Ministry to the Sick
Part 3: Theological Issues

Chapter s33 The Minister of the Sacrament of Anointing

Preliminary Questions

Bibliography

1. Apostolic [0-399]

2. Patristic [400-799] 

3. Early Medieval [800-1199]

4. Medieval [1200-1299]

5. Late Medieval [1300-1499]

6. Reformation [1500-1699]

7. After Trent [1700-1899]

8. Before Vatican II [1900-1959]

9. Vatican II [1960-1975]

10. After Vatican II [1975-2050]

The 1983 Code of Canon Law

Ongoing Theological Discussion Regarding the Minister of the Sacrament

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

Why is it that lay ministers can take the consecrated Eucharist to the sick and administer the Eucharist (Holy Communion), but they cannot take the Blessed Oil of the Sick to the sick and administer the Anointing of the Sick?

Is it because the Anointing, when necessary, "forgives sins" and only the ordained priest has the "power of jurisdiction" to forgive sins?  But when a layperson gives Holy Communion to a sick person who has committed a mortal sin and cannot get to a priest to receive sacramental absolution, but has made an act of perfect contrition, the Eucharist (administered by the lay minister) forgives the persons' sins;  why is not the oil a similar case?

Bibliography

Pierre-Marie Gy, O.P., "La question du ministre de l'onction des malades,"  La Maison-Dieu, #205, 1996:1, pp 15-24. 

Pierre Jounel, "La communion des malades,"  La Maison-Dieu, #205, 1996:1, pp 107-115. 

"Anointing of the Sick:  Theological Issues," 63 (2001) 233-254, Susan K. Woods. SCL

"Ministry to the Sick and Dying in View of the Shortage of Priests," 63 (2001) 127-146, John Huels, OSM

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1. Apostolic [0-399] 

For an explanation of the ten divisions of the History Grid, see Chapter d21 Overview of the History of Liturgy

Stage 1:  Jesus  Jesus Christ revels the compassionate love of the Triune God. This divine compassion for the sick, dying, and bereaved is manifested on ever page of Sacred Scripture.

Stage 2:  Apostles and Apostolic Church    This sacrament (Jesus himself) is manifested in the faith record of the Scriptures.  The disciples go out and anoint with oil and heal those who are ill. The two key references which grounded the later theological understanding of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick are Mark and James.  The "elders / presbyters" in James are not necessarily "bishops" or "presbyters" in our contemporary theological understanding but they have some official role in the community.  Note however that the emphasis is not on the minister or the ritual but on PRESENCE and PRAYER. 

Stage 3:  The Sub-Apostolic Church    As the community grows and develops, the activity of the healing community is "overseen"  by the leader of the local community (overseer, bishop) and he manages this healing activity by liturgically blessing the oil which then the community can then use in healing gestures.  (Letter to the Bishop of Gubbio).  Women religious superiors, lay people, etc. use the blessed oil and administer the anointing (sacrament).  

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2. Patristic [400-799]

The earliest evidence of oil being used in the West to anoint the sick is found in a letter of Pope Innocent I to Bishop Decent of Gubbio in 416 CE:

"Your next question concerns the text from the epistle of the blessed apostle James: 'Is any among you sick? Let him call for 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.' This must undoubtedly be accepted and understood as referring to the oil of Chrism, prepared by the bishop, which can be used for anointing not only by priests but also by all Christians whenever they themselves or their people are in need of it. The questions whether the bishop can do what undoubtedly can be done by priests seems superfluous, for priests are mentioned simply because bishops are prevented by other occupations and cannot visit the sick. But if a bishop is in a position to do so and thinks it proper, he, to whom it belongs to prepare the Chrism, can himself without hesitation visit the sick to bless them and anoint them for it is of the nature of a sacrament.  How could one think that one kind of sacrament should be allowed to those to whom the rest is denied."

Richstatter Commentary:  
1)  the community leader blessed the oil (just as the community leader presides over all prayer acts of the community)
2)  the oil is "Chrism" -- not a separate oil for the sick;
3)  the oil us used as medicine;
4)  the blessed oil is taken home (by the baptized) and applied to where it hurt / Or they drank it for internal ills;
5)  the emphasis is on the prayer of the church more than on the oil.
6)  The anointing with oil blessed by the bishop is recommended to the faithful in order to correct and "substitute" for the use of "magic" remedies.

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3. Early Medieval [800-1199]

[Aristotle's understanding of humans composed of body and soul enters theological understandings.]  Extreme Unction is "disconnected" from physical healing (body) and understood as primarily as a sacrament which forgives sins (soul).  As only a priest can forgive sins (having the "power of jurisdiction"), only a priest can anoint with the sacramental oil.   The ancient tradition of lay anointing is lost.

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4. Medieval [1200-1299]

The focus of this sacrament (and all 7 sacraments) becomes more "spiritual" -- The focus of the anointing moves from healing "mind / body / spirit" [i.e. the whole person] to healing "the soul" [i.e. the "forgiveness of sins" as sin is the illness of the soul]. 

The Sacrament is for the forgiveness of sins at the moment of death. 

This understanding is brought about in this ecclesial context:

A.  The theology of priesthood develops.  All ministry is absorbed into ministry of the presbyter.  The ministry of the deacon and the laity disappear.  The ministry of the bishop is "to police the presbyters."
B.  Sacramental Theology develops.  Sacraments have spiritual effects.
C.  Peter Lombard names anointing as one of the seven sacraments.
D.  Doctors at this time period are called only when one is really sick. (The doctor would often cause your death).

1254 Pope Innocent IV officially formulated the doctrine of purgatory in a letter to his legate sent to make contact with some Greek Christians.  [note:  Purgatory is only for souls, not bodies.]

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5. Late Medieval [1300-1499]

1439 Council of Florence -- Decree for the Armenians -- states that the minister of Extreme Unction is the priest.  

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6. Reformation [1500-1699]

Those wishing to purify the Church of "human accretions" and return to the "Church of the Gospel"
1.  did not find Extreme Unction in the Gospels and eliminated it from their list of Ordinances [sacraments];
2.  did not find the "Ordained Priesthood" in the Gospels and eliminated it from their list of Ordinances [sacraments];
3.  returned to the priesthood that comes by Baptism
4.  returned to the Eucharist as the source of the forgiveness of sins -- "This is my blood,  ... poured out for the forgiveness of sins..."

Trent responds (25 November 1551) that Extreme Unction is a sacrament instituted by Christ and that proper minister of the anointing is an ordained priest. [Note: In the West, historians developed modern methods of studying the past only in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in France and Germany.  The Bishops at the Council of Trent probably believed that Jesus himself while on earth instituted the sacramet of Extreme Unction and gave this power to the Apostles and they gave this power to the priests they ordained.]

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7. After Trent [1700-1899]

The decisions of the Council of Trent are solidified and implemented. 

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8. Before Vatican II [1900-1959]

The Liturgical Movement renews interest in the sacrament.

Historical research [i.e. "history" as we know it today] led to a rethinking of the narrow, scholastic view of Extreme Unction.

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9. Vatican II [1960-1975]

1.  Reformed Extreme Unction
1a.  Changed the name of the sacrament (Extreme Unction to Anointing of the Sick)
1b.  Changed the purpose of the sacrament (preparation for dying to healing for the sick)
1c.  Changed the "matter" of the sacrament (olive oil - any plant oil)
1d.  Changed the "form"  of the sacrament (forgive sins to healing of mind/body/spirit)

2.  The Second Vatican Council not only restores sacramental rituals, but restores Baptism to its proper place as the sacrament which "Christs" us, i.e. transforms us into Christ, makes us an "alter Christus."  -- Note that in the new ritual books, the minister of the sacrament is always the community itself.  Within that community, there is a diversity of functions. The former understanding looked first of all to sacraments as "administered and received".  The minister was usually the priest and then there were qualifications as to the recipient. Once the theology shifts from "matter/form" and "administer/receive" to "community celebrating" and the "worship of God", we then not only use a different vocabulary but we begin to think in different categories.

3.  Discipleship and Ministry are reunited.  Expansion of lay ministries.   Questions arise about lay anointing. 

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10. After Vatican II [1975-2050]

1.  Ritual is translated into the vernacular.

2.  Un-even implementation and spotty catechesis.

3.  Beginning of communal celebrations during Sunday Eucharist.

4.  Questions arise about the minister of the sacrament.

John L. Allen in The Future Church, writes that ministry to the sick, dying, and bereaved will become increasingly important in the years to come:  "In the United States, the Catholic Church will have 6.8 million additional members over the age of 65 by 2030, by far the most substantial expansion of any subgroup in the Church. Inevitably, these trends mean that the Church will be pressed to invest an increasing share of its resources in ministry to the elderly. Ministries that will expand rapidly include:

Chaplains in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and hospitals;
Ministry to shut-ins, including the need for Eucharistic Ministers who can take the sacrament to elderly parishioners;
Demand for funerals and anointing of the sick;
Pastoral Programs to help people deal with bereavement and loss;
Catholic nursing homes, hospitals and daycare centers.

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The 1983 Code of Canon Law

Book 4.  The Office of Sanctifying in the Church 834-1253
    Part 1.  The Sacraments  850-1165
       Title 5. Anointing the Sick
            Chapter II. The Minister of the Anointing of the Sick
 

Canon 1003 §1. Every priest and only a  priest validly administers the anointing of the sick.

§2. All priests to whom the care of souls has been entrusted have the duty and right of administering the anointing of the sick for the faithful entrusted to their pastoral office. For a reasonable cause, any other priest can administer this sacrament with at least the presumed consent of the priest mentioned above.

§3. Any priest is permitted to carry blessed oil with him so that he is able to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick in a case of necessity.

Richstatter/Commentary:  The Code here repeats the theology of Trent.  The context is "administering" sacraments (by the priest) and the "receiving" of the sacraments (by the laity).  The Vatican II ritual books speak of the sacraments as "liturgical celebrations" and speaks of the Church (the local community) as the primary minister of the sacraments.  Then it follows that the one who is authorized to lead the Church, the local community, in prayer and oversight would ordinarily be the one to lead the community in worship and sacraments, i.e. Anointing the Sick.

Remember from the history of the sacrament:  in the early church the overseer blessed the oil and deacons and the faithful anointed the sick person.  During the scholastic period when discussing the "effects" of the sacraments, it was concluded that sacraments are spiritual signs and therefore have spiritual effects.  The spiritual effect of anointing is forgiveness of sins.  The minister of anointing is the one with power of jurisdiction.  Today, for various reasons, many are asking if canon 1003 §1 can be changed.

 Ongoing Theological Discussion Regarding the Minister of the Sacrament

1.  Doctrinal understandings continue to develop

Through the working of the Holy Spirit, "the Church constantly moves forward toward the pleroma, the fullness of divine truth." (see:  Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, #8). 

For example:  In 1995 in preparation for the reception of the new Catholic Catechism in the USA, the National Advisory Committee on Adult Religious Education of the Department of Education of the United States Catholic Conference published Catechism of the Catholic Church: An Access Guide for Adult Discussion Groups. (Washington: USCCB, 1995, Publication No.050-8. ISBN 1-55586-050-8.)  In this document we read:

2. Stability in tension with change.

While core truths do not change, the Church is constantly called to a deeper understanding of those truths (see paragraphs 65, 79). The Church faithfully hands on the teachings of the apostles and, at the same time, remains open to the promptings of the Spirit. Sometimes something is taken to be a core truth which the Spirit, through time, eventually teaches us is not. For example, the following paragraphs appear in the Roman Catechism, the catechism issued after the Council of Trent in 1566:

The Minister of the Eucharist

To omit nothing doctrinal of this sacrament, we now come to speak of its minister, a point, however, on which scarcely anyone can be ignorant.  ONLY PRIESTS HAVE POWER TO CONSECRATE AND ADMINISTER THE EUCHARIST.  It must be taught, then, that to priests alone has been given power to consecrate and administer to the faithful, the Holy Eucharist. That this has been the unvarying practice of the Church, that the faithful should receive the Sacrament from the priests, and that the officiating priests should communicate themselves, has been explained by the holy Council of Trent, which has also shown that this practice, as having proceeded from Apostolic tradition, is to be religiously retained, particularly as Christ the Lord has left us an illustrious example thereof, having consecrated His own most sacred body, and given it to the Apostles with His own hands.

 2.  Priest shortage

Our understanding of church discipline is continually re-investigated in the light of our changing historical and cultural context.  Today, due to the "shortage of priests" there are situations in the USA where Catholics who are gravely ill request the Sacrament of the Anointing (and/or the Sacrament of Reconciliation) and there is no ordained priest available to celebrate the sacrament with them.  

Written records begin to be kept to document how many people die without the sacraments because no priest was available.

World-Vision:  While this is an important consideration (especially to those who die without the sacraments!) in the USA the situation in other parts of the world is even more serious. 

For example, in the largest Catholic country in the world, Brazil, there is a much higher ration of baptized Catholics to ordained than here in the United States.  Many Catholics can celebrate Eucharist only 4 or 5 times a year at most.   And the celebration of the other sacraments is even less frequent.  While lay catechists can baptize converts, Confirmation is rare, Eucharist infrequent, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick (along with sacramental Marriage and Holy Orders) simply disappear! -- If, as many theologians attest, the distinguishing mark that makes us Catholic Christians is the fact that we Catholics are a sacramental Church, if the sacraments disappear, the very "essence" of our catholicity is lost!  This is serious indeed!

It is in this urgent context that theologians continue to ask:  Who is the minister of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick?

3.  Historical insights

In an important article in La Maison-Dieu, (the official journal of the Institut Supérieur de Liturgie in Paris) #205, 1996:1, pp 15-24, "La question du ministre de l'onction des malades,"  [The Question regarding the minister of the Anointing of the Sick], Father Pierre-Marie Gy, O.P. addresses this question.  [P-M Gy directed my doctoral thesis on the history and meaning of Liturgical Law.  He was the director of the Institut Supérieur de Liturgie in Paris.  He was the president/redactor of the committee which composed the current Roman Rite for the Sacrament of Anointing.  And, as I liked to picture him, he was  the Dominican theologian successor of Saint Thomas Aquinas at the University of Paris! In other words, this is not just "another magazine article" but a very important voice speaking with exceptional theological, historical, and liturgical authority.]

Father Gy first asks where the "essence of the sacrament" lies, (a) in the prayer of blessing of the oil, (b) in the oil itself,(c) in the administration of the oil, or (d) in the prayer during the administration.

Think of the Eucharist as a "parallel" case.  There is (a) the prayer of blessing the bread and wine (the Eucharistic Prayer) which can be pronounced only by the ordained priest (bishops and presbyters); there is (b) the consecrated Bread and Wine; there is (c) the eating and drinking of the consecrated Bread and Wine, with (d) the formula:  "The Body of Christ.  Amen.  The Blood of Christ.  Amen." 

The non-ordained can be authorized to take the Eucharistic Bread to the sick in their homes and hospitals;  why cannot the non-ordained be authorized to take the Blessed Oil to the sick in their homes and hospitals?  But anointing forgives sins?  So does Eucharist!

Using Eucharist as the "model" sacrament, the Eucharistic Prayer at Eucharist is parallel to the Blessing of the Oil at Anointing.  The formula for the administration of Holy Communion is parallel to the formula for administering the blessed oil.

The National Association of Catholic Chaplains has prepared a plan to request that the law be changed regarding the minister of the sacrament to enable deacons and other ministers (e.g. USCCB certified chaplains) to preside at the celebration of the sacrament of anointing. (A plan and resolution was adopted by the NACC [National Association of Catholic Chaplains]  National Leadership Council on May 16, 1992.  See NACC Vision, Volume 2, #10. November - December 1992.)

In addition, the National Association of Catholic Chaplains is collecting statistics concerning instances when someone who was seriously ill and asked for the Sacrament of Anointing was not able to be anointed because there was no priest available. The NACC is collecting this data in order to give weight to their request to the Holy Father to reconsider the current legislation regarding the minister of this sacrament.

Questions arise about lay anointing.  Recommendations were made, studies were done, history was scrutinized.  The question was asked why could not lay Christians anoint?   The question reaches Rome and The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gives its official reply.

4.  Discussion stopped  

On February 11, 2005, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a note "on the Minister of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick" (Prot no. 41/74) which stated"

The Code of Canon Law in canon 1003 § 1 (cf. canon 739 § 1 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches) repeats exactly the doctrine expressed by the Council of Trent (Sessio XIV, canon 4: DS 1719; cf. also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1516), that only priests (i.e. bishops and presbyters) are ministers of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

This doctrine is definitive tenenda.  Thus, neither deacons nor laypeople can exercise this ministry, and any such action would constitute simulation of the sacrament.  (USCCB Newsletter:  Committee on the Liturgy, Volume XLI March-April 2005)

5.  Discussion continues

1.  Records continue to be kept as to how many people die without the sacraments because no priest was available. 

2.  Theologians continue to ask:  Why is it that lay ministers can take the Eucharist to the sick and give them Holy Communion, but they cannot take the Blessed Oil of the Sick to the sick and give them the Anointing of the Sick? 

Objection:  Only a priest can preside at eucharist.  -- Yes, but a layperson can take the bread consecrated at the Eucharist and administer Holy Communion to a sick person.  Why could not a lay person take the oil blessed by the priest or bishop and administer the Anointing of the Sick?

 Objection:  The Sacrament of Anointing the Sick forgives sins, and only the priest can forgive sins.  -- Yes, but when a lay minister of the Eucharist gives Holy Communion to a person who has committed a mortal sin and cannot get to a priest to receive sacramental absolution, and has made an act of perfect contrition, the Eucharist (administered by the lay minister) forgives the persons' sins, even mortal sins.  Why is not the Anointing of the Sick a similar case?

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To Think About

1.  How do you think this crisis might be resolved?  How do you think it should be resolved? 

2.  What do you think about the contemporary practice of some lay hospital chaplains celebrating healing with oil as a "sacramental" rather than a "sacrament." 

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 05/02/17.  Your comments on this site are welcome at trichstatter@franciscan.org