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Canon Law for Today

The sacrament of anointing of the sick is for "healing" not for "dying"

By Rev. Frank Morrisey


According to canon 998, by the anointing of the sick the church commends the faithful who are dangerously ill to the suffering and glorified Lord in order that he relieve and save them.

It is important to note the change in emphasis in relation to this sacrament. It is no longer presented as a sacrament to be administered in extremis (at the time of death) but, rather, as a sacrament of healing. Indeed, the sacrament for the dying is Viaticum ('for the journey'); holy communion is to be given to a dying person, with special prayers of commendation. It sometimes happens, though, that a dying person cannot swallow food. In this instance, other prayers may be offered for and with the dying person.

For this reason, 'dangerously ill' does not necessarily imply the danger of death. So, for instance, the sacrament can readily be administered before a patient undergoes an operation, or is sick from old age, or similar factors. For this reason, those who care for the sick, either at home or in a health care institution, should not delay asking for the sacrament for their patients.

Since canon 998 refers to 'the faithful' in general, i.e., the baptized, and not only to Catholics, in special cases other Christians may also be anointed if they desire the sacrament.

Two effects are mentioned in canon 998: 'relief' and 'salvation.' The 'relief' dimension refers to spiritual and physical comfort, while the 'saving' dimension refers to the forgiveness of sins.

It would be important not to confuse the faithful by offering them other anointings, thus leading them to think that they have received the sacrament itself. This has been occurring too frequently, particularly in some 'charismatic' contexts. Such anointings are never to occur within the context of the eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours, or within the celebration of other sacraments.

The ritual calls for the person to be able to receive the sacrament 'with full faith and devotion,' while still in possession of faculties.

It is interesting to note that canon 1003 refers to 'every priest' as the minister of the sacrament. This includes even a priest who has been dispensed or even dismissed from the clerical state. It refers to anyone who has been validly ordained, even if that person left the Catholic Church to join another ecclesial community. And although the sacrament is no longer restricted to danger of death cases, this provision is part of the very broad faculties granted to priests in danger of death cases - to allow all the faithful to avail themselves of the sacraments at this most important moment in their life.

Although there was much pressure on the Holy See to allow deacons to administer this sacrament, especially in a hospital setting, the church has consistently refused to allow deacons to do so. The latest official statement in this regard is from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Feb. 11, 2005. It is reserved to a priest. Priests may now carry the blessed oil with them, so as to be able to anoint a dying person in case of emergency. The canon does not state where or how the oil is to be carried. Thus, for instance, it could be kept in the priest"s car or carried in his pocket. It can also be kept in the rectory, and need not be kept in the church itself, although this is the proper place to reserve the blessed or consecrated oils.

Canon 1004 establishes a condition for the celebration of the sacrament. The person to be anointed must have reached the use of reason. Therefore, in the case of a seriously ill infant or young child (under the age of seven), anointing is not celebrated, unless there is a reasonable possibility that the child has sufficient use of reason to be strengthened by this sacrament. Rather, in the Latin church, the priority is for a dying child to receive the sacrament of confirmation.

A common situation arises for parish priests when it could be considered, according to appearances, that the person is already dead. In such an instance, the sacraments are not celebrated. However, a very broad interpretation can be given to the meaning of 'death,' and, within an hour or two after apparent departure, the sacrament could certainly be celebrated.

There is one negative provision in the code. According to canon 1007, the anointing of the sick is not to be conferred upon those who persevere obstinately in manifest grave sin.

The wording of this canon is exactly the same as that of canon 915, in relation to admission to the eucharist. Since this is a canon which restricts basic rights, canon 18 applies, and it is subject to a strict interpretation. This means that all four conditions must co-exist. If one of them is missing, the prohibition does not exist. In general, priests are inclined to give a broad interpretation in such instances and not refuse anointing to someone unless there are very obvious signs the person does not wish to receive the sacrament.

The healing graces are there for the faithful. There is no reason to be afraid of receiving the sacrament, as if it were one of the final acts of one"s life here on earth.

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 19th article in a series.