Anointing of the Sick

By Fr. William Saunders

QUESTION: Recently, when I was in the hospital, a lady came to give me the Anointing of the Sick. She said she was sanctioned by the “Healing Ministry” of my parish to do this. When a priest came to anoint me, I told him that I had been anointed by a lady from my parish. He said that lay people cannot anoint, nor can deacons, so I did not receive the Sacrament. If my first anointing was not a sacrament, why does my parish have “healing ministers”?

The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick (formerly known as Extreme Unction) is administered only by a priest, or, of course, a bishop. A deacon, religious sister or lay person cannot administer this sacrament. The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies, “Only priests (bishops and presbyters) are ministers of the Anointing of the Sick” (No. 1516). The Code of Canon Law likewise asserts, “Every priest, and only a priest, validly administers the Anointing of the Sick” (Canon 1003).

The reason for the restriction to priests is because the “anointing of the sick” and the effects of the sacrament are inherently related to the Priesthood of Christ. During His public ministry, Jesus healed people — the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and mute, the hemorrhaging and the dying. His healing touched both body and soul. In most of the accounts of the healing miracles, the ill person comes to a deeper conviction of faith, and the witnesses know that “God has visited His people” (Luke 7:16). These healings, however, foreshadow the triumphant victory of our Lord over sin and death through his own Passion, death and Resurrection.

Our Lord entrusted His healing ministry to His apostles. He instructed the Apostles and sent them out on mission: “With that, they went off, preaching the need of repentance. They expelled many demons, anointed the sick with oil, and worked many cures” (Mk 6:12-13). At the Ascension, Jesus echoed this instruction to the apostles and declared that “the sick upon whom they lay their hands will recover” (Mk 16:18). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit conferred great gifts upon the Church, including healing; St. Paul recognized, “Through the Spirit one receives faith; by

the same Spirit another is given the gift of healing, and still another miraculous powers” (1 Cor 12:9-10). The apostle St. James provided a clear teaching regarding the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick: “Is there anyone sick among you? He should ask for the priests of the Church. They in turn are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. This prayer uttered in faith will reclaim the one who is ill, and the Lord will restore him to health. If he has committed any sins, forgiveness will be his” (James 5:14-15). In all, the Church has been continually mindful of our Lord’s command, “Heal the sick” (Mattthew 10:8). (The Council of Trent cited these passages to refute the charges of the Protestant leaders that Christ had not instituted this sacrament and had not conferred His healing ministry to priests.)

The administration of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is also restricted to a priest because the major effect is tied to the ministry of priests, namely, the forgiveness of sins. The sacrament not only provides the sick person with the forgiveness of sins but also the completion of Christian penance (Council of Trent,

“Doctrine on the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.”

Given this basis, a deacon or lay person who acts as “healing minister” or “hospital chaplain” should never give the impression that he or she is administering the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. They should never anoint a person with an oil, blessed or otherwise, that would suggest that he or she is anointing the person with the Oil of the Infirm, which is used in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. We must never mislead a person, albeit unintentionally, into thinking that he or she has received the graces of this most important sacrament of healing, when in fact they have not. A person’s soul could be in jeopardy because of some symbolic anointing that does nothing.

We must be very careful never to do anything that simulates a sacrament. When a loved one is seriously ill or near death, please call for a Catholic priest who alone can administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, which provides great graces for healing both body and soul.


Father William P. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and former dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. Father Saunders has been writing his weekly “Straight Answers” column for THE ARLINGTON CATHOLIC HERALD since 1993. The above article is one of those “Straight Answers” columns, and is made available courtesy of THE ARLINGTON CATHOLIC HERALD.