In the anointing of the sick, the key elements to the sacrament are the anointings with the blessed oil upon the forehead and hands of the recipient by the priest while he says the words that ask for the “grace of the Holy Spirit” and that the Lord who “frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” We can look at the minister and proper recipient of this sacrament by diving more deeply into these acts and the accompanying words – as they contain important details that show us “who” these ministers and recipients are.
For the minister, Canon 1003 of the Church’s law is quite direct: “Every priest and a priest alone validly administers the anointing of the sick.” Such a direct declaration can be established on two levels. First of all, when we read James 5:14-15, we see direct reference to calling upon the “presbyters” of the Church to administer this anointing – as the word “presbyter” indicates those whom we know as ordained priests. Noting that this is the same passage cited earlier that alludes to the prayer of faith and how through the anointing the Lord saves and raises up the sick person, now we also see direct Scriptural reference to the minister of the sacrament being priests (and bishops, who are priests in the fullest sense). Second, it is also clear from this passage of James 5:14-15 that the forgiveness of sins is made available through this anointing. Here it is also important to look back at the earlier installments on the sacrament of penance, noting again that the ministry of reconciliation was granted to the Apostles by Jesus when he gave them the power to bind and loose from sin (see Matthew 18:18). As this power is directly bestowed upon bishops and priests, any and all application of that power to bind and loose (including in forgiveness that is made available through anointing of the sick) is to be carried out only by these members of the clergy. Thus, to the question of “why can’t deacons anoint the sick?”, the short answer is that anointing is directly connected with the ministry of binding and loosing, which has not been granted to deacons, but only to bishops and to priests.
The Church’s law is equally direct in Canon 1004 regarding recipients: “The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.” We note in this description that “member of the faithful” means one who is Catholic and who additionally has attained the age of discretion (age 7 or older). While it may seem odd that we would not anointing younger children with serious illnesses, the effects of the sacrament as discussed in the last installment require one to be aware of and open to union with Christ in His passion – and therefore to have the developmental capacity to offer “redemptive suffering.” Thus, one who is incapable of understanding the meaning of redemptive suffering is not understood as capable of benefiting from the grace of this sacrament. Surely the Church prays with and over severely ill children – but such prayers are not the anointing. Note also that this sacrament can be repeated for those who are seriously ill, especially if their condition worsens. Finally, when a person is unconscious or only able to respond with difficulty, the priest should only anoint them if he can be assured that this person would have requested it by their own power were they able to ask.
Given these basic and straight forward details of the minister and recipient of anointing of the sick, the next installment will take up the question of “when” to receive it, acknowledging that it is more readily available than most people may think.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1514-1516 give a brief description of both the minister and the recipient.