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Why Anointing of the Sick? Two Catholic Perspectives


Why Anointing of the Sick? By Pat Gouker

Anointing of the Sick remits sins and expunges their remains; it illumines and strengthens the sick person “by exciting in him great confidence in the divine mercy” thus helping him bear “more lightly the miseries and pains of his illness and resist more easily the temptations of the devil;” and, “at times when expedient for the welfare of the soul [God, through this sacrament,] restores bodily health.”[1] Anointing prolongs the sacraments of Baptism and Penance by remedying sin.[2] Further, Anointing completes Penance and becomes the consummation of the whole Christian life, claiming the Christian once more as one belonging to the Triune God and renaming them into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.[3]

In Baptism, the Christian received the Sign of the Cross on the forehead as is done in the Sacrament of Anointing, marking him as one destined for suffering and even death. Indeed, the Christian lives life backwards, going from death unto life.[4] This life to which the Christian travels is a fully resurrected life in the Trinity, a life he was immersed in when he died to sin in the waters of Baptism and was named into that same Trinity for the first time. This “[f]ull resurrection lies for the Christian, as it did for Christ beyond the sufferings of earthly life and beyond the grave. Pain and death, though conquered by Christ, still remain to be overcome by the Christian,”[5] for “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”[6] The Christian, then, approaches Anointing as “a rehearsal for the final battle of life”[7] wherein he will be crucified with Christ[8], conformed to His sufferings and His Cross, and thus prepared to share in His bodily resurrection, though without neglecting that the battle has already begun.

Anointing promotes the bodily resurrection by enabling “the soul to be free in this life, either through the healing of the body, or else to be eventually free from the body in death, with all the traces of sin blotted out.”[9] In Baptism, the sacrament of Christ claims the body and thus makes it sacred,[10] so God does not abandon the body to suffering without a purpose, in this case, a twofold purpose. Suffering acts in a primary way as a punishment for sin; yet, it also acts as a bitter medicine by which humanity can be cured of the ailments of sin, namely, separation from God and His friendship as well as physical corruptibility.[11] This bitter medicine manifests itself in bodily suffering that becomes for the Christian a dark night of the soul. The Christian, by the Sacraments of Initiation, has entered a Communion with all of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ and, in doing so, connects himself so intimately to the other members that all of them both suffer with the ailing Christian and strengthen him during this dark night. Through this dark night and the illumination brought with Anointing, the Christian comes to see God and enter a union with Him.

Anointing also consummates the Christian life, specifically the sacramental life. In Baptism, the Christian receives his destiny which is to suffer the cross with which God signs him through the hands of the priest, parents, and godparents. Confirmation then calls the Christian to actively pursue and fight this battle with death he became destined for in Baptism and is, through a different anointing and signing with the Cross, strengthened by the Holy Spirit to do so. The Eucharist nourishes the Christian on the journey to this battle and throughout the battle itself just as Penance serves to mend the wounds the Christian receives in this battle. The Christian persists in his battle because he seeks to achieve a matrimonial union with his Divine Spouse. When, on this journey to his destiny, the Christian soldier falters through a great weakness brought on by sickness or old age, Anointing bestows on him “strength of mind”[12] by bringing a “special vigor to the virtue of fortitude”[13] within him.[14]

As Christ was anointed at the beginning of His Passion, so too does Anointing prepare the Christian for his passion and the task of uniting that passion to Christ’s.[15] As the time to take the bitter medicine comes close, the Christian soldier becomes filled with fear and dread, praying that this cup might pass from him.[16] Yet, Anointing strengthens his resolve, enabling him to have courage enough to drink the bitter medicine and for the wound to not reject the medicine, but to accept it and permit it to perform its healing work. He accepts the painful medicine of the Cross; he endures the nails and lance which pierce him and let flow the blood and water of redemptive suffering. He completes the priesthood into which he was baptized, by fully becoming priest in his becoming a victim.[17]

Through all of the suffering, Anointing helps the Christian soldier bear the pain even pain unto death in union with Christ’s Passion. That is, the sacrament “brings reinforcements when the Christian’s own defenders are wavering and when the opportunity to win a great victory may slip from his grasp.”[18] These reinforcements manifest themselves through God’s grace and through the shared strength of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, who are themselves united through grace. Thus, the refortified Christian finds himself able to take up his cross and mount his own personal Calvary of suffering. And, through this suffering which he bears in union with Christ, which becomes his act of worship of God, he also “promotes the worship of God in the Church.”[19] The Christian soldier and the Church of which he is a part travel toward this worship of God as their telos. Thus, Anointing brings about the beginning of the end of the Christian.[20]

These are the windows of Extreme Unction and Holy Orders from the West transept of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. If I attend Mass as the sacristan for a Mass in the Basilica, I am supposed to sit in that transept to be close to the sacristy and I frequently gaze on these windows. There is a beautiful parallel here where you see a young man on the right answer the call to become a priest-victim while on the left, surrounded by family, another person lives out her baptismal priesthood by offering herself as a victim to God for the redemption of her soul and all those of the whole world. You can almost feel the consolation being given to the family and see the strength and courage being imbued into the dying mother.

Victimæ Paschali Laudes, Sequence of Easter

Literal Translation by Michael P. Foley

Víctimae Pascháli laudes
ímmolent Christiáni.
Agnus redémit oves:
Christus ínnocens Patri
reconciliávit peccatóres.     Mors et vita duello
conflixére mirando:
Dux vitae mórtuus
regnat vivus.   Dic nobis María,
quid vidisti in via?   “Sepulcrum Christi viventis,
et gloriam vidi resurgentis:
Angélicos testes,
sudarium, et vestes.
Surrexit Christus spes mea:
praecédet suos in Galilaeam.”   Scimus Christum surrexisse
a mórtuis vere:
Tu nobis, victor Rex, miserére.
Amen. Allelúja.
Let Christians sacrifice praise
To the Paschal Victim.
The Lamb has redeemed the sheep!
Christ, who is innocent,
   has reconciled sinners
To the Father.   Death and Life clashed
In a spectacular battle:
The Commander of life, having died,
Reigns alive.   Tell us, Mary,
What did you see on the way?   “I saw the tomb of Christ
And the glory of His rising,
Angelic witnesses,
The head napkin, and the linen cloths.
Christ my Hope is risen!
He will go before His own into Galilee.”   We know that Christ is truly risen
From the dead:
Do Thou, O Christ the Victor,
   have mercy on us.
Amen. Alleluia.

I selected the sequence of Easter, Victimae Paschali Laudes because of the beautiful lyrics of the great struggle with death, won by Christ for our sake. He is the great victor. Citing Augustine, Michael P. Foley notes that Christ was born “both Victor and Victim, and Victor because Victim” and that he was “both Priest and Sacrifice, and Priest because Sacrifice” (Confessions, 10.43.69). Foley also notes how ending on the note of Victor and Victim brings the ancient sequence back to its beginning. So too us. We become fully priest and sacrifice, victor and victim in Anointing because Christ did so first; He won the victory that we might share in it. I love the Victimae in alternatim as done at Notre Dame de Paris. The voices of the choir are those of us on earth while the strong blasts of the organ are the heavenly multitudes joining us in praise. This rendition ends with the organ and the choir, heaven and earth, praising God together for His great triumph.


[1] These quotations come from the Council of Trent wherein the Council Fathers listed the effects of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, as it was then called. It is perhaps notable that, though the name of the sacrament at that time suggests an anointing which takes place near the moment of death, the description of the effects of the sacrament given by Trent does not insist that this is a “sacrament for those only who are at the point of death.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 73). Rather, the description suggests that this sacrament is one for the sick and thus should be administered “as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age” (Ibid, 73). It must be emphasized that the Second Vatican Council affirms that this sacrament is to be given to those who have fallen ill either through sickness or old age and are now in periculo mortis, that is in danger of death. Thus, death must be a likely terminus of this illness. This means that the sacrament should not be administered, for example, to one stricken with a common head cold that will be overcome naturally with ease. Instead, this sacrament is reserved for those who will persist with their illness until death (unless, of course, God sees fit to restore bodily health for the welfare of the soul or the welfare of the entire Body of Christ.) In other words, there must be an expectation of longsuffering from this illness that, at least seemingly, will not be terminated until death. By this view, the sacrament could be properly administered to those who are afflicted with mental illnesses, those who are diagnosed with diseases that persist for long periods of time, even if treatable, such as cancer, etc. In preparation for a necessary surgery to help resolve an illness a person could also be anointed given that complications could arise in surgery and because there will almost certainly be some form of longsuffering in the recovery from the surgery. In sum, according to both Trent and Vatican II, this sacrament, though a sacrament of the sick and not strictly of the dead or dying, is properly administered when one is afflicted with an illness which puts him in periculo mortis or which will persist until death (barring a miracle.) Council of Trent, sess. 14: Extreme Unction.

[2] The primary effect of Anointing is not the remission of sin, rather, it is a remedy of sin. It can and does remit any sin that a person may have, but it’s primary function regarding sin is to remove the after-effects of that sin. It reorients, as it were, the person towards virtue rather than vice. Fulton Sheen, These Are the Sacraments (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1962), 42.

[3] Anointing completes Penance in so far as it removes the after-effects of sin and even grants a remission of temporal punishment due to sin, if not completely then at least to some effect when it is received in faith. (Sheen, 43-44). Whereas Penance cleanses the person of sin, Anointing cleanses not only sin but even the remains of sins. (Council of Trent, sess. 14: Extreme Unction). And, the sacrament recalls the sick person’s baptism through such means as an Asperges rite at the beginning of its liturgy. Recalling the renaming that takes place in Baptism, Anointing renames a Christian into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit through the final blessing given in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In cases of the dying, this is even more poignant through the commendation prayer “Go forth, Christian soul” wherein a dying Christian is sent forth to his heavenly homeland “in Zion” to live not adjacent to, but together with “Mary the virgin Mother of God, with Joseph, and all the angels and saints,” along with his brothers and sisters in Christ “in the name of God the almighty Father, … in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, … [and] in the name of the Holy Spirit” to thus comprise heaven. (Quotations come from the prayer “Go forth, Christian soul.” The idea of Christian souls comprising Heaven by living together in union with one another and with God and not adjacent to one another comes from the theology stated in the conclusion of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Eschatology).

[4] Sheen, 41.

[5] Colman E. O’Neill, OP. Meeting Christ in the Sacraments. Edited by Romanus Cessario, OP. (New York: Alba House, 1991), 275.

[6] 1 Cor. 15:26.

[7] It is perhaps necessary to make a note here about the idea of “rehearsal.” Indeed, this phrase certainly suggests that Anointing is focused on or at least geared towards death. As noted in the first endnote, this is not entirely incorrect. “While [A]nointing strengthens the Christian in sickness, its full significance appears only when its role in relation to Christian death is brought to light (O’Neill, 290). This rehearsal, then, can certainly take place well before the moment of death, yet, should never lose sight of the fact that it is preparing the sick Christian for the performance of the great battle against suffering and death, a battle only won by dying and then rising to new life. When the sacrament is administered near the moment of death, it could then be considered a dress rehearsal, as it were. Sheen, 44.

[8] Gal. 2:19.

[9] It is necessary to note that the body must suffer and die as a result of sin since “[t]he body has had a share in the … vices of the soul” The body also shares in the virtues of the soul, however. It is for this reason, therefore, that “it will take on a quality after death corresponding to the quality of the soul” (Sheen, 41). There is an intimate relation between the body and the soul. One affects the other. For just as the body has a share in the virtues and vices, so too does sickness affect the soul. “[N]o person can be sick in body without having his soul disturbed” (Sheen, 40). As such this sacrament works to dispel the distress caused by sickness by bringing about hope. It is also for this reason that, in the pre-Vatican II rite of Anointing, many body parts were anointed, for it is only through the body that sin enters the soul and thus each place through which sin could have entered (eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth/lips, hands, and feet) is in need of purification to remit the sin and strengthening so as not to fall to sin again. (Sheen, 42). It should also be noted that the human form is glorified through Christ’s Ascending in His resurrected body to Heaven. The fact that Christ chose to keep on His resurrected body the marks of His suffering suggests that we too, though our sin is blotted out, will bear the marks of our earthly suffering when we undergo the resurrection of the body, if we merit it. So, though the soul can be free from the body in death, the resurrection of the body will occur and the marks of our own passion will be present, for in our passion, like Christ, do we come into our glory.

[10] O’Neill notes that “one of the most significant aspects of [B]aptism” that is frequently overlooked is the fact that “[t]he sacrament draws us into the sphere of Christ, the sphere of redeemed humanity; and [that] Christ redeemed us body and soul.” This fact emphasizes the great dignity of the body. This dignity of the body is one of the reasons for the existence of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The soul is cared for in Penance, having its sins remitted. While, as is stated above, this is true also of Anointing, the primary focus of Anointing lies with the body. Indeed, while all sacraments are focused on the whole person, body and soul, the sacraments of healing have two primary foci with Penance focusing on the restoration soul and Anointing on the restoration physical body, though not without respect to the soul. O’Neill, 276.

[11] O’Neill makes this distinction between the ways in which suffering functions in the life of the Christian throughout his chapter on Anointing.

[12] This is how St. Thomas Aquinas describes the effect of fortitude. Though, certainly this strengthening of mind can also bring about with it a strengthening of body. ST, II-II, q.123, a.1,

[13] This special vigor comes about through the sacrament by lending to the virtue of fortitude “something of that perfection which belonged to it in the state of original justice or in Christ.” O’Neill, 289.

[14] It should be noted that, as with all sacraments, Anointing is not purely private. Rather, it has a communal/ecclesial aspect in addition to a private aspect. Particularly as regards the strengthening of the Christian soldier is there an ecclesial aspect of this sacrament. Anointing “enables the Christian to incorporate ill-health [and the suffering that goes with] into the life of the Church. For not only does it make suffering meaningful and profitable for the individual; through his acceptance of the pain the Church takes on more vividly the characteristics of Christ and is made more perfect as his sacrament in the world” (O’Neill, 289). Thus the Church lends her strength to her dying member, while at the same time that dying member unites his sufferings with the Passion of Christ, and with all the suffering of the Church’s members, not only for his own redemption the forgiveness of his own sins but also “those of the whole world,” (Divine Mercy Chaplet) trusting in the divine mercy of God to “raise [him] up” (The Rites, Pastoral Care of the Sick, 124). And, if it be for the benefit of the soul and the faith of the Church to “[d]eliver him from all miseries of body and mind; mercifully restore him to perfect health inwardly and outwardly, … [and make him] able to take up his former duties” (Sheen, 43).

[15] Christ’s anointing is recorded in all four of the Gospels. However, here we take interest specifically in the account given in John 12:1-8 since it specifically mentions the time of the anointing as “Six days before the Passover.”

[16] The imagery of Christ’s Agony wherein He too prayed that the cup might pass from Him if it be the Father’s will also harkens to the Church’s current exhortation to allow the dying to receive their Viaticum under both Species. That is, to receive their final Eucharist under both the form of Bread and that of Wine. Though Christ is present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in both Species, the drinking of the cup by the dying Christian soldier recalls and symbolizes Christ’s drinking of the final cup and is a final act of submission to God’s will, a final assent to the passion he is beckoned to, a final commending of his spirit into the hands of his Loving and Merciful Father.

[17] Two notes must be mentioned here. The first is that priesthood has as its compliment, victimhood. Sheen’s theology (founded on traditional Catholic sacramental theology) of the priesthood centers around the priest being a priest-victim, both he who offers and he who is offered, in accordance with Christ’s revision of the Levitical priesthood. In offering his own suffering, in conformity to Christ’s action on the Cross, the Christian soldier thus fulfills his baptismal priesthood by becoming both priest and victim in that he offers himself and his own suffering to God, and finds the strength to do so through this sacrament of Anointing. The second note to be made is that priesthood is the last of the six sacraments in this essay which Anointing fulfills. Though there are, undoubtedly, other ways of imagining how Anointing consummates the whole of the sacramental life of the Christian soldier, this essay has chosen to do so by focusing on how Anointing summarizes and fulfills the purposes of each of the other sacraments. This also emphasizes how Anointing is most greatly understood in the light of death as it encapsulates within itself the full life of the Christian, that is, the full sacramental life of the Christian.

[18] It could be stated also that these reinforcements serve to aid the Christian’s loved ones, as this sacrament has a secondary effect, their consolation as they suffer the loss of one whom they love, and the loved ones themselves can be the reinforcements, strengthening the sick Christian by their prayers and presence. O’Neill, 282.

[19] Ibid, 282

[20] This last phrase is a play on words, though one not without significant meaning. The telos of something is its “end,” or the goal to which it travels or which it seeks to accomplish. Anointing reorients not only the Christian, but, as stated, also the entire Church toward the worship of God. As Ratzinger suggests, there is a Sabbath structure to creation and thus the telos, or end, of all things is resting in God, or the worship of God. Anointing promotes this worship within the Christian and the whole Church through the Christian’s bearing of his passion in union with Christ’s. Thus, in bringing about the ability of this Christian to bear fully his sufferings with Christ’s it begins the Christian’s constant worship of God, his telos, or end. Hence, the sacrament brings about the beginning of the end of the Christian, which is perhaps even more fitting when the Christian’s life is in danger of ending as the sacrament is administered in periculo mortis.

Why Anointing? By Mary Biese

The Anointing of the Sick reinserts the recipient, in his or her isolated state of illness, into the Church’s life via Trinitarian action,[i] and renegotiates the meaning of suffering for the one anointed and for those in his or her ecclesial and broader community.[ii] Through this Sacrament, God provides the strength to bear and provide meaning for one’s suffering and death, as well as gifts of transformation, healing, refreshment, peace, and freedom. The grace of Anointing orients us towards full Eucharistic thanksgiving and mission.

Illness, taken broadly,[iii] is an affliction of body, soul, and/or spirit,[iv] which includes disease, chronic conditions of body and mind,[v] substantive injuries, and old age.[vi] The intervention of sacramental healing aims not to fix or eliminate suffering,[vii] but to assign its sufferer, already a site of Trinitarian grace by means of the sacraments of initiation, new meaning[viii] in the face of his or her illness. The holy water[ix] in the Rite reminds those present of their Baptism[x] and their rebirth in the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, both of which, like Anointing, direct us to the celebration of the Eucharist.[xi] In Anointing, the deeply-healing action of the Holy Spirit[xii] coincides with an encounter with Christ (Himself sent by the Father), [xiii] who confronts, consoles,[xiv] and forgives us.[xv] The minister anoints the recipient’s forehead and hands with the Oil of the Sick, bringing to mind Christ’s entering into our suffering.[xvi]

Anointing reenters us into the Body of Christ in the face of the isolation of illness.[xvii] The Church identifies, accompanies, prays for,[xviii] supports, and honors the ill as they move through this rite.[xix] Christ reintegrates the marginalized into communion, making them into sites of healing, unity, resurrection, and salvation[xx] not just for themselves but for the wider community.[xxi] This sacrament symbolizes and intensifies the vocation of the sick and elderly[xxii] by renegotiating the meaning of suffering in terms of gift, salvation, relationship,[xxiii] and mission.[xxiv] Anointing reestablishes wholeness and transforms misfortune, as well as the potential for and actuality of death.[xxv] The Trinity provides strength[xxvi] and hope[xxvii] in the face of suffering, giving the grace to face suffering and death[xxviii] courageously and in light of the Resurrection.[xxix] The grace of the sacrament provides forgiveness of sins and thereby strengthens the recipient’s resolve to persevere and reestablishes his or her ordering to virtue. Christ does not eliminate suffering and death but rather transforms them,[xxx] by His Incarnational accompaniment[xxxi] and Paschal Mystery, into an integral part of Christian life, itself oriented towards eternal bliss.[xxxii] The sacrament of Anointing does not deny, ignore, or shun human weakness, but rather acknowledges, seizes, offers, and transforms it,[xxxiii] to the point that the sacrament makes the weakened body, mind, and/or soul of the recipient a site for God’s grace to transform the entire world and bring glory to God through our own healing and sanctification.

Through Anointing, Christ refreshes, frees, and enlivens us, orienting us to Eucharistic thanksgiving. The sacrament provides us with rest and stillness,[xxxiv] palpable peace,[xxxv] comfort,[xxxvi] and concrete support.[xxxvii] Anointing points to the Sabbath structure of reality, wherein we receive our creatureliness from God instead of formulating our own order and meaning from our broken selves; through this sacrament, the Trinity releases us from the fears, tensions, sins, and isolation that accompany suffering.[xxxviii] Freed from the power of suffering and sin over us, we give ourselves over to God’s salvific and healing grace, as shown in the ritual stature of the recipient,[xxxix] and allow for proper metanoia to continually[xl] and gradually take place within us and those around us.[xli] Christ, who comes to each person in his or her particularity through this sacrament, renews our faith, hope, trust, and health, ultimately enlivening every aspect of our lives.[xlii] This unquantifiable gift of grace—mediated through the Church, her Sacrament, and her minister[xliii] and not limited to any one type of healing—orients its recipients towards Eucharistic thanksgiving,[xliv] sanctification,[xlv] and mission.[xlvi]

Why Anointing: Accompaniment and Comfort

These two images comprise one moment, in which my siblings and I sang hymns and songs of hope for my grandpa as he laid dying with cancer in hospice care in 2018. The physical instruments of comfort seen here, there for strength and sustenance but not curing (since he was past the point of curing) include the walker/toilet and the table with instruments and cleaning supplies on it. The other instruments of comfort and healing lay in the three Crosses in the room, which signify hope and remind the viewer of the Sacraments of Anointing and of Eucharist that my grandpa received before his death. Featured on the left side is my family (myself, some of my siblings, and my grandma), the baptized community surrounding my grandpa. Our family provided comfort, accompaniment, weekly Eucharist, and (I hope and pray) meaning in his suffering. With the holy words of hymns and the God-given gifts of our voices, we invoked, unconsciously at the time, the power of the Trinity and ministered to the sick.

Why Anointing: “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44397/that-nature-is-a-heraclitean-fire-and-of-the-comfort-of-the-resurrection

Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind, is gone! 

Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark 

Drowned. O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone 

Sheer off, disseveral, a star, | death blots black out; nor mark 

                            Is any of him at all so stark 

But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resurrection, 

A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection. 

                            Across my foundering deck shone 

A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash 

Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash: 

                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash, 

I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and 

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, 

                            Is immortal diamond. 

This poem, of which the first ten lines are omitted here for space’s sake, embodies the Resurrectional healing of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Here the first five lines and the first half of the sixth all speak to the sufferings of life—life is fleeting, difficult, and filled with darkness. The turn of the poem—“Enough! the Resurrection”—starts the cascade of transformed nature. Christ’s Paschal Mystery heals the heart and drives out grief with “an eternal beam.” Though death still occurs (“Flesh fade… ash”), in an instant (at the turn) the poem cries, “I am all at once what Christ is,” and this brings about the transformation of himself and of the entire order of creation. The line “Across my foundering deck shone” curiously does not rhyme with any proximate lines; perhaps then the juxtaposition of “my foundering deck” and “shone / A beacon, an eternal beam” encapsulates the transformative healing of the Anointing of the Sick.


[i] The prayer of “Thanksgiving over Blessed Oil” in the Rite gives a brief summary of God’s healing in salvation history: God sends the Son for the sake of salvation, the Son humbles Himself and heals us, and the Holy Spirit consoles and strengthens. The Rites of the Catholic Church: the Roman Ritual Revised by Decree of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and Published by Authority of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. Study ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990), 823-824.

[ii] The faith of Christians “helps them to grasp more deeply the mystery of suffering and to bear their pain with greater courage. From Christ’s words they know that sickness has meaning and value for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world.” Rites 778.

[iii] Illness, not limited to physical ailments, can refer to any significant brokenness within a person: “Illness is… concern[ed] with how a given society constructs the experience of disease, sickness, or some other malfunction according to its cultural norms, values, perceptions, and conventions… “Healing”… is an intervention affecting an illness. To heal somebody is to bring personal or social meaning to the misfortune experienced in illness such that the person attains a new or renewed sense of value and purpose in his or her world.” Morrill, Bruce T. Divine Worship and Human Healing : Liturgical Theology at the Margins of Life and Death. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 75.

[iv] In the blessing of oil for this sacrament, the priest prays, “Make this oil a remedy for all who are anointed with it; heal them in body, in soul, and in spirit, and deliver them from every affliction.” Rites 824.

[v] See Mk 9:14-29, the healing of the boy afflicted with an unclean spirit. The demon had co-opted the child’s whole life through fire and water, using God’s creation to take control of the child and cause disfunction and affliction in several senses. His condition was chronic and only found reprieve through God’s direct intervention and command.

[vi] The Church encourages anyone with any of these ailments to approach the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. This includes the mentally ill and those fighting addiction, as well as those approaching a surgical operation or whose sickness is serious enough that death is a possible result. This was confirmed in the Council of Trent, which broadened the medieval conception of the Sacrament as restricted to those in extremis, i.e. in direct and immediate danger of death. See also Rites 780-781, 792, 814-816.

[vii] The curing or eliminating of affliction can occur as a result of Anointing but does not need to occur. God assigns the Sacrament with a telos of healing, which does not necessarily include such curing.

[viii] The aspects and nuances of meaning will feature in later sections of this paper. Morrill identifies the need for this sacrament in the midst of suffering: “Such genuine human need for courage and strength, hope and companionship, dignity and purpose amid the personal and impersonal forces of illness encompasses the mission of the church’s pastoral-liturgical service to the sick.” Morrill, Divine Worship 152.

[ix] The priest sprinkles the recipient(s) with holy water. The three options provided refer to Psalm 23, God’s refreshment, and baptism (and the paschal mystery), respectively. See Rites 819-820.

[x] And thereby their first entry into the ecclesial community. A reminder of Baptism serves as a reminder of the person’s dying and rising in Christ.

[xi] Especially when this sacrament takes place during Mass or before Viaticum.

[xii] The Holy Spirit “affect[s] ‘not simply bodily healing but a deeper wholeness: strength, forgiveness of sins, vivification, protection of body, mind, and spirit… the entire somatic realm of salvation for a sick person.’” More specifically, the Holy Spirit raises “up the soul by instilling confidence in divine mercy (thereby strengthening against such diabolical temptations as despair), and possibly even curing the body, should that be in the divine plan for the person’s salvation.” Morrill, Divine Worship 151, 145.

[xiii] One must not separate Christ’s mission from that of His Father, Who sent and commissioned Christ and remains present both in Christ and to His Church.

[xiv] In this sacrament one encounters the incarnate person of Christ, “who comes to confront and console us with his revelation of who God is, what God has done, what God desires, and how we are invited into that God’s reign.” Morrill, Divine Worship 62.

[xv] While Christ does forgive one’s sins in this sacrament, the healing effected by the Sacrament of Anointing goes beyond healing sins. It heals afflictions that we don’t necessarily cause; health, of course, seen “as ‘the manner in which we live well despite our inescapable illnesses, disabilities, and trauma.’” Christ’s ministry uniquely emphasized that one should not attribute all (or even most) illness, especially physical illness, to moral failings. Often the sacraments of Anointing and Confession coincide, but they do not have to do so. Christ, in His life and ministry, worked to disassociate the sufferings of poverty, disability, and illness with sin, insofar as the Jewish culture of His day saw sin as the cause of such sufferings. Rites, 819. Morrill, Divine Worship 82, 89-93. See Jn 9:3.

[xvi] The anointing of the hands calls to mind Christ’s glorious wounds, obtained through suffering but transfigured into glory and resurrection. See Mk 6:13.

[xvii] This isolation was particularly prevalent in the time of Christ but continues into modern day. Anointing returns the recipient to communion, reconstituting him or her into the ecclesial way of life, which centers around worship. See Morrill 78-86 149-150, Lk 17:11-19.

[xviii] The Church, as a whole and as represented in those present at the rite of Anointing, “offers prayers for the sick to commend them to God.” Rites 769.

[xix] For example, the Litany in the Rite involves a response from those present. In Mk 9:14-29, the community surrounding the child comes to the fore, especially the child’s father. The healing of Anointing often also extends towards caretakers and family members. Some affliction “can only be driven out by prayer and fasting” (and, implicitly, the direct intervention of God’s redeeming action). See Rites 820 and Morrill, Divine Worship 88.

[xx] See Mk 9:14-29, wherein the father of the boy with the unclean spirit recognizes, through his son’s illness, his need for belief. Likewise, through this event of healing, Christ’s disciples realize their inability to achieve such healing without “fasting and prayer”—without fostering their relationship to and dependence on Christ and His grace.

[xxi] The ill who receive the sacrament serve as reminders of our human frailty and mortality; through the sacrament they further serve as a sign of grace-filled hope and resurrection. Community onlookers participate in the liturgy by prayer and action; God calls each one to see the transformed person as renewed and restored (even if only incrementally). Effects of viewing this sacrament often include peace, joy, renewal, and encouragement—both for the one anointed and for those who witness and participate in the sacrament.

[xxii] The comforting and ecclesial aspects of the laying on of hands and anointing point to this raising-up: “Imposition of hands with its multivalent meanings becomes an appropriate symbol of the vocational aspect of the sick and elderly because rather than treating these people as dependent… it deals with them… as peers who make a contribution to the community in terms of meaning. These liminal people are human acts of faith for the community regarding mortality and human limits. They are credal incarnations of Jesus’ own passage into life.” The sick also serve as “a reminder to others of the essential or higher things. By their witness the sick show that our mortal life must be redeemed through the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.” Empereur, quoted in Morrill, Divine Worship 163. Rites 778.

[xxiii] This sacrament makes most sense in relationship to others. Dealing with the crisis of suffering is not an individual affair, but belongs in the context of “the larger picture of the meaning of the sick person’s life in relation to God, self (one’s bodily and psychological condition, the narrative history of one’s life), friends and family, the church, society, and the natural/cosmic world.” Morrill, Divine Worship 140.

[xxiv] Anointing reaffirms the inherent dignity of the human person as made in God’s Image and Likeness and as a member of His Body, the Church: “The healing Christ’s Spirit mediates through sacramental rites is the affirmation of the sick person’s inestimable value before God and people and the renegotiation of the person’s mission in life.” Morrill, Divine Worship 140.

[xxv] This is what Morrill means by renegotiating meaning. The sacrament addresses “the suffering of individual members… against the horizon of meaning that their crisis or chronic health conditions put in question. Healing [reestablishes] a sense of wholeness within a worldview [and transforms] the experience of misfortune by arriving at renewed or deepened meaning.” Morrill, Divine Worship 159.

[xxvi] The Council of Trent says that “this anointing also raises up and strengthens the soul of the sick person, arousing a great confidence in the divine mercy; thus sustained, the sick person may more easily bear the trials and hardships of sickness, more easily resist the temptations of the devil ‘lying in wait for his heel’ (Genesis 3:15), and sometimes regain bodily health, if this is expedient for the health of the soul.” Quoted in Rites 772.

[xxvii] See the Concluding Rite / final blessing: “May the God of all consolation bless you in every way and grant you hope all the days of your life.” Rites 830.

[xxviii] Note the ecclesial and transformative aspects of this sacrament. “The purpose” of this sacrament “remains,” according to Morrill, “healing as a transformation of people’s experiences of illness, misfortune, and death such that they find renewed meaning (faith, trust) for life and death in the presence of God and within their world.” Divine Worship 94. See also Rites, 780, section 7.

[xxix] The Resurrection “recast[s] the meaning of all life experiences for those who believe.” The recipient is “saved and raised up… terms assuring meaning for their life struggles within the narrative of the crucified and resurrected Christ” Morrill, Divine Worship 94, 147.

[xxx] Healing, then, does not necessitate the absence of suffering, but rather its transfiguration—not its disappearance, but its integration into life with Christ. As Morrill says, “This does not mean that people should or do expect a permanent state of perfect health, which of course is imaginary fantasy, but neither does this exclude compelling moments that touch us to the core with that sense of complete well-being, a consoling integrity of body and spirit experienced among the social body, the assembled community, the communio of the church.” Even Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead, still underwent death. Likewise, though we look forward to the Resurrection of the Dead, we too must undergo death. Healing is part of the process of humanity and holiness: “Such spiritual growth is not instant but rather of a part with the entire physical and psychological process of the person’s experience of illness and healing.” Morrill, Divine Worship 149, 170. See also Christ’s movement towards Jerusalem and the Cross as he performs his miracles in Mk 8-10.

[xxxi] Christ accompanied humankind as the healing, Incarnate Word of God and continues to do so in His unified Church: “The Gospel… reveals a God compassionately present in human struggles with alienation, sickness, and death through the specific words and actions Jesus performed among his people. Solidarity in human suffering is the revelation of divine love.” Morrill, Divine Worship 70. See also Is 53:4-5 and Phil 2:6.

[xxxii] For examples of this see the books of Job, Jonah, or any of the prophetic books. Election does not necessitate earthly bliss or an easy life. See also the Passion of Christ in all four gospels, as well as accounts of the lives of the saints.

[xxxiii] Christianity does not assume the perfection of the human body, soul, or mind, but rather its weakness and brokenness in original sin. Christian healing, naturally ecclesial, “comes through a restoration of afflicted persons’ sense of self and world in relation to Christ Jesus and the reign of God he has inaugurated: divine solidarity with human brokenness, God’s glory in human wholeness.” Morrill, Divine Worship 95.

[xxxiv] See Mt 11:30, Ps 46:10, 1 Kings 19.

[xxxv] See Jn 14:27.

[xxxvi] See Jn 14:16.

[xxxvii] The feelings of support and stillness come about through trusting in the rite’s efficacy and through experiencing the physical touch of laying-on of hands and anointing, which echo Christ’s healing actions. The laying-on of hands signifies blessing and invokes the Holy Spirit. Rites 816-817. See Mk 7:34, Mt 8-10, Lk 4:40.

[xxxviii] For this sacrament, relief, strength, and healing for the community are paramount: “efficacy is a matter of overcoming the anomy and chaos wreaked by serious illness, relieving anxiety, and providing strength for the sick, those who care for them, and the wider community of the faithful.” Morrill, Divine Worship 140.

[xxxix] The stature denotes reception (of God’s gift): the person often bows his or her head, opens his or her hands, and in the case of severe sickness often stays laying down. This posture ultimately denotes openness to God’s gift and the return-gift that accompanies it. The return-gift is a trust in and openness to God’s plan and mission for oneself. See note xlvi for the mission-oriented portion of this sacrament’s return-gift.

[xl] The continuation of such suffering, especially in cases of chronic or repeated illness, allows for the repetition of this sacrament. See Rites 774.

[xli] This metanoia is tied with release, with freeing in the fullest sense of the word. This applies both to sin and to suffering, both of which are effects of original sin: “A powerful event of healing causes all to renegotiate their understandings of and relationships among each other and God. The promise of healing, nonetheless, comes through the process of change (metanoia), repentance of and release from habits, decisions, and (in the case of the social and political body) customs and policies that can bind persons chronically to illness.” Morrill, Divine Worship 89.

[xlii] The stories of healing found in the Gospels, on which this Sacrament finds its Scriptural basis, “bring to life for us the bodily and spiritual, interpersonal and social dimensions of healing borne of faith in the resurrected Jesus, the experiential knowledge that God can be trusted.” We participate in this “engrossing performance of faith, of confidence in a restored cosmic order that can engender health of mind, body, and spirit” in the sacrament of Anointing. Morrill, Divine Worship 96, 149.

[xliii] James 5:13-16 speaks to the ecclesial, apostolic, effective, and restorative nature of the sacrament of Anointing. It also emphasizes the power of prayer (enacted by the priest and by those present), the action of the Lord, and the forgiveness of sins as all part of true healing. “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

[xliv] The term “Eucharistic thanksgiving” is technically repetitive but brings forth a few different valences. After Anointing, one should imitate the one thankful leper in Lk 17:11-19. Through this sacrament Christ reinstates the recipient into the Eucharistic community, who partake in Christ’s Body for unity and support. In addition, Anointing often takes place within the context of a Mass or of Viaticum, both of which center on the Eucharist itself.

[xlv] As with all sacraments, Anointing glorifies God “by sanctifying humans.” Morrill, Divine Worship 135.

[xlvi] Like Peter’s mother-in-law, those healed by Christ should feel called to serve Christ and His Church (Lk 4:38-40). Emphasizing the continuous and incremental nature of healing, Morrill states that “Suffering believers are strengthened to persevere in illness and in so doing to contribute to the good of society and the church. They are, moreover, in their very infirmity to function as sacraments (living signs or witnesses) of the Gospel by joining their sufferings to Christ’s ‘for the salvation of the world.’” What the modern mind might term as “incomplete” or “not” healing, therefore, still provides true healing, by a reimagining of meaning via Christ’s Paschal Mystery and the power of redemptive suffering. Morrill, Divine Worship 153. See Rom 8:17, Col 1:24, 2 Tim 2:11-12, and 1 Pet 4:13, referenced in Rites 773.

1 comment on “Why Anointing of the Sick? Two Catholic Perspectives

  1. Pingback: The Sacrament of Reconciliation — All About Catholicism – Site Title

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