The Anointing of the Sick: Definition, History & Symbols

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  • 0:02 The Anointing of the Sick
  • 0:52 Who Can Receive this…
  • 1:22 Effects of the Sacrament
  • 2:04 Symbols of the Sacrament
  • 3:32 History
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine the Catholic sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. After defining the sacrament, we will discuss the circumstances under which it is administered, its effects, its symbols, and finally, its history.

The Anointing of the Sick

The Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven Catholic sacraments. According to Catholic doctrine, this sacrament serves as a channel for special graces from God that comfort and heal, physically and/or spiritually, people who are seriously ill and in danger of death.

In the essential rite of the sacrament, a priest or bishop lays his hands on the sick person's head. Then he anoints the sick person on the forehead and palms of the hands with the oil of the sick, a holy oil that has been blessed by a bishop. During the anointing, the priest or bishop says the following words: '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.'

A priest anoints a sick person.
A priest anoints a sick person.

Who Can Receive This Sacrament?

Any baptized Catholic who has reached the age of reason (usually around seven years old) can receive this sacrament if he or she is gravely ill and in danger of death. Many Catholics also request the Anointing of the Sick before major surgery. Elderly Catholics who are experiencing the frailty and health challenges of old age are also welcome to receive the Anointing. The sacrament may be received more than once, even during the same illness if it progresses in seriousness.

Effects of the Sacrament

According to Catholic doctrine, the Anointing of the Sick affects the sick person in the following ways:

  • It provides courage, strength, and peace in the face of illness.
  • It helps the sick person to trust in God no matter what happens.
  • It gives the sick person grace to unite his or her suffering to the passion of Christ.
  • It provides physical and/or spiritual healing according to God's will.
  • It offers necessary graces so that the sick person may prepare for death.
  • It pours out consolation and hope.
  • It provides an opportunity for the forgiveness of sins even when the sick person is too ill to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Symbols of the Sacrament

As with all Catholic sacraments, Catholics believe the Anointing of the Sick uses human objects and actions as symbols to point to something beyond themselves, God's grace.

  • Oil has been recognized from ancient times for its properties of healing and cleansing. A person who has been anointed with oil is set apart for a special purpose. In terms of the sacrament, oil symbolizes healing from illness, cleansing from sin, and consecration (i.e., setting apart as holy) to God.
  • The priest or bishop often anoints the sick person's forehead and palms with the sign of the cross, which reminds Catholics that their salvation comes through the cross of Jesus Christ, and that they are called to unite their sufferings to those of Jesus.
  • The forehead is one of the most visible places on the human body. Catholics believe that their faith in Christ should be visible through their actions. An anointing on the forehead also symbolizes the need to know Christ and follow Him.
  • Human hands are often associated with human activity. When sick people are anointed on the hands, they are reminded that they must turn all their activity over to Christ. They must place themselves under His will, even if He wills their earthly activity to cease.
  • The laying on of hands by the priest or bishop comforts the sick person but also symbolizes the power of God entering the sick person through the mediation of the priest or bishop.

Holy oils
Holy oils

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