reason.
It is can be administered
- before surgery or major procedures,
- during a long-term or serious illness, and
- when experiencing health issues related to old age.
Be Not Afraid
Because of this general misconception, I fear that there are many people who are missing out on the great grace that is available to them. I, too, was one of those people.
However, I think my hesitation towards the sacrament was psychological more than due to misconception. You see, in order to request the sacrament there must first be something which is ailing you that you want grace for. I didn’t want to acknowledge that my chronic illness was so serious, so beyond my control, that I needed holy help. Yes it was egocentric, but it was because of fear.
A few weeks of wavering back and forth, and I finally found the strength to be humble and to request the sacrament. I had more to lose by being proud and more to gain by allowing myself to receive God’s grace available to me. (“When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Proverbs 11:2)
I implore you: if you have any similar hesitation to please pray for the grace to overcome it, because by making that small sacrifice you have so much more to gain. Likewise, do not fear the sacrament because you think it is only to be used when no hope is left. In reality, it is quite the opposite.
1499 “By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ.” Catechism of the Catholic Church
A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Jesus that makes present God’s grace (CCC 1084).
Jesus, in His mercy, is continuously shown in the Gospels as healing the sick and letting the sick touch him to be healed as he does his ministry work on Earth. While these healings were signs that foreshadowed our ultimate healing (freedom) from sin by his death and resurrection (CCC 1505), today the lesson we can learn is that our human illness and sufferings are a means with which we can grow in holiness by mirroring Christ’s Passion.
In his Resurrection, Jesus gives an explicit order to heal the sick (Mk 16:17-18, above). It is in obedience to this command that the Church administers the Extreme Unction. (Unction meaning “anointing with oil.”) It is described by St. James (below), which is the basis of the current tradition.
“Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” James 5:14-15.
The sacrament of the sick can only be administered by a priest or bishop. Oil blessed by the bishop is applied to the sick person’s forehand and hands.
We should not expect physical (or miraculous) healing by receiving the sacrament. “…The sick person may recover his health if it would be conductive to his salvation” (Council of Trent 1551; CCC 1512). Rather, we are to be open to the immense grace that is a gift from Holy Spirit that comes from uniting one’s suffering to that of Christ, as well as the strength, grace, and courage that comes from that acknowledgment. The Anointing of the Sick also forgives the sins of those unable to obtain it from Reconciliation, aforementioned healings, and, in times of proximity to death, preparation for eternal life (CCC1532).
“By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part… contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men…” (CCC 1522).
Catechism of the Catholic Church Part two, section two, article five.