ROME, 4 JULY 2006 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My wife and I go to Mass on first Saturdays to this church where the
normal priest offers confession, Mass and anointing of the sick. Now,
the normal priest was not there, but our new priest stood in for the
normal priest. When the Mass was over the priest said: "Before, I give
the anointing of the sick, I want it to be known that I will give it
only to those who are: sick, dying, have a serious illness, or in danger
of losing their life. Too many people abuse this sacrament." Was he
right in making that statement?
J.C., Corpus Christi, Texas
A: I have no idea if the manner or tone of the priest's statement was
done with due pastoral tact. But he is correct as to the substance of
the norms for administering the anointing of the sick.
Under present norms the sacrament may be administered "as soon as any
one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old
age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly
already arrived" (Code of Canon Law 1004 §1).
The provisions of the ritual "for the anointing of the sick and their
pastoral care," issued by the Holy See, clarifies the conditions under
which the sacrament may be received.
Regarding the judgment as to the seriousness of the illness the document
states that: "It is sufficient to have a prudent or probable judgment
about its seriousness. All anxiety about the matter should be put aside
and, if necessary, the physician might be consulted."
Also: "This sacrament can be repeated if the sick person had recovered
after his previous reception of anointing. It can also be conferred
again if, during the same illness, his dangerous condition becomes more
Major surgery is also a sufficient motivation for receiving the
sacrament even if the condition is not in itself immediately
life-threatening: "Before a surgical section (popularly 'operation'),
holy anointing can be given to the sick person as often as the dangerous
illness is the cause of this surgery."
Here the Church distinguishes between an illness that might not of
itself warrant reception of the sacrament, and the same illness
preceding surgery. In the latter case, anointing becomes warranted.
With reference to the elderly: "Anointing can be conferred on the aged
who are greatly weakened in strength, even though there is no sign of a
dangerous illness." In this case the anointing may be repeated
periodically as old age progresses.
The sacrament can also be administered to sick children: "from the time
they have reached the use of reason, so that they can be strengthened by
this sacrament." Consequently the motive for conferring the sacrament is
not (though it may include) remission of their personal sins, but to
obtain the strength they may need either for bearing their sufferings,
or to overcome discouragement or, if it is God's will, to be restored to
The sacrament may also be conferred on the unconscious if "as believers
they would likely have asked for the holy anointing while they were in
possession of their faculties." Likewise, if a person is apparently dead
but the priest "is in doubt whether the sick person is really dead, he
can give him the sacrament conditionally."
Therefore, although the Church's dispositions allow for a generous
administration of the anointing of the sick, the sacrament is ordered
toward the gravely ill from a physical condition. It should not be
administered generally and indiscriminately. ZE06070424
* * *
Follow-up: Anointing of the Sick [7-18-2006]
Our piece on the anointing of the sick July 4 brought to mind a couple
of related questions. A California reader asked:
"As my father was dying a year ago, the priest came to the house for the
last rites. My father was prepared and expected to go to confession but
the priest said it was not necessary. I pointed out to the priest that
it had been at least 40 years since my father's last confession, but the
priest still declared it unnecessary and proceeded to anoint my father
and give him holy Communion.
"Is anointing of the sick a sacrament of the living
where one needs to be in the state of sanctifying grace to receive it
or of the dead
such as baptism and penance, where one need not be in the state of grace
to receive it?"
Although many sacramental theologians have moved away from the
distinction between sacraments of the living and of the dead, this
distinction does express a reality regarding the necessity of being in
the state of grace in order to fruitfully receive most sacraments.
The, sacrament of anointing of the sick does forgive sins but this is
not its principal effect. The Catechism, summarizing the effects of this
sacrament, says in No. 1532:
"The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as
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
the preparation for passing over to eternal life."
Thus, a person who is able and willing, should always be offered the
opportunity to confess before receiving the anointing of the sick as
this usually provides an added consolation and grace in the face of the
difficulties of illness. The sacrament's power to forgive sins is
usually tied to the person's being unable to go to confession.
In the precise case at hand, the priest, perhaps because of an erroneous
idea regarding the effects of the sacrament, did not act according to
the mind of the Church when he refused to hear the person's confession.
This ignorance, coupled with the fact that the person was prepared and
repentant, certainly meant that in this case he was "unable to receive
forgiveness through the sacrament of penance" and so the anointing
supplied the effect of forgiveness and the dying man received viaticum
in the state of grace.
Another Californian asks: "Is the sacrament of the anointing of the sick
reserved solely for those suffering a terminal illness or for those
preparing to undergo surgery? May persons suffering from chronic
illness, mental illness, spiritual illness and drug addiction receive
As mentioned in our previous column the sacrament is for grave (but not
necessarily terminal) physical illness. The sacrament may thus be given
to people who have a grave chronic illness if this malady somehow places
them in danger of death.
At least up till now, Catholic doctrine has not seen this sacrament as
necessary for non life-threatening chronic illnesses, mental illnesses
and conditions such as drug addiction and alcoholism. It could be given
however, in the case of a dangerous situation that results from such
conditions as a drug overdose.
For these ailments the usual means of grace are more often than not
sufficient in helping us to overcome these burdens or at least bear
patiently the trials permitted by God.
Among these means are frequent recourse to the sacraments of
reconciliation and Eucharist, closeness to the Blessed Mother, as well
as prayer and seeking spiritual guidance. ZE06071816