Anointing of the Sick:
Definition of Terms:
The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, also known as Extreme Unction, is a sacrament administered to someone who is in danger due to sickness or old age, often postponed until someone is near dying. The sacrament is administered by a priest, using the oleum infirmorum (‘oil of the sick’), an olive oil blessed by a bishop, to anoint the patient’s forehead and hands with the sign of the cross while reciting prayers. When administered to those near to death, the sacraments of Penance, Anointing of the Sick and Viaticum (Holy Communion administered to someone who is dying) are given together. When given in union with each other, these sacraments are referred to as the Last Rites.
The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick gives grace for people entering through a state of sickness. These graces flow from the atoning death of Jesus Christ, for “this was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’” (Matt. 8:17). The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects:
- 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 and within God’s will;
- the preparation for passing over to eternal life.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1499–1532).
Biblical evidence concerning the basis for the sacrament of anointing of the sick is found in James 5:14–15: “Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man. And the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.” Matthew 10:8 and Mark 6:13 both refer to the Apostles curing the sick and Mark 6:13 states that this done with anointing them with oil.
The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick can be traced back to early Christian practices and the writings of the Church Fathers. In the early Christian community, the laying on of hands and anointing with oil were common practices associated with healing and prayer. These practices were performed in the context of illness and the desire for divine intervention. Origen (185-254 AD), an early Christian theologian, referred to anointing as a practice of the Church, saying; “Hence, also, we bless the oil of baptism and the oil of unction, and, besides these, the catechumen who is being made a partaker of adoption.” Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) also spoke about the spiritual benefits of anointing the sick with chrism and its connection to the forgiveness of sins.
God does not always heal physical infirmities. This is not due to a lack of faith or prayers of the suffering party. Conversely, a healing of these infirmities is not an indication of one’s personal holiness or piety or strength of prayer life. St. Paul himself preached to the Galatians while he was afflicted by a “bodily ailment” (Gal. 4:13– 14). He also mentions that he had to leave his companion Trophimus in the town of Miletus because he was too sick to travel (2 Tim. 4:20).
God may sometimes use suffering from illness or adversity as a spiritual discipline (Heb. 12:7, 11). God also permits these trials for our sanctification (2 Cor. 12:7–9). Ultimately, it is within God’s Divine Providence whether He extends to an individual a restoration to health. The purpose of the sacrament is to instill the grace needed by the individual to accept God’s will whatever the outcome.
“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”
“They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
“This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.'”
“Are 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.”
Church Father Quotes:
Ignatius of Antioch
“Heal me, O my God, that I may be healed; save me that I may be saved, for thou art my praise. I will confess thee, O Lord, for because thou hast been angry with me, thine anger is turned away and thou comfortedst me. Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord is my strength and my praise, he also is become my salvation. Therefore, with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of the Saviour.” -Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter 16
Cyprian of Carthage
“But he who has succeeded to the office of Moses has the power of giving a Spirit of holiness to his presbyters, by the imposition of hands and by prayer; and thus can make them fit and prepared for the priesthood.” -Letter 63, To Magnus
Basil the Great
“Moreover, for this reason the sickness is not unto death, that the miracle might be performed by Jesus in order that the Lord, by raising Lazarus from the dead, might teach us not to be negligent in the matter of our salvation and that we might learn that not even in the last times will the Anointing of Oil be omitted, which for the remission of sins, is mingled by the priests and shed upon us.” -Homily on the Martyr Gordius
“Then he added, ‘The Lord will raise him up,’ so that even though he does not immediately rise up, the sick person will still be filled with confidence that he will eventually be healed. Then the passage says, ‘And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him’ (Jas 5:15). This shows the relationship of sin and sickness. This is why Christ cured not only diseases but also sins. Here the apostle is also saying this: ‘They have committed sins, therefore the Lord laid this disease upon them, and this sickness is their ransom.’ This is why they say, ‘Blessed is he who suffers while doing good, and this is called a gracious thing.'” -Homilies on the Epistle of James, Homily 5
Origen of Alexandria
“the penitent Christian does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine . . . [of] which the apostle James says: ‘If then there is anyone sick, let him call the presbyters of the Church, and let them impose hands upon him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him’” –Homilies on Leviticus 2:4 (250 A.D.)
Serapion of Thmuis
“We beseech you, Savior of all men, you that have all virtue and power, Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we pray that you send down from heaven the healing power of the only-begotten [Son] upon this oil, so that for those who are anointed . . . it may be effected for the casting out of every disease and every bodily infirmity . . . for good grace and remission of sins” –The Sacramentary of Serapion 29:1 (350 A.D.)
Ambrose of Milan
“Let us then go to the Lord Jesus, and confess our sins. Let us be healed by Him, that we may be safe; for His is the grace that saves, His is the power that heals, for in Him is all the fulness of the Godhead.” -Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, Book 7
Augustine of Hippo
“On this point, it is superfluous to quote examples from the Gospels. The books are filled with statements about Christ’s miracles. Those who were cured did not come to Him as to a physician, they were rather healed in their own houses, and even more, in some cases, by the Master’s command only… He granted them health both of body and soul. To these words He often adds the words: ‘Go thy way, thy faith hath made thee whole.'” -Sermon 16, On the Words of the Gospel, “They Immediately Left Their Nets”
Pope Leo the Great
“The Apostle James in the divine epistle, plainly teaching upon the mysteries of the Christian confession, has both laid down the precept of prayer and pointed out the effect of anointing. ‘Is any,’ says he, ‘sick among you? Let him bring in 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 shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.'” -Sermon 5, On the Feast of Pentecost
Cyril of Alexandria
“The divine Apostle James very fittingly and justly advises the faithful who are sick, when he says, ‘Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the Church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him’ (Jas 5:14-15).” -Commentary on Luke, Book 10
Caesar of Arles
“As often as some infirmity overtakes a man, let him who is ill receive the body and blood of Christ; let him humbly and in faith ask the presbyters for blessed oil, to anoint his body, so that what was written may be fulfilled in him: ‘Is anyone among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he be in sins, they will be forgiven him. . . . See to it, brethren, that whoever is ill hasten to the church, both that he may receive health of body and will merit to obtain the forgiveness of his sins” –Sermons 13:3 (ca 500 A.D.)
Thomas Cranmer (1489 – 1556):
“Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter.” -Book of Common Prayer, The Order for the Visitation of the Sick
St. Symeon the New Theologian (949 – 1022):
“Let us also call upon those who are present, the priests and the deacons, and let them put oil in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and let them say and let the bishops say: ‘Let us pray to the Lord.'” -Hymn 40, “On Baptism and the Lord’s Supper”
Martin Luther (1483 – 1546):
“If you are a Christian, you should believe in Christ. And since you believe in Christ, you should rejoice that you have a gracious God. For He has not only forgiven your sins but also wills to make you righteous. He will forgive your sins and will sanctify you in the body. He will heal the body and the soul as well.” -Sermon on James 5:13-20, 1522
John Calvin (1509 – 1564):
“Moreover, it cannot be doubted that when the pastors anointed the sick with oil, they did so in conformity to the apostolic command, which enjoins them to lay hands upon them.” -Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 19, Section 34