Anointing of the sick not just for those facing imminent death

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Father Richard Fragomeni anoints a woman at the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii, 1224 W. Lexington St., in this file photo. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

“Many people think that anointing of the sick is just for people on their death beds.”

That’s what a priest friend said to me just before he gave me the sacrament. I had asked for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick because I was facing the biopsy of a lump that would later turn out to be breast cancer.

The priest’s comment started me thinking about the sacrament and this common misunderstanding by some Catholics today.

“I think the sacrament of anointing of the sick is a gift of God to the church that a lot of people don’t avail themselves of because they don’t understand the fact that it is not just for those who are dying,” Father Ronald Kunkel, assistant professor in the Department of Dogmatic Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, said.

“When anointing of the sick is limited to that exclusively, that’s unfortunate because that means that people who are appropriate candidates are being deprived of this wonderful source of grace,” Kunkel said.

Kunkel focused his graduate studies on the communal nature of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and has taught a course on it for over 10 years. Some of Kunkel’s most powerful experiences in his 19 years of priesthood have occurred while administering the sacrament, he said.

What most people think of as “last rites” is actually called “viaticum.” It includes the anointing along with prayers to commend the dying person on their journey to the next life and the reception of the Eucharist.

During anointing of the sick, a priest prays the rite over the person, and marks the person’s forehead and palms with the sign of the cross using the oil of the sick. The priest can also anoint the part of the body where the illness or malady is. The oil is one of three sacred oils blessed each year by the bishop at the Chrism Mass held during Holy Week.  

Anointing of the sick has its roots in the early church and in Chapter 6 of Mark’s Gospel and Chapter 5 of the Letter of James, said Todd Williamson, director of the archdiocese’s Office for Divine Worship.

“It began early in the church not as last rites but as something that addresses the very human experience,” Williamson said. “Everybody gets sick, everybody suffers from illness or from a physical condition. Historically, the sacrament of anointing was in response to those.”

It was also a Christian call to pray for the wider community.

“What do we do when a brother or sister is suffering from illness or sickness? We gather. We gather, we pray over them and we anoint them with the oil of gladness,” Williamson said. “That’s what the church’s understanding was.”

During the Middle Ages, it became common both theologically and pastorally to anoint people only on their death beds and was often called “extreme unction.”

“That shift that really occurred in the eighth century and remained with us for over 1,000 years,” Kunkel explained. “It was not until the Second Vatican Council that there was a return to the more ancient understanding and the more ancient practice. Vatican II said extreme unction is more properly called anointing of the sick and it pointed out that although it is certainly appropriate for those who are dying, people shouldn’t wait until that point to receive the sacrament.”

The rite for anointing of the sick says those who can be anointed include any member of the faithful whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or physical condition, someone preparing for surgery, and the elderly, Williamson explained.

“The rite doesn’t identify what the word ‘seriously’ means and I’ve been at Masses where the anointing of the sick is included. The presider has said, ‘Well, we’re all suffering from something so everyone come up.’ That’s not what the church envisions, I don’t think,” he said. “If we take that approach, I think we risk watering down the sacrament.”

While the church has guidelines on who the sacrament is appropriate for, parishes can go a long way to helping people understand the sacrament by celebrating it more as part of a community.

Kunkel suggested parishes hold anointing services after Mass where those who seek anointing can sign up ahead of time and have reserved spaces in church for themselves and their caregivers. In the weeks before the service, the parish could publish information in the bulletin about the sacrament and who should receive it.

“At a parish Sunday celebration we are going to acknowledge and recognize and embrace both literally and figuratively people who are elderly, people who are ill, people who are suffering from a serious chronic medical condition and we are going to pray together and we’re going to celebrate the sacrament in the midst of the community as opposed to kind of in a more private setting,” he explained.

It is easy to view sacraments such as  anointing and reconciliation as private experiences but they are much more than that.

“It’s important for people to be aware that this is a prayer of the church and even if it’s just you in a room or you in your bed and priest coming to visit you, you both are connected in that moment with the entire church,” Kunkel said. 

The church sees anointing of the sick as one of the very important components of caring for those who are ill. Caring for the sick is a corporal work of mercy and is part of the fundamental mission of the church, he said.

“When you have people who are undergoing acute suffering because of either illness or disability, instead of looking the other direction, we as Catholic Christians are called to confront that and embrace them and to love them all the more in that situation of difficulty.”

Often sickness makes somebody feel alienated from their family and friends, from the church, and even from God, he said.

“It can be a very difficult and painful moment when people feel alone, even if they’re blessed to have a good support system,” Kunkel said. “Anointing is one of the means by which we try to help people be aware that the Lord and the entire church are with them, in and through this experience, this encounter with the cross.”


  • sacraments
  • anointing of the sick

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