Anointing of the Sick

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Anointing of the Sick is one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and is also administered in some Protestant Churches.

Apart from the use of one or other of the synonyms "anointing" and "unction", the sacrament, in which a priest anoints a seriously sick person with oil blessed specifically for that purpose, has also been known as the holy oil of the sick, the unction or blessing of consecrated oil, the unction of God, the office of the unction, and so on. The (Greek name is Εὐχέλαιον (Euchelaion), derived from εὐχή (prayer) and ἔλαιον (oil).

In past centuries, when the sacrament was in fact conferred only on those in immediate danger of death, it came to be known in the West as "Extreme Unction", i.e. "Final Anointing". It was then conferred only as one of the "Last Rites". The other "Last Rites" are Confession (if the dying person is physically unable to confess, at least absolution, conditional on the existence of contrition, is given), and the Eucharist, which when administered to the dying is known as "Viaticum", a word whose original meaning in Latin was "provision for a journey". The normal order of administration, unless there is imminent danger of death, is first Confession, then Anointing, then Viaticum.

The chief Biblical text for anointing of the sick is the Epistle of James:

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. And their prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make them well. And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
James 5:14-15

The Catholic Church sees the effects of the sacrament as follows. As the sacrament of Marriage gives grace for the married state, the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick gives grace for the state into which people enter through sickness. Through the sacrament is given a gift of the Holy Spirit that renews confidence and faith in God and strengthens against temptations to discouragement and anguish at the thought of death. It thus leads to spiritual healing and, sometimes, bodily healing as well.

The 2004 dictionary of the Greek language by George D. Babiniotis (Γεώργιος Δ. Μπαμπινιώτης) states that this sacrament of the Greek Orthodox Church "is customary in cases of sickness or when someone thinks he is having ill luck."


In the Catholic Church, the special olive oil used (Oil of the Sick) is blessed by the bishop of the diocese at the Chrism Mass he celebrates on Holy Thursday or on a day close to it. However, in case of necessity, the priest administering the sacrament may bless the oil within the framework of the celebration. The Eastern Orthodox Church follows a similar discipline.

In Protestant Churches and in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, any elder or minister may consecrate the oil they use for anointing the sick.

Anointing of the Sick can be administered on an individual basis according to the individual person's needs, at home or in a hospital, usually (in the case of Catholics) in connection with Confession and administration of Holy Communion. It can also be given to a group: Catholic parishes often offer a communal Anointing of the Sick once or twice a year, usually within celebration of Mass.

In the Latin Catholic Church, the priest anoints the sick person's forehead with oil (usually in the form of a cross), saying: "Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit." He then anoints the hands, while saying, "May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up." He may also, in accordance with local culture and traditions and the needs of the sick person, anoint other parts of the body, but without repeating the sacramental formula. Anointing other parts of the body was obligatory in the Western Church before the Second Vatican Council (when the sacramental form was "Through this holy anointing, may the Lord pardon you whatever sins you have committed"), and still is in the Eastern Churches. The full form of the Eastern Christian anointing requires the presence of seven priests, though this is rarely the case today.

Some Protestant churches, especially Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Pentecostals perform Anointing of the Sick in a form usually very different from Catholic and Orthodox practice, drawing inspiration directly from the James passage quoted above. Generally (but not necessarily) a minister performs the rite, with no set formula, and the sick person is prayed for. The ritual is not associated with nearness to death, and there is not necessarily any reference to forgiveness of sins. Catholic theology requires that administration of the sacrament be by a validly ordained priest, and thus holds that the rite in question, though helpful, like any prayer, for the sick person, is not a valid sacrament or channel of grace.

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This article incorporates text from the Catholic Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain.

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