Having spent significant time looking at the sacrament of penance, we turn our attention to the other sacrament of healing: anointing of the sick. In beginning with the origins and history of the sacrament, it is noteworthy that the sacrament itself has been relatively unchanged in history, though its name and the timing for when it is received have been quite different in recent times.
Given that the ministry of healing is a significant part of Jesus’ public life on earth, even onto references of how He and the disciples cured the sick and anointed many with oil (see Mark 6:13), the primary Scripture passage that clearly alludes to the anointing of the sick is not in the Gospel, but in James 5:14-15:
“Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.”
Within this passage (which is within a longer section that includes confessing sins to one-another so as to be forgiven) are several important details. First is the fact that the “presbyters,” which we would consider as those ordained onto priesthood, are to be summoned, establishing that the minsters of this anointing is to be bishops and priests. Added to this act of anointing is that it is to be done “in the name of the Lord,” indicating that its power comes from Him (as with all sacraments). Next there is reference to the “prayer of faith,” which is understood to express that anointing of the sick is a ministry of the Church for building up the Church, connecting those who are anointed more fully to the prayer of the whole Church and going beyond an appearance that this anointing is limited to the individual’s own faith. Finally, there is the reference to forgiveness of sins – which connects this sacrament to the ministry of forgiveness within the sacrament of penance, linking these two sacraments as primarily meant for healing of souls.
Anointing those who are ill with oil has long had a medicinal purpose – dating back to ancient times before Christ. Through Christ and His Church, the anointing of the ill with oil is given a fuller meaning to include interior strengthening of the one who is suffering by receiving the presence of Christ who suffered for us. While the basic act of anointing with oil has remained consistent, what has changed is an emphasis on “who” and “when” this sacrament ought to be conferred – and the name of the sacrament itself which indicates this emphasis. For it has only been in the last 60 years that this sacrament has come to be characterized more familiarly as “anointing of the sick,” having previously been called “extreme unction.” The title extreme unction, while still very fitting, gives the impression that this anointing ought to take place near the end of life or in urgent circumstances. However (as will be shown in coming installments), the anointing of the sick is perhaps the sacrament with the greatest potential to be more fully utilized – as it once more seeks to give strength to the sick and deepen their awareness of the presence of Christ with them in their sufferings – and thus is not just for “last rites.” It is this greater use that we will focus upon in the next installment – when we consider the rite and the effects.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1499-1513 introduces the anointing of the sick, describing its historical significance.