Anointing of the sick, the sacrament that is not talked about

The Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament that we are often afraid to talk about. This article is a reflection on what could be the sacrament of consolation.

Lorenzo Bueno-January 14, 2023-Reading time: 8 minutes
Anointing of the sick

A priest working in a hospital (Unsplash / Gabriella Clare Marino).

Anointing of the sick is a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ, hinted at as such in the Gospel of St. Mark (cf. Mk 6:13), and recommended to the faithful by the Apostle James: "Is any one of you sick? Let him call the priests of the Church, let them pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him" ( James 5:14-15). It is especially intended to comfort those troubled by sickness. The Tradition The living tradition of the Church, reflected in the texts of the ecclesiastical Magisterium, has recognized in this rite, specially designed to help the sick and purify them from sin and its consequences, one of the seven sacraments of the New Law (cf. CIC, n. 1510).

The doctrine on this sacrament

The Second Vatican Council promulgated: "Extreme Unction, which can also and more properly be called Anointing of the Sick, is not only the sacrament of those who are in the last moments of their lives. Therefore, the opportune time to receive it begins when the Christian begins to be in danger of death through sickness or old age" (Sacrosanctum ConciliumBy the sacred anointing of the sick, the whole Church entrusts the sick to the suffering and glorified Lord, so that he may relieve and save them. She even encourages them to unite themselves freely to the passion and death of Christ (cf. LG 11).

Later on, it became clear: "The family of the patients and those who, at whatever level, care for them, have a primary part to play in this comforting ministry. It is up to them in the first place to strengthen the sick with words of faith and common prayer, and to commend them to the suffering Lord; and as the illness becomes more serious, it is up to them to warn the pastor and to prepare the sick person with prudent and affectionate words so that he may receive the sacraments at the opportune moment". (Praenotanda: Anointing and pastoral care of the sick, n.34).

"Remember the priestsIt belongs to their mission to visit the sick with constant attention and to help them with unfailing charity. They should stimulate the hope of those present and foster their faith in the patient and glorified Christ, so that, bringing with them the pious affection of Mother Church and the consolation of faith, they may comfort believers and invite others to think of eternal realities" (Ibid., n. 35).

"The sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is administered to the seriously ill by anointing them on the forehead and hands with olive oil duly blessed, or, according to circumstances, with another oil of plants, and pronouncing once only these words: By this holy anointing, and by your kindly mercyMay the Lord help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that, freed from your sins, he may grant you salvation and comfort you in your sickness". (CCC, n. 1513)

Therefore, it is appropriate to receive the Anointing of the Sick before a major operation. And the same can be applied to the elderly people (CCC, n. 1515).


The Catechism of the Catholic Church adds: "Illness can lead to anguish, to withdrawal into oneself, sometimes even to despair and rebellion against God. It can also make a person more mature, help him or her to discern in their lives what is not essential in order to turn to what is essential. Very often, sickness leads to a search for God, a return to him" (CCC n. 1501). By his passion and death on the Cross, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering: from then on it configures us to him and unites us to his redeeming passion. (CCC, n. 1505).

Heal the sick! (Mt 10:8): The Church has received this task from the Lord and seeks to accomplish it both by the care she provides for the sick and by the intercessory prayer with which she accompanies them (CCC, n. 1509).

The graces of this sacrament

The first grace of this sacrament is of consolationThe grace of peace and courage to overcome the difficulties proper to the state of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, especially the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death (CCC, n. 520).

Thus, the special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has the following effects:

- the union of the sick person to the Passion of Christ, for his good and that of the whole Church;

- consolation, peace and encouragement to bear the sufferings of sickness or old age in a Christian way;

- the forgiveness of sins if the sick person has not been able to obtain it through the sacrament of penance;

- the restoration of bodily health, if it is convenient to spiritual health;

- preparation for the passage to eternal life (CCC 1532).

Pastoral experience teaches that the sick and elderly who receive Holy Unction with faith are not frightened, but find strength, hope, serenity and consolation. The Second Vatican Council gave a more directed approach to orienting the meaning of sickness, pain and death itself with faith in God's mercy. It is a sacrament of salvation that helps to be at peace in times of suffering.

The Church and the sick

Pastors, chaplains in hospitals and nursing homes, and volunteers in the Pastoral Care of the Health Care Ministry offer a careful service of personalized attention to the sick. Their presence among the sick is a response to Jesus' invitation to carry out the work of mercy of "visiting the sick".

The Church, who is present at the most significant moments in the lives of the faithful, accompanies them with special affection and tenderness as they prepare for the definitive transition to a new life in their encounter with God. The whole Christian community prays for them, that the Holy Spirit may grant them "wisdom of heart".

It is not easy at times to assess whether the sick person has the intention, at least habitual and implicit, to receive this sacrament, that is to say, the unchallenged will to die as Christians die, and with the supernatural aids intended for them. But in case of doubt it is better to suppose that he does, since only God knows his conscience and can judge him, and we commend him to His mercy.

Although the Anointing of the Sick can be administered to those who have already lost their senses, care must be taken to ensure that it is received with knowledge, so that the sick person can be better disposed to receive the grace of the sacrament. It should not be administered to those who remain obstinately impenitent in manifest mortal sin (cf. CIC, can. 1007).

If a sick person who has received Anointing recovers his health, he may, in the case of a new serious illness, receive this sacrament again; and, in the course of the same illness, the sacrament may be repeated if the illness worsens (cf. CIC, can. 1004, 2).

Finally, it is important to keep in mind this indication of the Church: "In case of doubt as to whether the sick person has reached the use of reason, is suffering from a serious illness or has already died, this sacrament is to be administered" (CIC, can. 1005).

Charity and illness

In practice, for many Catholics, it is difficult to speak of the Anointing of the Sick, because they associate it with the deathThey do not know or do not want to bring it up with their family and friends. It is another problem of the lack of faith and Christian formation, because they do not know the meaning of this sacrament of hope.

If we educate in the afterlife and in the vocation of eternity, the experience of illness would be an awareness to face, now or later, death and the judgment of God. Sickness invites us to remember that "for God we live, for God we die; whether we live or die, we are the Lord's, whether we live or die."(Rom. 14:8). In old age some balances are altered that compromise the harmony and unity of man, so that for the purposes of the subject of the sacrament of Anointing is equated to the disease.

When we speak of "pain" or "illness", we all know that there are also "spiritual" pains and illnesses, which are not exactly the same as psychic ailments. In any case, the unity of the human being means that a spiritual affliction can have somatic consequences and vice versa. That is why this sacrament of Anointing also has consequences on the peace of the sick person. It is a pastoral error and a lack of charity to delay the administration of Holy Unction until the sick person is in agony, or a little less, and perhaps already deprived of consciousness.

As we said, the sacrament gives graces to take on the cross of sickness, which becomes present long before the imminence of death. We say lack of charity because a Christian is deprived of the sacramental graces, which have precisely the fruit of helping him to assume the reality of sickness or old age.

Illness is a reality that is ambivalent in terms of salvation. It can be lived in intimate union with Christ in his sorrowful Passion, in a spirit of penance and offering, with patience and serenity. But it can also be lived, unfortunately, with rebellion towards God and even with despair; with impatience, with doubts of faith or with distrust in the mercy of God. To "live it in Christ", with the eyes of faith, supposes overcoming the natural difficulty and repugnance to accept pain and death. For this victory, the ordinary channel of grace is the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

An increasingly infrequent sacrament

The publicity brochure for the diocesan church day included a statistic on the administration of the sacraments, and as for the Anointing of the Sick the figure was sadly ridiculous. Of course, since no parish accounts are kept for this sacrament, the data can only be approximate. But what is certain is that little is known about it, and few request it spontaneously, which could mean a deficit in the catechesis of what this sacrament means and produces.

Pastoral care of the sick, especially if they are in danger of death, has always been a priority for all Christians and especially for priests, who are the ones who can administer this Anointing.

I remember impressive gatherings with village priests, who told precious stories of the spiritual aid they gave to the dying, in sometimes difficult circumstances, and with marvelous results. When there were not so many means to alleviate anguish and pain in agonies, the calming effects were very striking.

Today, hospital and parish pastoral care is usually a guarantee for offering this sacrament to those who ask for it. Although there were many sad and justified complaints from the faithful in the early days of the pandemic. But how many ask to receive the Anointing? Fewer and fewer. Only if it is also offered to those who do not practice, explaining to them what it consists of, its nature and effects, is it possible to help a good number of the dying in that final trance.


I am not dealing here with the administration of the sacrament to the elderly in parishes or nursing homes. This practice helps to separate this sacrament from death, so as not to "frighten" by not associating it exclusively with the dying. It is often enough necessary to overcome the fear of death by familiesmore than that of the patient who is going to die and knows it. It is sad to see how little respect and love for personal freedom is shown by relatives who oppose a priest visiting a person in danger of death. The so-called "pacts of silence" are a sad sign of the failure of faith in some families.

If a good quality of life is promoted catechesis If Christians knew the formula used and the consoling prayers of the rite, there would be nothing but peace, consolation and gratitude for this help at such an important moment as the transition to Life.

May we become aware that we Christians are obliged to prepare ourselves as well as possible for death. It is the duty of those close to the dying to see to it that he receives the Anointing, either by presenting to him the convenience of doing so or by mentioning that he is in a situation of danger, with common sense and charity. Normally the sick person welcomes the suggestion with serenity, especially if it is explained to him that it is for his own good.

The authorLorenzo Bueno

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