The other day I was perusing my bookshelf and rediscovered a book that I hadn’t picked up in a while. It’s called The Faith Explained by Fr. Leo Trese, a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and a best-selling author who died in 1970 at the age of 68. Leafing through it, I was reminded how well Fr. Trese explains the nuts and bolts of the Catholic faith, with lots of good analogies and a straightforward writing style. Knowing that I was going to be writing something about Anointing of the Sick this week, I figured I’d take a look at what Fr. Trese had to say about it, and I immediately learned something new. Prior to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, this sacrament was referred to as “Extreme Unction.” It’s a pretty intense-sounding name, derived from the Latin, which means “last anointing.” All this I knew. What I didn’t know is that the reason it was called “last” is because it would usually be the last in the sequence of anointings that a Catholic might receive over the course of his or her life. One is anointed as part of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, with Extreme Unction typically taking place after one has received those other sacraments. That’s why it’s “extreme” in the sense that it’s “last.” In popular usage, however, it started to be associated with the very last moments of life. People came to believe mistakenly that you received it only when you were expected to die. As the sacrament was referred to as “Extreme Unction” only starting in the 12th century, it was decided in the post-Conciliar period to restore its earlier name, Anointing of the Sick, so that people would understand that it is intended for broader use than just before death. Thank you, Fr. Trese!
We find the origins of this sacrament in Sacred Scripture. In the Gospel of Mark, Christ sends out his Apostles in pairs of two. “So they went and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:12-13). In the Epistle of St. James we hear: “Are there any who are sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church, and the priests will pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick persons, and the Lord will raise them up” (James 5:14-15). The priest who anoints the sick uses Oil of the Sick, which is pure olive oil that has been blessed by the Bishop at the Chrism Mass, which takes place in our diocese on Holy Thursday. The priest confers the sacrament on the sick person by anointing the person’s forehead and the palms of his or her hands, while saying: “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin, save you and raise you up.” This sacrament unites the sick person more closely to Christ, especially in Our Lord’s redemptive suffering which saves us from sin and death. It strengthens the sick spiritually, so that through their sufferings they might participate even more in their own salvation and in Christ’s work of redeeming the world, even if their illness renders them otherwise helpless.
This terrible feeling of helplessness in the face of grave illness can cause great fear and anxiety in the heart of someone who is sick. The sacrament of Anointing provides a special grace that quiets anxiety and dissipates fear, and thus strengthens the resolve of the sick person to embrace God’s will, resisting the temptation to doubt or despair in the last moments of life. On many occasions I have visited people who were gravely ill who were greatly troubled and afraid, terribly upset by their failing health. With the anointing, you can see all of the anxiety drain out of them. They often sigh as their spirits are filled with peace. The anointing also provides the benefit of forgiving venial sins, and can even forgive mortal sins if the person is critically ill and unable to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation because they are unconscious, not lucid, or simply unable to speak.
Anointing is not appropriate in every instance where there is a health issue, however. There must be an underlying serious illness for someone to receive the sacrament of Anointing. Where someone is preparing for joint replacement surgery, for example, Confession is probably more appropriate than Anointing of the Sick. But in the case where someone has received a serious diagnosis, but doesn’t yet feel very sick, it’s a good idea to receive the Anointing (and go to Confession!), perhaps even regularly over the course of treatment. It’s also appropriate for those who are simply experiencing the frailties of old age to receive the sacrament – to lift their spirits, to unite them more closely to Christ, and to give them the courage to persevere in faith and confidence in Our Lord’s love and mercy.
If you know someone in the parish who is suffering with a serious illness, ask them if they would like a visit from a priest. Now that you understand that the Anointing of the Sick is not just for those who are actively dying, you can ease any concerns they might have about the nature of the sacrament and you will be doing them a great service, really an act of Christian love. And if you’re interested in ordering a copy of Fr. Trese’s terrific book, you can order a copy here.