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Anointing, The Sacrament of Healing and Mercy
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The sacrament of Anointing is the new name given by the Second Vatican Council to the sacrament of Extreme Unction. As might be expected, all the founders of Protestantism denied that Christ instituted this sacrament. At most, they would admit that Anointing of the Sick was a charism of bodily healing. That is why the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century issued no less than four infallible declarations defining both Christs institution of Anointing and its three-fold purpose of conferring grace, remitting sin, and giving strength of body and soul to the sick who receive this sacrament.
We believe that Christ personally instituted the sacrament of Anointing. As described by Saint Mark, the apostles anointed with oil, many sick people, and healed them (Mk 6:13). More specifically, the apostle James asks, Is anyone among you sick? Then he prescribes, Let him bring in the priests 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 be in sins, they shall be forgiven him (James 5:15-16).
I hesitate quoting the long diatribe of John Calvin against the Catholic Churchs interpretation of this passage from St. James. Calvins language is positively vicious in rejecting the Churchs understanding that St. James is here referring to the conferral of the sacrament of Anointing.
Over the centuries, this sacrament was commonly called Extreme Unction. Whenever possible, all the senses were to be anointed, that is the eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet. The words to be used by the priest were, By this holy anointing and His most gracious mercy, may the Lord pardon you whatever sins you have committed by your sight, hearing, smell, taste, speech, touch and walk. Amen.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the only senses that need be anointed are the forehead and the hands. In case of necessity, it can be just the forehead or, in fact, any part of the body.
A literal translation of the words of anointing now used in the Latin rite read, Through this holy anointing and His most loving mercy, may the Lord assist you by the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that, freed from your sins, He may save you, and in His goodness raise you up.
Two things especially should be noted in the Churchs new liturgy. Although the term Extreme Unction may be used, the stress now is on anointing of the sick, even though they are not in immediate danger of death. Moreover, the new ritual emphasizes the positive benefits of this sacrament, without, of course, denying its removal of sin.
It is worth examining, without going into great detail, what are the new provisions for the administration of the sacrament of Anointing. To begin with, the sickness required for its valid administration need not be fatal; it should however be grave. Anointing may also be given to a person preparing for surgery, if the latter is for a serious illness. Aged people can also be anointed even if they are not in immediate danger of death. Also young children can receive this sacrament, provided they have reached the age of reason. The reason is obvious; anointing is intended for persons who are capable of committing sin.
On a very practical level, unconscious persons may and should be anointed. Of course, the anointing ought to be conditional, where the condition is that the one being anointed had been baptized, and presumably had at least a salutary fear of Gods penalty with a sincere repentance for past sins.
What about apparently dead people? Should they be anointed? Emphatically yes. We now have record of persons who had been apparently dead for as long as eight hours, without breathing or any blood circulation, yet they recovered consciousness and were restored to health.
The oil to be used in anointing should normally be olive oil, specially blessed by a bishop. In Latin, it is called oleum infirmorum, that is oil of the sick. However, in case of emergency any vegetable oil may be used, provided the oil had been blessed by a priest.
The Church encourages the faithful to seek anointing long before they are in imminent danger of death. Also a concelebrated ceremony of anointing, with several priests, is provided by the New Liturgy. Finally, whenever feasible, the anointing should be a public ceremony with several, even many, of the faithful participating in the Liturgy.
It is no exaggeration to say that the sacrament of Anointing is not well understood by most Catholics. This is partly due to the fact that, over the centuries, the sacrament was generally conferred only on persons who were fatally sick or injured and in close danger of death.
But more important, many of the faithful do not realize that this sacrament does not require what we call perfect contrition for its valid administration and remission of even grave sins.
True, anointing can be given only to people who are sorry for their sins. However, we must immediately distinguish. First of all the sorrow for our sin need not be present at the time a person is anointed. The sorrow for sin may go back even years before a person is in danger of death. Only one condition must be fulfilled. The now sick and dying person at least at some time between having gravely sinned and the time of Anointing had been sincerely sorry for having offended God by grave sin. Thus Anointing can be given to people who had sinned years before, it may be years before they had repented - had been sorry. Nevertheless, though years may have elapsed between the sorrow and the anointing, the sorrow is still effected for the valid administration of the sacrament of Anointing. To repeat, and re-emphasize, the sorrow necessary for the valid reception of Anointing need be only the fear of Gods punishments. In other words, the same basic sorrow which is necessary for the sacrament of Penance is necessary for the sacrament of Anointing.
Merciful Effects of Anointing
As might be expected, the first merciful effect of the sacrament of Anointing is the removal of both guilt and penalty for sin. Guilt, as we know, is the loss of grace incurred by every sin. If the sin is mortal, then by definition the grace which is lost is sanctifying grace or that friendship with God which is necessary for entering heaven. If the sin is venial, then more or less of both the sanctifying grace and the title to actual graces are forfeited. Anointing restores sanctifying grace whenever the sacrament is received by a person in grave sin. The restoration of the degree of sanctifying grace and the title to actual graces depends on the spiritual dispositions of the person at the time of anointing.
To be stressed is that the eternal punishment due to unrepentant mortal sins is always removed by every valid reception of the sacrament of Anointing. To be re-stressed is the importance of anointing to receive before death to insure salvation, which means deliverance from the eternal punishment of hell.
Is it possible for this sacrament to remove all temporal punishment due to committed sins? Yes, indeed this is another reason why persons should receive anointing before they enter eternity. In this sense, anointing is the answer to the closing petition of the Lords Prayer when we ask, deliver us from evil, where the deliverance includes liberation even from purgatory.
Supernatural Patience and Courage
During my fifty years in the priesthood, I have assisted enough people on their deathbed to know how we need extraordinary patience and courage on the threshold to eternity.
Somewhere near the center of what the Holy Father calls the culture of death is the spontaneous dread of pain. It takes above ordinary faith to see the value of suffering, especially the suffering that many people experience on their deathbed. How they need extraordinary grace from God to not only suffer patiently but, dare I say, lovingly. Among the marvelous gifts of the sacrament of Anointing is the supernatural, which means superhuman, acceptance of pain and seeing it as the blessing of a loving God.
However, it is not only extraordinary patience which anointing confers. It is also superhuman courage in the voluntary acceptance of death in union with Jesus Christ who, having joy set before Him, chose the cross.
A good practice that I highly recommend is the daily anticipation of our bodily death. Call it the Daily Acceptance of Death. It goes like this:
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I accept from your hands, whatever kind of death it may please you to send me today (tonight), with all its pains, penalties and sorrows, in reparation for my sins, for the souls in purgatory, for the conversion of sinners, for all those who will die today (tonight), and for your greater glory. Amen.
You might call this prayer a daily preparation for the sacrament of Anointing that, please God, we shall receive on the eve of entering everlasting life.
Resistance of the Devil
The sacrament of Anointing also has the power of enabling us to resist the unique temptations of the evil spirit. Again I can speak from experience. It is not uncommon for people who had lived a very good life to nevertheless be tried by the devil as they are ready to leave this valley of tears. As we know from the writings of the saints, the favorite tactic of the evil spirit is to try to seduce good people by temptations to discouragement and despair.
St. Francis de Sales is especially clear in this matter. There are two kinds of temptations, he explains. There are temptations that we are to openly resist and temptations that we should ignore. It is this latter kind of seduction which virtuous people must be able to resist as they face the dawn of eternity. The sacrament of Anointing provides us with the wisdom and fortitude to ignore the father of lies as he tries to beguile faithful souls by tempting them to despondency and the loss of hope in a loving God.
We have spoken of Penance as the sacrament of peace. We could just as well identify Anointing as the giver of peace during the crucial days, hours or even minutes on the brink of eternity.
If there is one thing the evil spirit wants to take away from faithful souls before they leave this world it is peace of mind and peace of heart. That is why the sacrament of Anointing is such a precious treasure that insures us of dying in Gods peace. This means in peace of mind because we are sure of Gods mercy to us sinners. It means peace of heart because we are confident of being in Gods grace.
Restoration of Health
It is a defined article of the Catholic faith that Anointing sometimes produces the restoration of bodily health even in persons who were at the point of death. It is not coincidental that St. James distinguishes between two effects of this sacrament, one effect is to save a sick person and raise him up. The other effect is to forgive a sinner who is estranged from God.
Moreover, as we have seen, the new ritual for administering Anointing distinguishes between receiving grace from the Holy Spirit and being raised up. In other words, the primary purpose of Anointing is to receive divine grace. But another purpose is to heal the body.
What is the Churchs teaching on the efficacy of this sacrament to heal the human body? This effect is not produced directly in a miraculous manner. Rather Anointing indirectly influences the body through its healing of the human soul. We know on faith that, had there been no sin, there would had been no bodily sickness or death. Consequently, while the soul is being healed the body benefits accordingly.
One important proviso must be added. In Gods providence, this sacrament restores bodily health conditionally. The condition is that the healing of the body is of spiritual benefit to the soul.
Over the years I have more than once discussed this matter with the priest chaplains in Catholic hospitals. They have told me that Anointing of persons who are expected to die has frequently, even regularly, restored these people to bodily health. Thus a Catholic chaplain in one of the largest hospitals in Chicago told me that he had just stopped counting the number of dying persons who were restored to health after receiving this sacrament.
To be emphasized, however, is that this is not the primary purpose of Anointing. As instituted by Christ, the main reason is to restore persons in grave bodily sickness to divine grace if they are estranged from God by mortal sin, to give them the courage they need in their passage from time into eternity, and, depending on their dispositions, to remove much, or even all, of the penalties which they may still deserve for their sins they have committed. The more fervent their resignation to the divine will and the more deeply they love God, their purgatory is correspondingly lessened or may even be totally removed as their immortal souls leave their mortal bodies.
Anointing and Purgatory
We would not be doing justice to Anointing if we did not point out how invaluable this sacrament is in reducing the length of our stay in purgatory or even enabling us to enter the beatific vision the moment our bodies die.
For most Catholics, purgatory is something in which they believe but which does not deeply influence their lives. This is unfortunate because one of the great blessings of Anointing, as we have just said, is to shorten our stay in purgatory or even enable us to enter heaven without purgation when our souls leave our bodies.
No one has improved on St. Catherine of Genoas description of the pains in purgatory. Let me just share with you several quotations.
No tongue can tell nor explain, no mind understand, the grievousness of Purgatory. But I, though I see that there is in Purgatory as much pain as in Hell, yet see the soul which has the least stain of imperfection accepting Purgatory, as I have said, as though it were a mercy, and holding its pains of no account as compared with the least stain which hinders a soul in its love. I seem to see that the pain which souls in Purgatory endure because of whatever in them displeases God, that is what they have wilfully done against His so great goodness, is greater than any other pain they feel in Purgatory. And this is because, being in grace, they see the truth and the grievousness of the hindrance which stays them from drawing near to God.
Another statement of St. Catherine deserves to be memorized.
Gold which has been purified to a certain point ceases to suffer any diminution from the action of fire, however great it be; for the fire does not destroy gold, but only the dross that it may chance to have. In like manner, the divine fire acts on souls: God holds them in the furnace until every defect has been burnt away and He has brought them each in his own degree to a certain standard of perfection. Thus purified, they rest in God without any allow of self, they become impassible because there is nothing left to be consumed.
We could quote not only Catherine of Genoa but Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and a host of other masters of the spiritual life who are unsparing in their description of the pains of purgatory.
Let us be clear. Sin and pain go together as cause and effect. Had there been no sin in the world, there would be no pain. Absolutely speaking we have only one choice. As sinners we must either suffer here on earth or, even though we die in the grace of God, suffer in purgatory.
But there is one more choice. What is that? If we receive the sacrament of Anointing before bodily death, we can deserve to enter heaven immediately without the purgatorial sufferings that we had deserved. No human language can exaggerate the importance of being anointed before we enter eternity. This sacrament has the power of bringing us immediately in to the presence of God for whom we were made.
Lord Jesus, we are deeply grateful for your institution of the sacrament of Anointing. It is your divine will that all of us will die in body as the price we have to pay for our sins. However, it is also by your divine grace that we can see you face to face the moment you call us into eternity. If we are anointed by your sacrament of mercy, we may hope to be received in your divine arms, provided our hearts are totally detached from every creature here on earth and totally united with your Sacred Heart. Amen.
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