People might often be concerned that a friend or loved one who receives anointing of the sick, whether in the hospital or their home, might be nearing death.

But receiving the church’s sacrament of physical and spiritual healing is not always a prelude to one’s passing.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “In the church’s sacrament of anointing of the sick, through the ministry of the priest, it is Jesus who touches the sick to heal them from sin  and sometimes even from physical ailment. His cures were signs of the arrival of the kingdom of God. The core message of his healing tells us of his plan to conquer sin and death by his dying and rising.”

Jesus’ healing ministry continues through the church, passed on when he instructed the apostles and sent them out on their 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 his ascension, Jesus instructed the apostles and declared that “the sick upon whom they lay their hands will recover” (Mk 16:18).      

According to the USCCB, the Rite of Anointing reveals there is no need to wait until a person is at the point of death to receive the sacrament. A careful judgment about the serious nature of the illness is sufficient.

The anointing of the sick is given with the hope that, if it’s God’s will, the person will be physically healed from illness. But the primary outcome is spiritual healing, in that the one being anointed will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, so they can cope with the difficulties that infirmities of illness and old age bring.

Pope Innocent I (d. 417), in his letter of instruction to Decentius, asserted that the letter of St. James clearly refers to the sacrament and that the bishop must bless the oil, a bishop or priest must administer the sacrament, and the sacrament complements the sacrament of penance, conveying the forgiveness of sin.

About the 12th century, the sacrament became commonly known as “Extreme Unction,” probably for two reasons:  This anointing concluded the series of sacramental anointings during a person’s spiritual life – beginning at baptism and followed by confirmation and possibly holy orders, and concluding with extreme unction; and this anointing more and more was used for those in “extremis” or at the point of death.

The Second Vatican Council addressed the usage of the sacrament in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963): “‘Extreme Unction,’ which may also and more fittingly be called ‘anointing of the sick,’ is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death.  Hence, as soon as one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived” (#73). 

The anointing of the sick consists essentially of a priest anointing the forehead and hands of the sick person. The anointing is accompanied by the liturgical prayer of the celebrant asking for the special grace of this sacrament.

Anointing of the sick sometimes is confused with the “last rites,” which are given to a Catholic who is gravely ill or beginning to be in danger of death. But the phrase “last rites” refers to the three sacraments  confession, anointing of the sick and final holy Communion (referred to as viaticum or “food for the journey)” as they cross over into eternal life.

People are urged to plan for their own spiritual care or the care of their loved ones in a timely manner by working with their church parish to avoid being in the process of dying and a priest is not available.

All of the sacraments are repeatable if an illness worsens, or if a person relapses after regaining health.