Anointing the sick
From its beginnings, in one way or another, the church has shown a special concern for the total welfare of the sick. In doing so it has taken its cue from the example and teaching of Jesus. and especially from his parable of the Last Judgment: ‘I was sick and you took care of me’(Mt 25:36) This has led to visiting the sick being included in the church’s traditional list of the corporal works of mercy, and to the continuing practice of assisting, encouraging, and praying with both the sick and their families and friends.
In its Sacrament of Anointing, the church has provided a powerful sign and instrument of Jesus Christ as healer. While once confined to the death-bed of dying Christians, it happens more and more in parish churches, once every quarter or even once a month, and tends to attract large numbers of people.
Jesus created no brand-new rituals. Rather both he and his disciples gave new faith meanings to the rituals and practices they inherited. The use of oil for anointing, the laying on of hands and prayers for healing were all part of Jewish tradition. For him and the disciples with whom he shared his power, healing was a manifestation of God’s power and goodness breaking into the world and triumphing over the forces of evil. The Letter of James 5:13-15 explicitly treats the use of oil with prayer in anointing sick persons:
Are there any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are there any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
These verses suggest that in the practice of anointing, both healing and forgiveness of sins have been emphasised. But liturgical texts, writings of Church Fathers, and passages from the Lives of Saints, all converge in saying that for the first 800 years of church history, oil of the sick, blessed by the bishop, was used in an informal way by the people and not exclusively by priests. Believers either drank the oil or rubbed it on the body. The hoped-for results were a wholeness of body, mind and spirit.
In the 9th century, however, a shift began which was to transform anointing from a sacrament for the sick to a sacrament for the dying. A reform by the Emperor Charlemagne was aimed at renewing and reforming the ministry of priests. Anointing the sick was reserved exclusively to priests. It was now time-tabled after the death-bed confession and absolution and before giving the dying person Holy Communion (as viaticum – food for the journey to God). So it came to be called ‘extreme unction’, i.e. the last anointing of a dying person’s pilgrimage on earth. It was understood as the last preparation for meeting God on the other side of death.
Vatican II largely recovered the original tradition. It called for a change of name for the reformed rite, in which the ministering priest prays words from James 5:16-18. The forehead and the hands are anointed with ‘oil of the sick’, and all present answer ‘Amen’ to each anointing. Included also is the ritual of the laying on of hands, in imitation of Jesus who touched sick persons when he healed them. If it is certain that the person is dead, the sacrament should not be given, since it exists for the living, not the dead.
The prayers make clear that the benefits bestowed are the work of the Holy Spirit (Jesus’ alter ego, his second self). It also makes clear that anointing is a remedy for both soul and body. While it may bring forgiveness of sins if it is not possible to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it brings especially faith, hope and love, and with those gifts alleviation of suffering and anxiety. At times, as experience has demonstrated, it may even bring physical healing.
To be eligible to receive this sacrament, someone’s health must be seriously impaired by physical or mental illness or from old age. Ultimately the best judge of how sick someone is remains with the patient. More and more the sacrament today is being seen as ‘healing for the hurting’, whatever the nature and source of the hurts. Theologian, Thomas Richstatter, justifies this in his words:
Today, we are all aware that tensions, fear and anxiety about the future affect not only our mind but our body as well. These illnesses can be serious. They can move us to ask for the healing touch of Christ in the sacrament of anointing.