As children, all Catholics learn that there are seven sacraments, and most of them are pretty big milestones in our lives. For example, baptism is our initiation into the Church, and holy orders and matrimony are lasting commitments that shape the very fabric of our day-to-day lives. Even confession and the Eucharist, which we can receive again and again as often as we want, are a big deal when we receive them for the first time. Nevertheless, there is one sacrament that tends to slip by almost unnoticed when we or someone we know receives it: anointing of the sick.
In fact, unless someone we know is on their deathbed, this sacrament does not even cross our minds most of the time. This is unfortunate because it is in fact vital for our spiritual health. It helps to prepare us for what is quite possibly the most important moment of our lives: our death. It helps to ensure that our souls are prepared for their journey home to God, making it much more important than our normal attitude towards it would indicate. Consequently, we would all do well to become familiar with the purpose and effects of this forgotten sacrament.
The Biblical Basis
To do this, let’s take a look at what Scripture says about it. It’s mentioned in only one short passage, but that passage is packed with meaning:
“Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15)
In this text, James doesn’t use the name “anointing of the sick,” but if we examine his words closely, we can see that he is in fact referring to it. He is talking about a special rite administered by priests (“the elders of the church” are priests) to those who are gravely ill (you don’t need a special healing rite if you just have the sniffles), and it includes an anointing with oil and the possibility of forgiveness for one’s sins. This is a perfect description of anointing of the sick, so we can be confident that everything James says in these two verses helps us to understand it better.
Healing the Body
When we begin to look at the purpose of this sacrament, we should notice that James doesn’t say that it should only be administered to those who are on their deathbeds. He does imply that the sacrament is intended for those who are gravely ill, but nowhere does the text say that it is only for those who practically have one foot in the grave. Rather, it simply says, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, that “[e]ach time a Christian falls seriously ill, he may receive the Anointing of the Sick” (CCC 1529).
Next, we read that “the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up,” implying that this anointing can heal the recipient from whatever illness or affliction he or she is suffering. However, we have to be careful here. The sacraments aren’t magic, and anointing of the sick is no exception. There is no guarantee that you will be healed if you receive it. Rather, as with all things, physical healing will come only “if it is conducive to the salvation of [one’s] soul” (CCC 1532). As a result, while this sacrament may heal our bodies, it has another, more important purpose as well.
Healing the Soul
The main purpose of anointing of the sick is to heal our souls. At first glance, James doesn’t seem to say much about this effect, but if we read his words carefully, we can see that it is in fact the sacrament’s primary goal. Take another look at how he describes the healing effects of this sacrament. He says that “the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up.” Specifically, look at the two verbs he uses: “save” and “raise.” While these words can and do refer to physical healing, they have another, deeper meaning as well.
Throughout the New Testament, these two verbs are used again and again to refer to our eternal salvation. The word “save” is used just like we use it in English today (for example, Ephesians 2:8), and the word “raise” is used to refer to Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of all the faithful departed when he comes again (for example, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20). This is significant because ancient Greek had several verbs that referred to healing, and James could have chosen any one of them. However, he chose two that were often used in the early Church to refer to our eternal salvation, and that was almost certainly intentional. It’s too much of a coincidence for him to just happen to have chosen two words that also refer to something deeper.
Consequently, we can see that the main purpose of anointing of the sick is to heal our souls and prepare them for eternity. It strengthens us for the last leg of our journey through this world and helps us to make it safely to our heavenly homeland. As the Catechism puts it, this sacrament provides us with “strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age” and “preparation for passing over to eternal life” (CCC 1532).
Forgiveness of Sins
And in case there is any doubt, the next thing James says seals the deal for us: “and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” Forgiveness of sins obviously has to do with our eternal salvation, so by including this in his description of the sacrament, James is making it clear that its primary purpose is spiritual rather than physical. Anointing of the sick forgives our sins because without that forgiveness, we can’t be saved.
However, we have to nuance this a bit. James doesn’t get into all the specifics of this effect, but the Church clarifies for us that this sacrament obtains “the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance” (CCC 1532). In other words, while this sacrament can forgive our sins, that’s usually supposed to happen in another sacrament, confession. If for some reason we are unable to confess our sins (for example, if we are unconscious), then we can have them forgiven by the anointing of the sick.
An Important Sacrament
Once we understand all this, we can see that anointing of the sick is a very important sacrament. Receiving it may not be a festive occasion like the others, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary. It sometimes heals our bodies, but more importantly, it equips us for the most important part of our lives, our journey home to God. It gives us the grace we need to stay faithful to him until our very last breath so we can obtain our eternal salvation and spend an eternity of bliss with him and all the saints.