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Detail of The Seven Sacraments (1445) by Roger van der Weyden showing the sacrament of Extreme Unction or Anointing of the Sick.

Anointing of the Sick is distinguished from other forms of religious anointing or "unction" (an older term with the same meaning) in that it is intended, as its name indicates, for the benefit of a sick person. Other religious anointings occur in relation to other sacraments, in particular baptism, confirmation and ordination, and also in the coronation of a monarch.[1]


Since 1972, the Roman Catholic Church uses the name Anointing of the Sick both in the English translations issued by the Holy See of its official documents in Latin[2] and in the English official documents of Episcopal conferences.[3] It does not, of course, forbid the use of other names, for example the more archaic term "Unction of the Sick" or the term "Extreme Unction". Cardinal Walter Kasper used the latter term in his intervention at the 2005 Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.[4] However, the Church declared that "'Extreme unction' ... may also and more fittingly be called 'anointing of the sick'" (emphasis added),[5] and has itself adopted the latter term, while not outlawing the former. This is to emphasize that the sacrament is available, and recommended, to all those suffering from any serious illness, and to dispel the common misconception that it is exclusively for those at or very near the point of death.

Extreme Unction was the usual name for the sacrament in the West from the late twelfth century until 1972, and was thus used at the Council of Trent[6] and in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia.[7] Peter Lombard (died 1160) is the first writer known to have used the term,[1] which did not become the usual name in the West till towards the end of the twelfth century, and never became current in the East.[7] The word "extreme" (final) indicated either that it was the last of the sacramental unctions (after the anointings at Baptism, Confirmation and, if received, Holy Orders) or because at that time it was normally administered only when a patient was in extremis[1]

Other names used in the West include the unction or blessing of consecrated oil, the unction of God, and the office of the unction.[7]

In the Greek Church the sacrament is called Euchelaion (Greek Εὐχέλαιον, from εὐχή, "prayer", and ἔλαιον, "oil").[1][7] Other names are also used, such as ἅγιον ἔλαιον (holy oil), ἡγιασμένον ἔλαιον (consecrated oil), and χρῖσις or χρῖσμα (anointing).[7]

The Community of Christ uses the term administration to the sick.[8]

The term "last rites" refers to administration to a dying person not only of this sacrament but also of Penance and Holy Communion, the last of which, when administered in such circumstances, is known as "Viaticum", a word whose original meaning in Latin was "provision for the journey". The normal order of administration is: first Penance (if the dying person is physically unable to confess, absolution, conditional on the existence of contrition, is given), then Anointing, then Viaticum (if the person can receive it).

Biblical texts

The chief Biblical text concerning the rite is James 5:14-15: "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven." (RSV)

Matthew 10:8, Luke 10:8-9 and Mark 6:13 are also quoted in this regard.

Status as sacrament

The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Coptic[9] and Old Catholic[10] Churches consider this anointing to be a sacrament. Other Christians too, in particular Anglicans, Lutherans and some other Protestant communities use a rite of anointing the sick, without necessarily classifying it as a sacrament.

In the Churches mentioned here by name, the oil used (called "oil of the sick" in both West and East)[11] is blessed specifically for this purpose.

Roman Catholic Church

An extensive account of the teaching of the Catholic Church on Anointing of the Sick is given in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1499-1532.

Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven Sacraments, and is associated not only with bodily healing but with forgiveness of sins. Only priests can administer it,[12] and "any priest may carry the holy oil with him, so that in a case of necessity he can administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick."[13]

The Catholic Church sees the effects of the sacrament as follows. As the sacrament of Marriage gives grace for the married state, the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick gives grace for the state into which people enter through sickness. Through the sacrament is given a gift of the Holy Spirit that renews confidence and faith in God and strengthens against temptations to discouragement, despair and anguish at the thought of death and the struggle of death; it prevents from losing Christian hope in God's justice, truth and salvation.

The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects:
  • the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church;
  • the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age;
  • the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of penance;
  • the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul;
  • the preparation for passing over to eternal life."[14]

The duly blessed oil used in the sacrament is, as laid down in the Apostolic Constitution Sacram unctionem infirmorum, pressed from olives or from other plants.[15] It is blessed by the bishop of the diocese at the Chrism Mass he celebrates on Holy Thursday or on a day close to it. If oil blessed by the bishop is not available, the priest administering the sacrament may bless the oil, but only within the framework of the celebration.[16]

The Roman Rite Anointing of the Sick, as revised in 1972, puts greater stress than in the immediately preceding centuries on the sacrament's aspect of healing, and points to the place sickness holds in the normal life of Christians and its part in the redemptive work of the Church.[1] Canon law permits its administration to any Catholic who has reached the age of reason and is beginning to be put in danger by illness or old age,[17] unless the person in question obstinately persists in a manifestly grave sin.[18] "If there is any doubt as to whether the sick person has reached the use of reason, or is dangerously ill, or is dead, this sacrament is to be administered".[19] There is an obligation to administer it to the sick who, when they were in possession of their faculties, at least implicitly asked for it.[20] A new illness or a renewal or worsening of the first illness enables a person to receive the sacrament a further time.[21]

The sacrament can be administered within Mass, which is the preferred manner.[22] If the celebration takes place outside of Mass, it can be held in the home, in a hospital or institution, or in church.[23] The rite begins with a greeting by the priest, followed by sprinkling of all present with holy water, if deemed desirable, and a short instruction.[24] There follows a penitential act, as at the beginning of Mass.[25] If the sick person wishes to receive the sacrament of penance, it is preferable that the priest make himself available for this during a previous visit; but if the sick person must confess during the celebration of the sacrament of anointing, this confession replaces the penitential rite[26] A passage of Scripture is read, and the priest may give a brief explanation of the reading, a short litany is said, and the priest lays his hands on the head of the sick person and then says a prayer of thanksgiving over the already blessed oil or, if necessary, blesses the oil himself.[27]

The actual anointing of the sick person is done on the forehead, with the prayer "Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit", and on the hands, with the prayer "May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up". To each prayer the sick person, if able, responds: "Amen."[28]

It is permitted, in accordance with local culture and traditions and the condition of the sick person, to anoint other parts of the body in addition, such as the area of pain or injury, but without repeating the sacramental form.[28]

In case of emergency, a single anointing, not necessarily on the forehead, is sufficient.[29]

From the early Middle Ages until after the Second Vatican Council the sacrament was administered, within the Latin Church, only when death was approaching and, in practice, bodily recovery was not ordinarily looked for,[1] giving rise, as mentioned above to the name Extreme Unction (i.e. final anointing). The form used in the Roman Rite included anointing of seven parts of the body while saying (in Latin): "Through this holy unction and His own most tender mercy may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed [quidquid deliquisti] by sight [by hearing, smell, taste, touch, walking, carnal delectation]", the last phrase corresponding to the part of the body that was touched; however, in the words of the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, "the unction of the loins is generally, if not universally, omitted in English-speaking countries, and it is of course everywhere forbidden in case of women".[7] Use of this form is still permitted under the conditions mentioned in article 9 of the 2007 motu proprio Summorum Pontificum.[30]

Liturgical rites of the Catholic Church, both Western and Eastern, other than the Roman, have a variety of other forms for celebrating the sacrament.

Eastern Orthodox Church

The teaching of the Eastern Orthodox Church on the Holy Mystery (sacrament) of Unction is similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the reception of the Mystery is not limited to those who are enduring physical illness. The Mystery is given for healing (both physical and spiritual) and for the forgiveness of sin. For this reason, it is normally required that one go to Confession before receiving Unction. Because it is a Sacred Mystery of the Church, only Orthodox Christians may receive it.

The solemn form of Eastern Christian anointing requires the ministry of seven priests. A table is prepared, upon which is set a vessel containing wheat. Into the wheat has been placed an empty shrine-lamp, seven candles, and seven anointing brushes. Candles are distributed for all to hold during the service. The rite begins with reading Psalm 50 (the great penitential psalm), followed by the chanting of a special Canon. After this, the senior priest (or bishop) pours pure olive oil and a small amount of wine into the shrine lamp, and says the "Prayer of the Oil", which calls upon God to "...sanctify this Oil, that it may be effectual for those who shall be anointed therewith, unto healing, and unto relief from every passion, every malady of the flesh and of the spirit, and every ill..." Then follow seven series of Epistles, Gospels, long prayers, Ektenias (litanies) and anointings. Each series is served by one of the seven priests in turn. The afflicted one is anointed with the sign of the cross on seven places: the forehead, the nostirls, the cheeks, the lips, the breast, the palms of both hands, and the back of the hands. After the last anointing, the Gospel Book is opened and placed with the writing down upon the head of the one who was anointed, and the senior priest reads the "Prayer of the Gospel". At the end, the anointed kisses the Gospel, the Cross and the right hands of the priests, receiving their blessing.

Anointing is considered to be a public rather than a private sacrament, and so as many of the faithful who are able are encouraged to attend. It should be celebrated in the church when possible, but if this is impossible, it may be served in the home or hospital room of the afflicted.

Unction in the Greek Orthodox Church and Churches of Hellenic custom (Melkite, Antiochian Orthodox, etc.) is usually given with a minimum of ceremony.

Anointing may also be given during Forgiveness Vespers and Great Week, on Great and Holy Wednesday, to all who are prepared. Those who receive Unction on Holy Wednesday should go to Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. The significance of receiving Unction on Holy Wednesday is shored up by the hymns in the Triodion for that day, which speak of the sinful woman who anointed the feet of Christ (Matthew 26:6-16). Just as her sins were forgiven because of her penitence, so the faithful are exhorted to repent of their sins. In the same narrative, Jesus says, "in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial" (Id., v. 12), linking the unction with Christ's death and resurrection.

In some dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church it is customary for the bishop to visit each parish or region of the diocese some time during Great Lent and give Anointing for the faithful, together with the local clergy.

Anglican Churches

The 1552 and later editions of the Book of Common Prayer omitted the form of anointing given in the original (1549) version in its Order for the Visitation of the Sick, but most twentieth-century Anglican prayer books do have anointing of the sick.[1]

Some Anglicans accept that anointing of the sick has a sacramental character and is therefore a channel of God's grace, seeing it as an "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" which is the definition of a sacrament. The Catechism of the Episcopal Church includes Unction of the Sick as among the "other sacramental rites" and it states that unction can be done with oil or simply with laying on of hands.[31] The rite of anointing is included in the Episcopal Church's "Ministration to the Sick" [32]

Article 25 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, speaking of the sacraments, says: "Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God."[33]

Various Protestant Communities

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Lutheran communities have the practice of anointing the sick, or have always offered the rite since the Protestant Reformation with varying degrees of frequency. Among Protestants, anointing is provided in a wide variety of formats but, for the most part, however, it has fallen into disuse amongst Protestants.

Liturgical or Mainline Protestant communities (e.g. Presbyterian, Congregationalist/United Church of Christ, Methodist, Lutheran, etc.) all have official yet often optional liturgical rites for the anointing of the sick partly on the model of Western pre-Reformation rites. Anointing need not be associated with grave illness or imminent danger of death.

Protestant communities generally vary widely on the sacramental character of anointing. Non-traditional Protestant communities generally use the term "ordinance" rather than "Sacrament" Most Mainline Protestants have two sacraments, the Eucharist and Baptism (though some Lutherans add confession), deeming Anointing only a humanly-instituted rite. In Charismatic and Pentecostal communities, anointing of the sick is a frequent practice and has been an important ritual in these communities since the respective movements were founded in the 19th and 20th centuries. These communities use extemporaneous forms of administration at the discretion of the minister, who need not be a pastor. There is minimal ceremony attached to its administration. Usually, several people physically touch (laying on of hands) the recipient during the anointing. It may be part of a worship service with the full assembly of the congregation present, but may also be done in more private settings, such as homes or hospital rooms. Pentecostals believe that physical healing is within the anointing and so there is often great expectation or at least great hope that a miraculous cure or improvement will occur when someone is being prayed over for healing.

In Evangelical and Fundamentalist communities, anointing of the sick is performed with varying degrees of frequency, although laying on of hands may be more common than anointing. The rite would be similar to that of Pentecostals in its simplicity, but would usually not have the same emotionalism attached to it. Unlike Pentecostals, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists generally do not believe that physical healing is within the anointing. Therefore, God may or may not grant physical healing to the sick. The healing conferred by anointing is thus a spiritual event that may not result in physical recovery.

Some Protestant US military chaplains carry the Roman Rite version of the Anointing of the Sick with them for use if called upon to assist wounded or dying soldiers who are Catholics. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches consider invalid as a sacrament the administration of Anointing of the Sick by such chaplains, who in the eyes of those Churches are not validly ordained priests. The rite performed by them is thus seen as having the same by no means negligible value of any other form of prayer offered for the sick or dying.

Latter Day Saints

Latter Day Saints—who consider themselves restorationists rather than Protestants—also practice ritual anointing of the sick, as well as other forms of anointing. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often, but not exclusively consider anointing to be an ordinance (see category:Latter Day Saint ordinances, rituals, and symbolism).

Administration to the sick is one of the eight sacraments of the Community of Christ. In the Community of Christ the sacrament of administration to the sick has also been known to be used for people seeking spiritual, emotional or mental healing.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), article "unction"
  2. Apostolic Constitution Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Code of Canon Law, Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, etc.
  3. For example, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults
  4. Holy See Press Office bulletin
  5. Constitution on the Liturgy, 73
  6. Fourteenth Session
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Catholic Encyclopedia (1913): article "Extreme Unction"
  8. Community of Christ: The Sacraments
  9. Sacrament of Unction of the Sick
  10. Unction of the Sick; etc.
  11. Sacred Mysteries (sacraments)
  12. "Every priest, but only a priest, can validly administer the anointing of the sick" (Code of Canon Law, canon 1003 §1)
  13. Code of Canon Law, canon 1003 §3)
  14. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1532
  15. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1513
  16. Code of Canon Law, canon 999
  17. "The anointing of the sick can be administered to any member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger by reason of illness or old age" (Code of Canon Law, canon 1004 §1).
  18. Code of Canon Law, canon 1007
  19. Code of Canon Law, canon 1005
  20. Code of Canon Law, canon 1006
  21. Code of Canon Law, canon 1004 §2
  22. Pastoral Care of the Sick, 26
  23. Pastoral Care of the Sick, 111
  24. Pastoral Care of the Sick, 115-117
  25. Pastoral Care of the Sick, 118
  26. Pastoral Care of the Sick, 113
  27. Pastoral Care of the Sick, 119-123
  28. 28.0 28.1 Pastoral Care of the Sick, 124
  29. Pastoral Care of the Sick, 23
  30. Summorum Pontificum, art. 9
  31. Episcopal Church, 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p.860
  32. Episcopal Church, 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p.456
  33. Thirty-Nine Articles

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