ROME, 28 JULY 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: There are chaplains who minister at a local Catholic hospital and one
of them likes to use "oil" when she prays with the patients (Catholics
and non-Catholics). I feel that this causes confusion. One of
the chaplains attended a recent convention of chaplains and was told
by a presenter that this practice is allowed as long as they tell the
patients that they are not receiving the sacrament of the sick. I seem
to recall that years ago the Vatican came out with a document on the use
of oil by laypersons. Could you please comment?
A.S., Bridgeport, New York
A: The document you refer to is probably the 1997 instruction "On
Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained
Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest." This is an unusual document
insofar as it was formally issued by the Congregation for Clergy but was
co-signed by no fewer than eight Vatican congregations and councils,
including that of the Doctrine of the Faith. This gives the document a
certain weight with respect to its authority.
The document first presents the theological principles behind its
decisions before giving a series of practical considerations on aspects
of lay ministry in the Church. Then, having laid the groundwork, it
enunciates in 13 articles practical provisions and norms that outline
the possibilities and limits of the collaboration of the lay faithful in
The first article, on the "Need for an Appropriate Terminology,"
attempts to clarify the multiple uses of the expression "ministry." This
responds to an intuition of Pope John Paul II who, "In his address to
participants at the Symposium on 'Collaboration of the Lay Faithful with
the Priestly Ministry' …, emphasized the need to clarify and distinguish
the various meanings which have accrued to the term 'ministry' in
theological and canonical language."
The document accepts that the term "ministry" is applicable to the laity
in some cases:
"§3. The non-ordained faithful may be generically designated
'extraordinary ministers' when deputed by competent authority to
discharge, solely by way of supply, those offices mentioned in Canon
230, §3 and in Canons 943 and 1112. Naturally, the concrete term may be
applied to those to whom functions are canonically entrusted e.g.
catechists, acolytes, lectors etc.
"Temporary deputation for liturgical purposes
mentioned in Canon 230, §2
does not confer any special or permanent title on the non-ordained
However: "It is unlawful for the non-ordained faithful to assume titles
such as 'pastor,' 'chaplain,' 'coordinator,' 'moderator' or other such
similar titles which can confuse their role and that of the Pastor, who
is always a Bishop or Priest."
Another article, No. 9, is on "The Apostolate to the Sick." Regarding
our reader's question on the use of oil in a non-sacramental way, the
article is very clear:
"§1. […] The non-ordained faithful particularly assist the sick by being
with them in difficult moments, encouraging them to receive the
Sacraments of Penance and the Anointing of the Sick, by helping them to
have the disposition to make a good individual confession as well as to
prepare them to receive the Anointing of the Sick. In using sacramentals,
the non-ordained faithful should ensure that these are in no way
regarded as sacraments whose administration is proper and exclusive to
the Bishop and to the priest. Since they are not priests, in no instance
may the non-ordained perform anointings either with the Oil of the Sick
or any other oil.
"§2. With regard to the administration of this sacrament, ecclesiastical
legislation reiterates the theologically certain doctrine and the age
old usage of the Church which regards the priest as its only valid
minister. This norm is completely coherent with the theological mystery
signified and realized by means of priestly service.
"It must also be affirmed that the reservation of the ministry of
Anointing to the priest is related to the connection of this sacrament
to the forgiveness of sin and the worthy reception of the Holy
Eucharist. No other person may act as ordinary or extraordinary minister
of the sacrament since such constitutes simulation of the sacrament."
To many it might appear that this document is excessively restrictive in
its dispositions. Yet by providing clear guidelines and demarcations of
proper competences based on solid theological reasons, it actually
facilitates fruitful collaboration between priests and laity in a true
spirit of charity and service to Christ, the Church and to souls.