The ministry of healing is significant in the life and mission of Jesus Christ – both in his willing to give physical healing, and above all in his death and resurrection that offers us healing from sin. Within his healing ministry is also the transformation of suffering from what appears pointless to being a powerful way of union with Christ – what we call “redemptive suffering.” In the rite and effects of anointing of the sick, it is important that we acknowledge both healing and redemptive suffering as being at work within this sacrament.
In the rite for anointing of the sick, the essential part is the anointing of the ill person with blessed oil upon their forehead and the palms of their hands by a priest, while he says the words that accompany these anointings. He first anoints on the forehead saying “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help with the grace of the Holy Spirit,” to which the person responds “Amen.” Immediately after this anointing, he anoints each hand by saying “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up,” also with the response of “Amen.” The oil being the “matter” for the sacrament and these words being its “form,” the anointed person receives the grace of Christ in the midst of their sufferings to give them strength in their sufferings, and if God so wills it, to heal.
In addition to these essential elements to the rite, most anointings include other prayers. When possible, the person about to be anointed should be encouraged to make use of the sacrament of penance before being anointed both for its own benefit of forgiveness and as a way of preparing them for the particular graces of the anointing. As the rite for anointing is being celebrated, one specific prayer that is usually offered before the act of anointing, which is called the “Prayer of Faith,” includes the act of the priest silently placing his hand/s on the head of the person to be anointed, briefly praying over them. After a person is anointed, there is usually a prayer that asks God’s help and blessing for the particular person in their circumstance; this prayer is chosen according to the circumstance, whether that be for one who is near death, one who just learned of a terminal illness, one about to undergo a surgery, etc. The rite also may include the reception of holy communion, which is preceded by the Lord’s Prayer and concluded with a blessing.
Before fully considering the effects of this sacrament, it is important to dispel a common myth: that anointing is only for those about to die. Unfortunately, many who can/should receive this sacrament and its grace never do out of fear that it is only for those who are about to die. In truth, I have encountered situations where it is refused simply because the person is afraid it means they are dying. While it remains true that persons nearing death ought to receive this sacrament as final preparation to meet the Lord, know that the proper effects of the sacrament invite us to receive it in other moments.
So then, what are the effects? First and above all is the healing of sin. (This is why, as we will see next time, only bishops and priests are ministers of anointing – as this sacrament is connected to the sacrament of penance and the ministry of binding and loosing). More to illness itself, this sacrament bestows grace upon the recipient such that they are strengthened to persevere in union with the passion of Christ, to offer their sufferings redemptively, for the good of their own soul and those of others. Finally, if it is for their true good, God can will to give full healing through this sacrament. These effects will be clearer in the next installment, we will look more deeply at the minister and recipients.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1517-1525 give brief treatment of the rite and its effects.