Jesus as Healer
are filled with stories of Jesus healing countless people. The
evangelists are careful to note that he not only cured individuals
of their illness or infirmity, but forgave their sins. Jesus came to offer complete healing: body and soul.
His preferential love for the sick was so strong he identified
himself with them: “I was sick and you visited me” (Mt 25:36) and
“He took our infirmities and bore our diseases” (Mt 8:17; cf. Is
Those healings announced one that was even more
radical: the victory over sin and death. We will all suffer, we will
all die, but suffering and death – ultimately – do not win.
That’s why, by his passion and death, Jesus has given
new meaning to all suffering. From that point on, it can “configure
us to him and unite us in his redemptive Passion” (CCC, No.
1505). Christ invites us to follow him by taking up our own cross
(Cf. Mt 10:38).
By following him, we can get a new outlook on our own
illness, suffering and pain but also on all illness, suffering and
pain. We can get a new outlook on those who are sick and suffering.
We can get a truly Christian – a Christ-like – outlook as we imitate
the disciples he sent out during his public ministry. They preached
repentance, “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that
were sick and healed them” (Mk 6:12-13).
Jesus’ command to “heal the sick” (Mt 10:8) is one that
applies to the Church of the 21st century as well as the first.
That’s why it “strives to carry it out by taking care of the sick as
well as by accompanying them with her prayer and intercession” (CCC,
The Church believes in the life-giving presence of
Christ who remains the physician of souls and bodies. It’s through
the sacraments – and in a special way in the Eucharist – that this
presence is particularly active. It is always Christ who heals and
that can happen on a spiritual, emotional, spiritual and physical
In this sacrament, the Church guarantees there will be
healing. (The anointing of the sick, like all the seven sacraments, “efficacious.” It does what it says
it will do.) A priest is required because it involves forgiveness of
sins. There is emotional healing because an increase of trust, of
faith, can free a person from anxiety. Then, too, sometimes that
emotional healing involves a relationship that has been bruised or
broken. Not infrequently physical healing takes place but that
doesn’t mean there is always a physical cure or that death is
Among the seven sacraments, the Church says, it’s
anointing of the sick that is especially intended to strengthen
those who are being tried by illness. “Are any among you sick? They
should call on the elder of the church [the priests] and have them
pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The
prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up:
and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).
Who is This Sacrament For?
While that liturgical tradition continued, over the centuries the anointing of the sick was conferred
more and more exclusively on those at the point of death. That’s how
this sacrament received the name “extreme unction.” (“Extreme” – at
the very end. “Unction” – an anointing with oil.) Even so, the
bishops at the Council of Trent noted, “the liturgy has never failed
to beg the Lord that the sick person may recover his health if it
would be conducive to his salvation.”
Four centuries later, the bishops of Vatican II wrote:
“[The anointing of the sick] is not 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”
(“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” 73).
Today, when teaching about this sacrament, the Church
--If the sick person recovers his health, he can in the
case of another grave illness receive it again.
--If during the same illness his condition becomes more
serious, the sacrament can be repeated.
--It’s fitting to receive the anointing just prior to a
serious operation and the same holds true for the elderly whose
frailty becomes more pronounced.
--Someone who is unconscious can be anointed if it’s
believed he would have desired the sacrament.
At Home or in a Hospital or Nursing Home
There may be more uncertainty now among family members about when to
“call the priest” or even whether to make that call. As to the
whether, yes. God’s grace, Jesus’ touch, awaits. As to the when, any
time but it’s never too soon to call and talk to the priest about
it. (Go to:
“Q & A: How Do We Get Ready for the Priest’s Visit?”)
The Church tells pastors to encourage the faithful to
ask for the sacrament. The persons who are going to receive it
should prepare themselves “with good dispositions, assisted by their
pastor and the whole ecclesial community, which is invited to
surround the sick person in a special way through their prayers and
fraternal attention” (CCC, No. 1516).
Whether celebrated with only the priest and the patient
or with others, the anointing of the sick is a liturgical event.
It’s communal whether it takes place in a family home, hospital,
nursing home or church; whether it’s only one sick person or a whole
The Catechism explains that its “very fitting”
to celebrate the Anointing of the Sick within the Eucharist. If
possible, it can be preceded by the sacrament of Reconciliation and
followed by the Eucharist. “As the sacrament of Christ’s Passover
the Eucharist should always be the last sacrament of the earthly
journey, the ‘viaticum’ for ‘passing over’ to eternal life” (CCC,
No. 1517). ["Viaticum" comes from the Latin for "of or pertaining to
a road or a journey." In the Church, it means the final reception of
Just as baptism, confirmation and Eucharist can be
called the sacraments of initiation, so do reconciliation, the anointing
of the sick and the Eucharist as viaticum “constitute at the end of
Christian life ‘the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly
homeland’ or the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimage” (CCC,
In times past, those three – or reconciliation,
anointing and prayers for the dying, and viaticum – were termed “the
last rites.” That’s still a common expression.
The Rite Itself
actual rite itself is simple. There are the prayers of the Church,
the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil. (Typically, the
oil that's used was blessed by the bishop
during Holy Week.) In the Roman Catholic rite, the forehead and hands are
anointed. (In Eastern Rites, other parts of the body are, too.)
The matter for this sacrament is the anointing
with oil. The form is: “Through this holy anointing and his
most loving mercy, may the Lord assist you by the grace of the Holy
Spirit so that, when you have been freed from your sins, he may save
you and in his goodness raise you up.”
Again, the purpose of this sacrament is healing but
that doesn’t always mean a return to robust health. Jesus’ healing
touch may mean a longer life. It may mean a more “beautiful death”
because – released from fear or anxiety -- one is prepared to see
God face to face. It may mean – with the healing of the soul – he
or she will enjoy new life in heaven.
John Paul II on Suffering
In his 1984 apostolic letter on suffering (“Salvifici
Doloris”), Pope John Paul II wrote:
“Down through the centuries and generations it has been
seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular
power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special
“To this grace many saints, such as Saint Francis of
Assisi, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and others, owe their profound
conversion. A result of such a conversion is not only that the
individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering but above all
that he becomes a completely new person. He discovers a new
dimension, as it were, of his entire life and vocation.
“This discovery is a particular confirmation of the
spiritual greatness which in man surpasses the body in a way that is
completely beyond compare. When this body is gravely ill, totally
incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and
acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness
become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are
healthy and normal.
“This interior maturity and spiritual greatness in
suffering are certainly the result of a particular
conversion and cooperation with the grace of the Crucified
Redeemer. It is he himself who acts at the heart of human sufferings
through his Spirit of truth, through the consoling Spirit. It is he
who transforms, in a certain sense, the very substance of the
spiritual life, indicating for the person who suffers a place close
to himself. It is he—as the interior Master and Guide—who
reveals to the suffering brother and sister this wonderful
interchange, situated at the very heart of the mystery of the
“Suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil. But
Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good,
namely the good of eternal salvation. By his suffering on the Cross,
Christ reached the very roots of evil, of sin and death. He
conquered the author of evil, Satan, and his permanent rebellion
against the Creator. To the suffering brother or sister Christ
discloses and gradually reveals the horizons of the Kingdom
of God: the horizons of a world converted to the Creator, of a
world free from sin, a world being built on the saving power of
love. And slowly but effectively, Christ leads into this world, into
this Kingdom of the Father, suffering man, in a certain sense
through the very heart of his suffering.
“For suffering cannot be transformed and changed
by a grace from outside, but from within. And Christ through
his own salvific suffering is very much present in every human
suffering, and can act from within that suffering by the powers of
his Spirit of truth, his consoling Spirit.”
& A.: How Do We Get Ready for the Priest’s Visit?
Q. How do we get
ready for the priest’s visit?
A. The most important preparation is spiritual: praying for and with
the one who will receive the anointing.
Q. What do we need to have on hand?
A. Nothing. The priest brings the oil with him
Q. What about candles?
A. You don’t need to have any candles
Q. What about one of those special crosses for when the priest
A. It isn’t necessary. At one time, many Catholic homes had a “sick
call crucifix.” Two small candles and a bottle for holy water were
stored in the cross behind a removable front crucifix. The back
could be set on a table to hold the crucifix upright with slots for
the candles on each side.
Q. Is a funeral part of the “last rites”?
A. No. It’s a liturgical celebration that can be held in the nursing
home, the church or the cemetery. At each there’s the greeting of the
community, the liturgy of the Word, the Eucharist (when the
celebration takes place in a church) and the farewell.
Q. What’s the “farewell”?
A. It’s saying goodbye to the deceased and his final “commendation
to God” by the Church. In the Byzantine tradition, the “kiss of
farewell” is expressed this way:
By this final
greeting “we sing for his departure from this life and
separation from us, but also because there is a communion and a
reunion. For even dead, we are not at all separated from one
another, because we all run the same course and we will find one
another again in the same place. We shall never be separated,
for we live in Christ, and how we are united with Christ as we
go toward him . . . we shall all be together in Christ.”