Hey, Father! Who Can Receive the Anointing of the Sick?
Who Can Receive the Anointing of the Sick?
– Nancy in Effingham
In its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that “‘extreme unction,’ which may also and more fittingly be called ‘anointing of the sick,’ is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one 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” (73). This teaching is repeated in paragraph 1514 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
To help us understand what the Church means by someone who begins to be in danger of death but who is not at the point of death, the Introduction to the Pastoral Care of the Sick says the Anointing of the Sick may be received by “those who are seriously ill” (5). It goes on to say that “a prudent or reasonably sure judgment, without scruple, is sufficient for deciding on the seriousness of an illness” and that, “if necessary, a doctor may be consulted” (8). The same Introduction also says that “great care and concern should be taken to see that those of the faithful whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age receives this sacrament” (8). A footnote here in the English translation of the original Latin text explains that “the sacrament may and should be given to anyone whose health is seriously impaired; on the other hand, it may not be given indiscriminately or to any person whose health is not seriously impaired.” All of this is a way of saying that the administration of this Sacrament is not a restricted as it once was but is not as open as some want to be today (note, you can receive the sacrament more than once).
The Introduction to the Pastoral Care of the Sick also explains that “a sick person may be anointed before a surgery whenever a serious illness is the reason for the surgery” (10). This raises the question of whether someone going for surgery for a broken bone may be anointed. While the cause of the surgery could not be said to be a serious illness, most canonists agree that the anointing can be done because there is some danger of death involved in the use of anesthesia.
Because the Anointing of the Sick also confers absolution from sins, children who have not reached the age of reason, generally understood to be at seven years of age (canon 97 § 2), cannot receive the sacrament. As the Introduction teaches, “sick children may be anointed if they have sufficient use of reason to be strengthened by this sacrament” (12). This is why the Code of Canon Law says the Anointing of the Sick “can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age” (canon 1004 §1).
If someone suffers from a chronic illness that places them in danger of death they may receive the Anointing of the Sick at the beginning of the illness and again during the course of the same illness (9).
Families sometimes wonder if someone who is in a coma can receive this Sacrament. The faithful in such a condition can be anointed if they “at least implicitly requested it when they were in control of their faculties” (canon 1006). Even so, it is better to call for a priest before someone ends up in this state.
To conclude, while the sacrament is reserved for those who are “seriously ill,” that in and of itself is subjective. So, as a priest, I would rather have you call me or one of my brother priests to ask for the Anointing of the Sick for you or for a loved one, than for you to ponder and debate if you or your loved one has reached being “seriously ill.” Too few people take advantage of this sacrament and unfortunately, sometimes, many people die without this great treasure from the church because people waited too long or forgot to call a priest.
Fr. Daren Zehnle is pastor at St. Augustine in Ashland and is the director for the Office of Divine Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.