The reason for the restriction to priests is because the “anointing of the sick” and the effects of the sacrament are inherently related to the Priesthood of Christ. During His public ministry, Jesus healed people — the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and mute, the hemorrhaging and the dying. His healing touched both body and soul. In most of the accounts of the healing miracles, the ill person comes to a deeper conviction of faith, and the witnesses know that “God has visited His people” (Lk 7:16). These healings, however, foreshadow the triumphant victory of our Lord over sin and death through His own passion, death and resurrection.
Our Lord entrusted His healing ministry to His apostles. He instructed the apostles and sent them out on mission: “With that, they went off, preaching the need of repentance. They expelled many demons, anointed the sick with oil, and worked many cures” (Mk 6:12-13). At the Ascension scene, Jesus echoed this instruction to the apostles and declared that “the sick upon whom they lay their hands will recover” (Mk 16:18). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit conferred great gifts upon the Church, including healing: St. Paul recognized, “Through the Spirit one receives faith; by the same Spirit another is given the gift of healing, and still another miraculous powers” (I Cor 12:9-10). The Apostle St. James provided a clear teaching regarding the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick: “Is there anyone sick among you? He should ask for the priests of the Church.
They in turn are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. This prayer uttered in faith will reclaim the one who is ill, and the Lord will restore him to health. If he has committed any sins, forgiveness will be his” (Jas 5:14-15). In all, the Church has been continually mindful of our Lord's command, “Heal the sick” (Mt 10:8). (The Council of Trent cited these passages to refute the charges of the Protestant leaders that Christ had not instituted this sacrament and had not conferred His healing ministry to priest.)
The administration of the sacrament of anointing of the sick is also restricted to a priest because the major effect is tied to the ministry of priests, namely, the forgiveness of sins. The sacrament not only provides the sick person with the forgiveness of sins but also the completion of Christian penance (Council of Trent, Doctrine on the Sacrament of Extreme Unction).
Given this basis, a lay person who acts as an Eucharistic minister or “healing minister” should never give the impression that he is administering the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. He should never anoint a person with oil, blessed or otherwise, that would suggest that he is anointing the person with the Oil of the Infirm, which is used in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. We must never mislead a person, albeit unintentionally, into thinking that he has received the graces of this most important sacrament of healing, when in fact he has not. A person's soul could be in jeopardy because of some symbolic anointing that does nothing. We must be very careful never to do anything that simulates a sacrament. When a loved one is seriously ill or near death, please call for a priest, who alone can administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, which provides great graces for healing both body and soul.
If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806). This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.