Traditionally referred to as Extreme Unction or Last Rites, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick was
previously most commonly administered to the dying, for the remission of sins and the provision of
spiritual strength and health. In modern times, however, its use has been expanded to all who are gravely ill
or are about to undergo a serious operation, and the Church stresses a secondary effect of the sacrament: to
help a person recover his health. LikeConfession and Holy Communion, to which it is closely linked, the
Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick can be repeated as often as is necessary.
The modern celebration of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick recalls the early Christian use, going
back to biblical times. When Christ sent His disciples out to preach, "they cast out many devils, and
anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them" (Mark 6:13). James 5:14-15 ties physical healing
to the forgiveness of sins:
Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him,
anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man: and the
Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.
Who May Receive the Sacrament?:
Following this biblical understanding, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that:
The Anointing of the Sick "is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon
as anyone 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."
When in doubt, priests should err on the side of caution and provide the sacrament to the faithful who
The Form of the Sacrament:
The essential rite of the sacrament consists in the priest (or priests, in the case of the Eastern Churches)
laying hands on the sick, anointing him with blessed oil (usually olive oil blessed by a bishop, but in an
emergency, any vegetable oil will suffice), and praying "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 sin save you
and raise you up."
When circumstances permit, the Church recommends that the sacrament take place duringMass, or at least
that it be preceded by Confession and followed by Holy Communion.
The Minister of the Sacrament:
Only priests (including bishops) can administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, since, when the
sacrament was instituted during Christ's sending out of His disciples, it was confined to the men who would
become the original bishops of the Church.
The Effects of the Sacrament:
Received in faith and in a state of grace, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick provides the recipient
with a number of graces, including the fortitude to resist temptation in the face of death, when he is
weakest; a union with the Passion of Christ, which makes his suffering holy; and the grace to prepare for
death, so that he may meet God in hope rather than in fear. If the recipient was not able to receive the
Sacrament of Confession, Anointing also provides forgiveness of sins. And, if it will aid in the salvation of
his soul, Anointing may restore the recipient's health.
The Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick
6 of 7 in Series: The Essentials of Catholic Sacraments
The Catholic Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick used to be called Extreme Unction (last
anointing), not because it was the last sacrament a Catholic received before checking out of this
life but because it was the last anointing you received. Catholics are anointed with holy oils
at Baptism and Confirmation, which usually occur fairly early in life, so the third anointing
sacrament is received much later — hopefully.
The sacrament was also commonly called Last Rites, because before antibiotics and penicillin,
more people died than recovered from disease and injury. In the same vein, Extreme Unction was
the sign that nothing more could be done to prolong life, so the sick and injured were spiritually
preparing for death. Even today, many elderly Catholics get a little shiver of dread when the
Catholic hospital chaplain brings his purple stole and oils.
In reality, the Anointing of the Sick is to offer prayers for possible recovery, with the more
important intention to give strength to the soul of the sick person. Often, when people are sick,
they get discouraged, depressed, angry, annoyed, and afraid. The Church believes that the
sacrament offers a special grace to calm the spirit. If physical recovery is God’s will, so be it. If
not, then the person needs the grace, strength, and encouragement to bear the illness with
Administering the sacrament, the priest dips his finger in the oil stock, which often has cotton
inside to absorb the oil and keep it from spilling and going bad. He dabs some on his thumb and
then anoints the head, saying, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy
help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Then, if possible, he anoints the palms of the person,
saying, “May the Lord Who frees you from your sins, save you and raise you up.” If it’s an
emergency, such as a patient in the trauma center, the priest can anoint any part of the body
that’s available if the doctors and nurses are working on the head and hands of the injured
The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick absolves all sins the person is sorry for but did not
previouslyconfess in the Sacrament of Penance. If the person can’t make a confession, the
anointing compensates by forgiving sins she would’ve confessed were she able to do so.
Because of this aspect of absolving sins, deacons can’t anoint, but priests and bishops can.
The Catholic notion of redemptive suffering, that is, uniting your own suffering with the crucified
Jesus gives a person’s unavoidable suffering meaning and purpose. This notion is explicitly and
implicitly expressed in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
Because many sick and injured people recover nowadays, or at least go into remission, Catholics
are able to receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick as many times as needed. The elderly,
people with many ailments, and those with a deadly or serious disease, chronic pain and
suffering, or recurring illness, can and should be anointed often.
The Anointing of the Sick:
Comfort and Healing
The Anointing of the Sick is a remarkable sign of God's great love for us. In his
merciful efforts to bring us safely to himself in heaven, God seems to have gone to
the very limit.
Jesus has given us the sacrament of Baptism, in which original sin and all pre-
Baptismal sins are cleansed from the soul. Allowing for mankind's spiritual weakness,
Jesus also gave us the sacrament of Penance, by which post-Baptismal sins could be
forgiven. As though he were impatient lest a soul be delayed a single instant from its
entry into heaven, Jesus gave to his Church the power to remit the temporal
punishment due to sin, a power which the Church exercises in the granting of
Finally, as though to make doubly sure that no one, except through his own
deliberate fault, would lose heaven or even spend time in purgatory, Jesus instituted
the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
A special sacrament for the sick & suffering
The Catechism of the Catholic Church's section on the Anointing of the Sick defines
the purpose of the sacrament as "the conferral of a special grace on the Christian
experiencing the difficulties inherent in the condition of grave illness or old age."
In his Gospel St. Mark (6:12-13) gives us an indication of this sacrament of the sick
when he tells us that the apostles, going forth, "preached that men should repent,
and they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many sick people, and healed
However, the classical description which the Bible gives of the sacrament of
Anointing of the Sick is found in the Epistle of St. James:
Is any one among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters [priests] of the Church,
and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the
prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he be in
sins, they shall be forgiven him.
The Oil of the Sick
The oil used in administering the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is called Oil of
the Sick. It is one of the three Holy oils blessed by the bishop of the diocese at his
cathedral on Holy Thursday morning, the other two Holy Oils being Holy Chrism and
the Oil of Catechumens, which is used in Baptism.
Oil of the Sick is pure olive oil—nothing being added except the blessing of the
bishop. Its appropriateness as part of the outward sign of Anointing of the Sick is
evident from the healing and strengthening effects which are characteristic of olive
The essence of the sacrament lies in the actual anointing and the short prayer which
accompanies the anointing.
In giving the sacrament, the priest anoints the sick person on the forehead and
hands. During this anointing, the priest says: "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 sin save you and raise you up."
Counteracting undue fear
When faced with the danger of death, a person normally will experience a feeling of
This is to be expected. God has planted in human nature a strong attachment to life
which we commonly call the instinct for self-preservation. He has done so precisely
in order to assure that we take due care of our physical well-being and do not
expose ourselves to unnecessary danger to our life.
We need not feel ashamed, therefore, nor convicted of lack of faith if we find
ourselves apprehensive when the shadow of death looms over us.
To counteract this fear of death when it needs to be counteracted, and to remove all
cause for fear, God has given us the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
Graces of the sacrament
In common with all the sacraments, Anointing of the Sick confers sanctifying grace.
It is an increase in sanctifying grace that Anointing of the Sick gives, since it
presupposes that the recipient already is free from mortal sin. Thus there is
intensified in the soul that supernatural life, that oneness with God, which is the
source of all spiritual strength as it is also the measure of our capacity for the
happiness of heaven.
Besides this increase in sanctifying grace, Anointing of the Sick gives its own special
The primary purpose of the special grace of Anointing of the Sick is to comfort and to
strengthen the soul of the sick person.
This is the grace that quiets anxiety and dissipates fear.
It is the grace which enables the sick person to embrace God's will and to face
the possibility of death without apprehension.
It is the grace which gives the soul the strength to face and conquer whatever
temptations to doubt, despondency, or even despair may mark Satan's last
effort to seize this soul for himself.
Doubtless some who read this have already received Anointing of the Sick, perhaps
even several times. If so, they know by experience, as does the writer, what peace
of mind and confidence in God this sacrament bestows.
This spiritual tranquility and strength is further increased by the secondeffect of
Anointing of the Sick. This is the preparation of the soul for entrance into heaven by
the forgiveness of venial sins and the cleansing of the soul from the remains of sin.
If we are so blessed as to receive the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick in our last
illness, we may have every confidence that we shall enter into the happiness of
heaven immediately after death. We hope that our friends still will continue to pray
for us after death, since we never can be sure of the adequacy of our own
dispositions in receiving this sacrament; and if we do not need the prayers, someone
else will profit by them.
Yet we should have a high degree of confidence, once we have received Anointing of
the Sick, that we shall look upon the face of God moments after our soul leaves our
body. The soul has been cleansed from all that might hold it back from God, from
venial sins and from the temporal punishment due to sin.
The "remains of sin" from which Anointing of the Sick cleanses the soul include that
moral weakness of soul which is the result of sin, both of original sin and our own
sins. This weakness—even to the point of spiritual indifference—is likely to afflict that
person especially who has been a habitual sinner.
Here again, the soul of the sick person is tempered and prepared against the
possibility of any last-moment conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The Anointing of the Sick
Since Penance (Confession) is the sacrament by which God intends our mortal sins to
be forgiven, a sick person who has mortal sins to confess must receive the
sacrament of Penance before he receives the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
However, it is a comfort to know that Anointing of the Sick does forgive mortal sin
also if the critically ill person is unable to receive the sacrament of Penance. This
could happen, for example, if Anointing of the Sick were administered to an
unconscious person who had made an act of imperfect contrition for his mortal sins
before losing consciousness.
Healing the sick
It is plain that the principal purpose of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is a
spiritual one: to prepare the soul for death, if death is to eventuate.
However, there is a secondary and conditional effect of Anointing of the Sick: the
recovery of bodily health by the sick or injured person. The condition under which
this secondary effect can be expected to operate is stated by the Council of Trent:
"When it is expedient for the soul's salvation."
In other words, if it will be spiritually good for the sick person to recover, then his
recovery can with certainty be expected.
The recovery, however, will not be a sudden miraculous recovery.
God does not multiply marvels unnecessarily. Whenever possible he works through
natural causes. In this instance, recovery will be the result of the powers of nature,
stimulated by the graces of the sacrament.
By eliminating anxiety, abolishing fear, inspiring confidence in God with resignation
to his will, Anointing of the Sick reacts upon the bodily processes for the physical
betterment of the patient. It is evident that we have no right to expect this physical
result from Anointing of the Sick if the priest is not called until the body is hopelessly
ravaged by disease.
But perhaps "hopelessly" is not a good word. Every priest who has had much
experience in caring for the sick can recall some remarkable and unexpected
recoveries that have followed after Anointing of the Sick.
You can return to the main article on the Catholic Sacraments, or go to our home
page to see the other articles about the Catholic faith.
This article contains material adapted and abridged from Father Leo Trese's classic
book, The Faith Explained. That work is Nihil Obstat: Louis J. Putz, C.S.C., University
of Notre Dame. Imprimatur: Leo A. Pursley, D.D., Bishop of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
What is the sacrament of the
Anointing of the Sick?
The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick
celebrates and carries out the healing ministry
of Jesus. The sacrament of Anointing offers
persons strength, peace, and courage to
overcome the hardships of serious illness or
the increasing frailty of old age.
What is the foremost truth
celebrated in the sacrament
God's loving concerns for sick, suffering, or
dying people is the first and foremost truth
celebrated in the sacrament of Anointing.
What is the primary
emphasis of the sacrament
The sacrament does address the physical,
bodily conditions of illness, but the primary
emphasis of Anointing is to bring spiritual
strength and healing to sick and dying people.
Give two examples of
Gospel passages that show
Jesus healing people. What
In Mark 5:21-43, Jesus cured a Canaanite
woman's daughter and in John 9:1-12, Jesus
heals a man born blind. From these and many
enabled him to heal people? other Gospel accounts, we know that Jesus
healed because he felt compassion for hurting
people. He wanted to show people firsthand
the power and depth of God's compassion.
Working through him God's power enabled
Jesus to heal people and to work so many
Describe what it means to
say that Christians
themselves can be
In the Christian tradition, experiences of
suffering and healing are linked to service to
others. The sacrament of Anointing both
celebrates and affirms this reality. Experiences
of sickness and suffering are not in themselves
something to be sought after. But the can be
healing in a sense if they lead to compassion
for others. For instance, the best counselors
for drug-dependent people are often formerly
addicted persons, who themselves find great
healing by helping others.
What is the hopeful
message of the paschal
mystery with respect to
illness and death?
The sacrament of Anointing reminds us of the
hope-filled reality of Jesus' own suffering,
death, and Resurrection, and allows us to
reaffirm our faith in that reality. This is the
powerful, hopeful message of the paschal
mystery: The God of Jesus is the God of life.
And life, not death, will always have the last
Describe three different
options for celebrating the
sacrament of Anointing.
Several slightly different rites are available for
celebrating the sacrament of Anointing. The
sacrament of Anointing can be celebrated with
a whole faith community, either as a part of a
Mass or in a separate healing service. The
sacrament of Anointing can also be celebrated
by individuals who are seriously, but not
terminally, ill. Finally, the sacrament of
Anointing is also available to bring a special
comfort and peace to those persons who suffer
from a terminal illness or are close to death.
Name the six element
common to all forms of the
sacrament of Anointing.
What actions and words are
A number of elements are common to all forms
of celebrating the sacrament of Anointing: (1)
prayers, (2) a penitential rite, (3) readings from
the Scriptures, (4) the laying on of hands by the
priest, (5) anointing with oil on the forehead
and hands by the priest, and (6) Holy
Communion. Essential to the sacrament is the
anointing by the priest of the person's
forehead and hands while praying these words:
Through this holy anointing may the Lord in
his love and mercy help you with the grace of
the Holy Spirit. Amen. May the Lord who frees
you from sin save you and raise you up. Amen.
What do the laying on of
hands and receiving of
Communion emphasize in
Anointing, and in what other
sacraments are these rituals
The laying on of hands and receiving of
Communion emphasize that healing occurs in
the context of a caring community. The laying
on of hands is also received in the sacraments
of Confirmation, Reconciliation, and Holy
Orders, and Holy Communion is a symbolic
action used in Eucharist.
In the early church, how did As faithful followers of Christ, the Apostles and
Christians carry out the
healing mission of Jesus?
the first Christian communities carried on his
healing mission. The Letter of James, written to
mention members of the early Christian
church, suggests that prayer, the laying on of
hands, and the use of blessed oil were all
common healing practices among them.
What does Extreme Unction
mean? Why was this term
used for the sacrament of
Anointing until recent
The sacrament of Anointing came to seen as
preparation for death rather than as an act of
healing. By the twelfth century, the sacrament
was officially called Extreme Unction--a term
meaning "last anointing"; it was even called
"the last rites." For the most part, the
association of Anointing with impeding death
prevailed until changes were made in the
sacrament by the Second Vatican Council.
What purpose of Anointing
has been restored and
emphasized since Vatican
Today Anointing's original purpose--healing--
is once again emphasized. The official
designation of Anointing as part of the Catholic
church's overall pastoral care and concern for
sick and dying people indicates this fact.