Revisiting the Anointing of the Sick: Some Problems Today

The Church needs to clarify the administration of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick for a number of reasons.

In 1974, when I was a deacon in Texas, a priest from Fort Worth came to Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas to speak to the deacon class about ministry to the sick and dying. I remember only one thing he told us that day, because it indicated to me that the administration of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick was in some quarters going amuck. This was only a few years after Pope Paul VI’s promulgation of the apostolic constitution revising the Pastoral Care of the Sick and how this sacrament was to be administered. Because we had read this document prior to this talk, it struck me as quite an abuse when the priest stated that he had established the practice of administering this sacrament to all who reached the age of fifty-five.

At first I thought it was a joke, but it turned out that he was quite serious. When someone asked him how this practice was justified by the norms of the Holy See, he simply shrugged it off and told us that the theology of the sacrament had evolved, and was no longer restricted to any particular degree of sickness. Additionally, he said that he thought fifty-five was the proper time for its administration due to “old age.”

“But why fifty-five?” I asked. He simply replied that because a lot of people retire by that age, administration of the sacrament is appropriate. I guessed that if the speaker could propose this bit of illogic, and gross misreading of the norms, at this fairly conservative seminary, abuses of the sacrament were likely much broader in the rest of the country. Over the years, my suspicion has proven to be an unfortunate fact.

While I personally have not encountered this particular abuse again, I have witnessed a number of other quite common practices that are also difficult to square with the norms in Pope Paul VI’s Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum (On the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick) and the subsequent Ordo regarding Pastoral Care of the Sick (PCS).

For instance, there is the abuse of so-called healing liturgies in which anyone in attendance who is ill may receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick without qualification. There is often no requirement stated that the illness must be serious in the objective sense proposed in the Ordo, and regardless, there would be no way of checking even if that norm were stated. Anyone can be anointed whether they have a terminal illness, chronic back pain, or headache. The norms are, in any meaningful sense, simply by-passed.

Then, there is the abuse where the priest simply anoints all the Catholics in a hospital or in a nursing home, regardless of their medical condition. I once had a pastor who went to the local nursing home every thirty days and anointed all the Catholics. He told me that it saved him from getting up and anointing the dying since they had already been anointed within the past thirty days, a norm which I could not locate in any place but his own mind.

Following Vatican II, the significance of the change in the name of the sacrament, and the timing of its administration, was drilled into the thinking of seminarians and priests alike. It was no longer called “extreme unction” (the sacrament for the dying), and it was now to be administered as soon as possible in any serious illness. Thus, the sacrament was, practically speaking, reduced to anointing the sick, and it became the “sacrament of the anointing of the sick.” In reality, the norms were very clear that in the phrase, “the sick,” is meant the seriously ill, or those whose health is seriously impaired due to old age. (PCS §9) Unfortunately, the USCCB decided to add their own little footnote to this number 9, which argues that periculose, in the original Latin text, must be translated as “seriously,” rather than “gravely,” “dangerously,” or “perilously.” Then it simply states without any further qualification that the sacrament “should be given to anyone whose health is seriously impaired.”

Obviously, the good intention of the note is to assure that the sacrament is not reserved until the imminent death of the sick person, which would effectively undo the revision of the rite.  But still, there is no indication as to how one is to determine, in some objective sense, what constitutes “seriously impaired” in matters of health. The pastor I mentioned made his own determination—you were seriously impaired if you reached age fifty-five!

There is, in fact, a clarification of this rather ambiguous phrase, found in Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum itself, which calls for the administration of this sacrament prior to the “point of death.”  It states clearly, “Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death 1 from sickness or old age, the fitting time for that person to receive the sacrament has certainly already arrived. 2

Thus the “danger of death” situation is what makes the illness periculose, regardless of how you translate that term. Obviously, this does not mean immediately or imminently in danger of death, or else the whole idea of not waiting until the “point of death” would be undone.  Rather, it means that this illness must be of the nature that it could lead to a terminal situation for that person, such that it honestly raises the specter of death by its very nature. It is the kind of illness that can kill, even if it doesn’t always do so, and it can shake the faith of the patient.

Consequently, a knee injury or broken arm, a cold, or even the flu would not normally be the kinds of health problems the Church has in mind. The former two would not be considered illnesses in the sense of the document, as we shall see a bit further on.  A cold or the flu would be considered illnesses, but not life-threatening, unless they evolved into pneumonia or a serious infection threatening the immune system. The serious sickness needs to be a true physical or even grave mental condition (PCS §53) that could lead to death.

But the critical issue here is really that this sacrament, like all the sacraments, has a specifically spiritual purpose that is spelled out nicely in both documents. In Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum, Paul VI details the spiritual purpose and effects of this sacrament by stating that the spiritual reality signified by “the anointing” is the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is “the anointing” in the deepest sense. He first mentions the power of this sacramental anointing to “take away sins…and the remnants of sin.” But then he goes on to link this sacrament to the condition of grave illness:

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’ (Gen. 3:15), and sometimes regain bodily health, if this is expedient for the health of the soul.

The context for this spiritual “medicine” should be clear. The fact that the sacrament is intended to provide “great confidence in the divine mercy” and help to “bear the trials and hardships of sickness” suggests one is dealing with a truly grave illness that at least potentially could lead to death, even if death does not occur. Thus the document first mentions giving this sacrament to the dying, setting its true context, and only then states that it should be given at the outset of the condition of the serious illness that could lead to death. Seriously ill people do not wait until death is imminent to become afraid, or suffer doubts and temptations. The outset of the illness is the time to begin what could well be a series of anointings, the final being extreme unction.

However, does one really need to be strengthened with “great confidence in the divine mercy” if one is not facing death from this health problem, at least potentially?  Does one really need a special infusion of grace to bear the kinds of “trials and hardships” that are connected to a rotator cuff problem or bad knee problem?  Does the devil have a special opening to tempt us if we have a sprained ankle or a bad cold?

As St. Thomas says, “the sacraments are spiritual remedies for the healing of wounds inflicted by sin.” 3 This sacrament, like all the others, then, is a remedy for sin, and the consequences of sin, through the spiritual gifts, graces, and virtues that are communicated through this sacred sign. The wounds they “heal” would not have existed in the state of “original rectitude” but we sinners very much need them to live a “spiritual” life.  Two of the wounds caused by original sin are suffering, from disease and the breakdown of the body’s vital organs, and, of course, death itself. These wounds affecting man’s body are, not surprisingly, quite capable of impairing the spiritual health of the soul. When suffering intensely from some disease, mental or physical, or when fearing such suffering before it happens, it becomes most difficult to maintain, let alone grow in, one’s prayer life, patience, and other like virtues, including faith, hope, and charity. Moreover, it is not surprising that the Evil One would take advantage of this seriously weakened condition to undermine our whole relation to God and neighbor.

Now it is clear that St. Thomas himself definitely held that this sacrament was intended as “the last remedy that the Church can give, since it is an immediate preparation for glory.” Moreover, neither the Council of Trent 4 nor Vatican II, in any way denied this ultimate purpose. Instead, they had a broader vision of the sacrament as intending to accomplish the spiritual healing from the beginning of the serious health problem, regardless of whether it actually ended in death. St. Thomas himself, in fact, provides a most helpful insight into this rationale of the councils for expanding the application of this great sacrament. In Question 30 of the Supplement to Part III, he says that this sacrament is a remedy:

 …for such defects as weaken man spiritually, so as to deprive him of perfect vigor for acts of the life of grace or of glory; which defects consist in nothing else but a certain weakness and unfitness, the result in us of actual or original sin, against which weakness man is strengthened by this sacrament. 5

Thomas pinpoints the object to be healed as the defects in the soul, magnified by the great suffering, or fear of death, as a kind of catalyst, which deprive the sick person of “perfect vigor of the life of grace or of glory.”  Notice the “or” between the “life of grace” or “life of glory.” His rule, following the practice of his day, was to limit the reception of this sacrament to being “an immediate preparation for glory.” 6 But the logic of his explanation leaves it open to a wider application, since the whole course of serious illness is clearly subject to the defects that deprive one of the full vigor of the life of grace. That is why Trent was careful in speaking about the circumstances that called for this sacrament to be administered:

It is also declared, that this unction is to be applied to the sick, but to those especially who lie in such danger as to seem to be about to depart this life: whence also it is called the sacrament of the departing. Session XIV, Ch. 3.

The words, “to those especially” (who are dying), indicates that the sacrament could also be given to the sick. The rest of the text makes it clear that Trent is speaking about the gravely ill. The council declares that this sacrament is the completion of the sacrament of penance, and was so regarded by the Fathers. It then states that “the whole Christian life…ought to be a perpetual penance.” Suffering during the illness certainly is a form of penance for sins.

In the event, it makes theological and pastoral sense to administer this sacrament at the beginning of grave illness, when the fear of death is quite natural, and when one anticipates or is already undergoing significant suffering. That was the decision of Vatican II, which restored the broader application of the early Church. But it does not make theological sense to apply this spiritual remedy for a grave impediment to the “vigor for acts of the life of grace” to less than truly serious illness, or the seriously weakened aged. Both of these situations place the person in a true, if remote, possibility of death due to the illness, or a true, immediate possibility of death in the case of the aged. How does one know if there is a remote possibility that this person will succumb to this illness? One asks the doctor.

Finally, there is this most widespread abuse of anointing everyone who is undergoing anesthesia during an operation. The truth is that one is far more likely to be in danger of death whenever one uses an automobile than when anesthesia is administered. The real point is that this sacrament’s objective is to treat internal spiritual defects as shown in the natural effects and accompaniments of serious illness, and in the weakened state of the elderly. Both these catalysts are the remains or effects of sin. Additionally, this sacrament’s objective is to treat spiritual conditions that already exist, here and now, due to organic causes that also exist, here and now.

Although anesthesia and automobiles may cause death, they are not the consequences of sin, nor do they have a natural relation to one’s spiritual powers. On the other hand, grave illnesses of the body or mind obviously do. Moreover, the threat from anesthesia is a future event that may cause, in extremely rare cases, a complication that threatens death. If a priest were standing by, he would be quite right in administering the sacrament in that situation, even if the operation were for an ingrown toenail. But one does not administer this sacrament in case a future condition might arise from the medicine, otherwise the sacrament should be administered whenever we take any other medicine. Many can kill us if the complications become severe due to a bad mix—that is why we have all those warnings on the bottles. But future contingencies in the area of health are not the object of this sacrament.

In point of fact, the Pastoral Care of the Sick has a provision for anointing before surgery which is quite specific: “A sick person may be anointed before surgery whenever a serious illness is the reason for the surgery.” (§ 10). Notice that it says nothing about anesthesia when it gives the reason for the anointing because anesthesia almost always helps to alleviate the pain involved in surgical procedures. It specifies only “whenever a serious illness is the reason for the surgery.” A knee replacement is not a serious illness, as understood either by medicine or by the Church, when dealing with illness in this context. Nevertheless, both medicine and common sense tell us that surgery on the seriously ill always presents complications, is often riskier for the elderly, and whether young or old, tends to weaken the person at least temporarily.

The Church needs to clarify the administration of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick for a number of reasons. First, the validity of the sacrament is certainly in question when the element of serious illness is absent. Second, the practice of anointing where the necessary conditions are absent can easily lead to greater fear of death when, in fact, it is most unlikely. If I were a doctor, I would pray that Catholic priests would stop instilling a fear of anesthesia, and even minor surgery, in their people. Third, the failure to differentiate between grave illness, and minor illness, or simply the normal effects of aging (remember the priest who anointed all who reached age fifty-five) can lead to a false understanding of this sacrament and, paradoxically, to the eventual loss of the true purpose of the sacrament. More people today go to healing Masses, I suspect, than call for the priest when they are dying. Others show a definite tendency to look for, and even desire, a physical cure from the sacrament, a possibility to be sure, but rare indeed, compared to the spiritual effects of this sacrament. At one time, the sacrament was limited to imminent death, but today it seems to be asked for more often because of a fear of death alone. Maybe that is why fewer people call for the priest for the anointing at the death of a loved one; they figure they are probably no longer in a conscious condition to be afraid, and that is what they think the sacrament is really all about.

When people are suffering from a minor illness and are afraid of dying, or they are having some minor surgery and are afraid of the anesthesia killing them, they need some compassionate medical and spiritual counseling to help them overcome their inordinate fear of death, not the sacrament for the seriously ill. We surely do not want to contribute to the growing, almost neurotic, fear of death in our society.

  1. Interestingly, the noun form of  periculose is used right here in connection with the phrase “danger of death”:  “incipit esse in periculo mortis propter infirmitatem uel senium…. ”One wonders why it then cannot be translated “dangerously” rather than, “seriously.”
  2.  Footnote to Vatican II, Constitution on the Liturgy §73.
  3. Summa, P. III, Q. 61, Art. 2, sed contra.
  4. Trent, Session XIV, Extreme Unction.
  5. In the same passage, St. Thomas states that while it is not, like Baptism or Penance an antidote for Mortal or Original Sin, in order that this healing grace may be conferred, it will remove even Mortal Sin if there is no obstacle to that absolving on the part of the recipient.
  6. Supplement, Q. 32, Art. 2, answer.
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avatar About Rev. Mark A. Pilon

Father Mark A. Pilon, STL, STD, received an MS in education from Catholic University of America; an STL, summa cum laude, from the John Paul II Institute at the Lateran University, and an STD, magna cum laude, from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. He was chair of systematic theology, Mount St. Mary's Seminary; associate rrofessor of theology at Christendom College; visiting professor at Catholic University of America, Graduate School of Education, and at the Christian Commonwealth Institute, El Escorial, Spain. He is presently teaching at Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College.

Comments

  1. avatar Tom Lanter says:

    Father Pilon;

    Don’t forget to recommend praying The Chaplet of Divine Mercy at the bedside of all the dying. This is also very powerful. Thanks for giving your life to the church.

    Tom Lanter

    …..Our Lord said to Saint Faustina:
    Encourage souls to say the Chaplet which I have given you … Whoever will recite it will receive great mercy at the hour of death … When they say this chaplet in the presence of the dying, I will stand between my Father and the dying person, not as the Just Judge but as the Merciful Savior … Priests will recommend it to sinners as their last hope of salvation. Even if there were a sinner most hardened, if he were to recite this chaplet only once, he would receive grace from my infinite mercy. I desire to grant unimaginable graces to those souls who trust in My mercy … Through the Chaplet you will obtain everything, if what you ask for is compatible with My will……

    http://thedivinemercy.org/message/devotions/praythechaplet.php

  2. avatar Fr. Dylan Schrader says:

    Very nicely done, Father. You managed to address several important issues clearly in this article.

    I think many of the abuses related to this sacrament spring from one of two errors: Modernism and Superstition. If people believe the sacrament to have merely natural effects, such as providing comforting words, showing the support of the community, etc., then it will be much harder for them to see why the sacrament cannot be administered or repeated outside of the conditions established by the norms. On the other hand, people may indeed believe that Anointing confers supernatural effects, but if they do not believe these effects to be essentially linked to the true nature of the sacrament, then they commit superstition (see CCC, 2111). For example, it is superstitious to believe that Anointing is meant to protect a healthy person from future harm (as in Anointing before any and every surgery or indiscriminately Anointing people over a certain age), since this would attribute to the mere external performance of the rite an effect that is not proper to the sacrament.

  3. avatar Fr. Bogumil Kosciesza says:

    General anesthesia can indeed, by itself, be a licit reason for the anointing. An elderly patient, with a past history of cardiac problems, for example, is at a greater risk from dying as a result of the anesthesia rather than from the effects of the surgical procedure.

    • avatar Fr. Dylan Schrader says:

      We have to distinguish. Before general anesthesia is given to a person, the danger associated with it remains extrinsic. If a person has received general anesthesia and then begins to be in danger because of it, the threat is intrinsic. Anointing cannot be administered because of an extrinsic threat (e.g., a soldier about to go into battle cannot receive it because of the danger of battle) but only because of an intrinsic and dangerous bodily infirmity (e.g., a solider that has been seriously wounded in battle can be anointed).

  4. avatar Augustine Chinedu Ukawuba. says:

    Fr the clarification you made on this Sacrament is ok.do you have the hard copy? I would like to have it with me.

  5. This is maybe an addendum to your article. I would urge the preachers of the Faith to explain to the faithful the powerful grace that this sacrament gives, enabling the faithful to unite their sufferings with the efficacious suffering of Christ on the Cross. In the words of the Catechism:
    ++++++++++++
    1521 Union with the passion of Christ. By the grace of this sacrament the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.
    ++++++++++++

    This “new meaning” – this personal participation in His saving work – is light and significance received into the darkness and meaninglessness often felt with suffering in this life. Our suffering can become one with His, and thus can become a most meaningful and important work that joins His on the Cross. Our suffering can be seen as part of the very cross promised by Jesus, which we must take up in following HIm. This meaning in the sacrament, illuminated by the Catechism, can be a gift of immense value to those suffering in the many temptations that accompany our physical sufferings. It gives us a way to understand concretely and to do effectively with grace, what is sometimes said to those suffering: “Do not waste your suffering! Offer it up!”

  6. avatar Robert Brown, STB,STL, STD says:

    The foundation of all the Sacraments is the principle: ex opere operato. When I have been present at Healing liturgies (usually after the homily), the celebrant has usually emphasized the Sacrament as a remedy for physical maladies (which is a possibility) rather than spiritual ones.

  7. avatar Robert Brown, STB, STL, STD says:

    The foundation of all the Sacraments is the principle, ex opere operato, i.e., the Sacraments themselves are not merely occasions of grace but causes, effecting what they signify. When I have been present at Healing liturgies held in the middle of Mass, the celebrant has usually led people to believe that the Sacrament is given as a remedy for physical maladies rather than as a remedy for the spiritual maladies that appear with serious illness and imminent death. Although it is possible that a certain physical healing follow the Anointing, it is not why the Sacrament is given and is not a necessary effect of it.

    Such a mistaken approach does little but confuse the laity in understanding the nature of the Sacraments.

  8. avatar TerryC says:

    I must disagree about one point, while in principle agree with every other point. Flu can be a life threatening illness. The individual’s risk is very health dependent and dependent on the particular strain of flu contracted. The 1918 swine flu pandemic resulted in almost a million deaths worldwide. The flu should not be underestimated. As an example of when not to give Anointing of the Sick it is probably a bad example.

  9. avatar Fr. Eric Delisle says:

    Thank you Fr. Pilon for your article on the Anointing of the Sick. I serve as the priest chaplain to two somewhat demanding hospitals in the city I am assigned. This article helps to clarify the conditions for those who really, really need to be anointed. Last year I administered the Anointing of the Sick over one thousand times. I thought to myself there has to be an abuse of this sacrament in particular. I have on a few occasions tried to explain to the lay pastoral staff of the hospitals as to what the pastoral needs for the anointing require, serious illness and the danger of death. Not, as you mentioned in your article, a knee replacement, or a paper cut for that matter. I seem to be administering anointings “willy-nilly,” because the pastoral staff tells me that so and so needs to be anointed when the illness is not serious or there is no danger of death. This article will help me to explain to the pastoral staff and the patients of the spiritual benefits and effects of this sacrament as a means of hope and spiritual union with the sufferings of the Cross, in the midst of terminal and serious illness and weakness due to old age.

  10. avatar cermak_rd says:

    Maybe some of this just comes down to man power? I would imagine many people don’t call for a priest for last rites because they have no local priest. Many parishes in the US are managed by lay staff or grouped into complexes such that multiple parishes share a priest. I would imagine having Healing Masses can help priests by having the sick come to him, which does probably cut down on requests for individual service.

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  2. [...] First Links — 6.22.12 Friday, June 22, 2012, 9:00 AM Matthew Cantirino Revisiting the Anointing of the Sick: Some Problems Today Fr. Mark A. Pilon, Homiletic & Pastoral [...]

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