This is perhaps the most misunderstood of the seven sacraments. It is - and it is not - "last rites?" for the dying. This sacrament heals the sick spiritually, and is intended for anyone who is seriously ill. The Anointing of the Sick may be given to the dying, but is certainly not limited to the dying. The sacrament is commonly administered. Seldom does a priest go a week without anointing at least one person. The sacrament can be repeated each time a person falls seriously ill, or when an illness takes a turn for the worse. Certainly anyone diagnosed with cancer, another life-threatening illness, or who faces major surgery should be anointed. Only a priest or bishop may administer this sacrament.
Anointing of the Sick is authorized by Scripture. We have, of course, multiple instances of praying for the sick in the ministry of Jesus himself, as well as many other Old and New Testament examples. The clearest warrant for the sacrament comes from the Letter of St. James: "Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters (priests and bishops) of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven" (James 5: 14-15).
This sacrament may be celebrated anywhere, and the ritual book gives the priest longer or shorter options for its celebration. The essential part of the sacrament is the placing of a small amount of blessed oil on the person (usually on the forehead and the palms of the hands when that is possible), while saying the words: "Through this Holy Anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord, who frees you from your sin, save you and raise you up."
What are the effects of this sacrament? The Council of Trent said that the sacrament provides: "the grace of the Holy Spirit, whose anointing takes away sins, if any still remain, and the remnants of sin. This anointing also raises up and strengthens the soul of the sick person, arousing a great confidence in the divine mercy. Thus sustained, the sick person may more easily bear the trials and hardships of sickness, more easily resist the temptations of the devil . . . and sometimes regain bodily health, if this is expedient for the health of the soul."
If you or someone close to you is a proper candidate for this sacrament, please do not wait until you are hospitalized or dying to request anointing. Modern hospitals work efficiently, and there usually is not time for anointing between admission to the hospital and surgery. It is always better when the anointing takes place while the recipient is conscious and aware, and when they are surrounded by family and friends who are praying together. If you need this sacrament, talk to one of the priests here at St. John's, or the priest in your own parish if you are a visitor.