The Anointing of the Sick

Dear Grace: I’ve attended three so-called “healing” Masses. At one, we were invited to approach as we do for Communion, extend our palms and receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

At a second, the priest passed through the congregation at a health care facility for the aged and anointed everyone. In both cases, holy oils were used and a formula intoned by the priest.

At a third, several men removed the portable altar and the priest stood before the tabernacle. First, the priest approached my sister, who is mentally disabled and in a wheelchair, and blessed her. Then the people who wanted to also be anointed lined up in the sanctuary. The priest approached each and each spoke to him, I presume asking a particular healing.

I left after that, but was told by a friend that two people were “slain by the spirit” and lay out cold on the floor. This does not strike me as very Catholic. I am confused by all of this. Can you explain what is going on when we see this sort of ministering in the Catholic Church?

Grace answers: In the three instances you mention, it is implied that the entire assembly was invited to come forward to receive the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Should this be true, it is definitely not normative because this sacrament is oriented for the time when “anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age [one or the other, or both].” In other words, it is for those who are truly sick — a serious illness, not simply a common cold — and in need of the grace of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with these conditions. This is the grace of the Holy Spirit (CCC #1514, 1520).

The sacrament should not be given to those who, by definition, are not ill or are not threatened by old age. In addition, each individual must request the sacrament and freely choose it. Abuse or confusion has led to ignoring the individual and sometimes has resulted in anointing people who do not care or do not even want it. There are many forms of illness at various stages in life, but one thing is clear: one must desire the sacrament in order to receive it.

The occurrence you are describing as “slain in the spirit” is often also referred to as the “baptism in the Holy Spirit” or “resting in the Spirit.” It is a natural phenomenon that is often characterized by what people believe to be an outward manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s presence, such as speaking in tongues, or swooning, or temporary loss of consciousness due to the powerful force of the Holy Spirit. This of course cannot be confirmed, although many, including both clergy and laity, have attested to having experienced it.

You may at times witness this phenomenon occur at a healing Mass, and it has perhaps led to some confusion. A possible reason for it happening may be due to the fact that in the liturgical celebration of the Church — in which the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is conferred — the Holy Spirit is invoked in a powerful way. The priest — in silence — lays hands on the sick person and prays over him or her for a restoration of health (CCC #1519). Those who properly dispose themselves to receive the fullness of all that God wishes to bestow may experience the Holy Spirit. Thus, you can see why some may be confused regarding the Church’s liturgical prayer for healing. But baptism in the spirit is not itself a sacrament. We can say instead, perhaps, that it could possibly be “related” to the sacraments, especially those of Christian initiation, in that it appears to make “more real” or renew these sacraments for the person through a revitalizing energy causing him or her to feel enlivened in the faith.

Although the Church recognizes that some persons may have the charism (gift) of healing spoken of in I Corinthians 12:9, Anointing of the Sick is not to be understood in the same way, as a wondrous healing. It is different. It is instead a sacramental action: anointing of the sick with oil and prayer “over” him or her and not simply “for” him or her. It is not only a prayer of intercession or petition; it is rather an efficacious action on the sick person — something is actually going to happen. And this is not always true in prayers for healing offered by persons said to possess the charism of healing.

Prayers for healing in liturgical celebrations must follow the norms set for the celebration of such services in the liturgical books approved by the Church's competent authority. Confusion between non-liturgical prayer meetings and liturgical celebrations is to be carefully avoided. Anything resembling hysteria, artificiality, theatricality or sensationalism, above all on the part of those who are in charge of such gatherings, must not take place (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Prayers for Healing, Part I, 3; Part II, Art. 2, Art. 4, § 2, Art. 5, § 2, § 3).

© Copyright 2005 Grace D. MacKinnon

For permission to reprint this article, or to have Grace speak at your event, contact Grace MacKinnon at

Grace MacKinnon holds an MA in theology and is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: You may also visit her online at

Grace MacKinnon will be a guest on EWTN’s Life on the Rock tonight at 8:00 pm EST.

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