Undergrads: Mixed Reviews of the Reformed Anointing Rite

In my undergraduate class on Pastoral Care of the Sick, I always review with my students the history of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

We have evidence that in the fifth century it was a ritual that could be performed by any of the baptized and that the primary focus of the ritual was on healing any of the baptized who were sick. At the time of the Carolingian Reform in the ninth century, belief and practice starts to shift: only priests and bishops were authorized to anoint and the primary focus was on forgiveness as preparation for a good death. Since children who had not reached the age of reason were judged incapable of sinning they were likewise not in need of forgiveness and hence such children were not suitable candidates for anointing.

I asked my students to evaluate these changes and also to state whether, in case of need, they would prefer to be anointed according to the ritual established by Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council or according to the ritual that was in place from 1614 to the eve of the Council.

As for the first question, students opposed all of the changes that took place following the Carolingian Reform except for one: all the students who expressed an opinion on this question thought that it was a good idea to declare that only priests and bishops could administer the sacrament. Students wrote that this policy ensures that the sacrament will be “more special” and that it would eliminate the risk of “mistakes” and “carelessness” if lay people were allowed to anoint.

As for the second question, nearly all of the students who expressed an opinion stated that they would prefer to be anointed according to the former ritual.

Each student offered some variant of this argument: “We have talked in class about how illness affects the entire person and how humans are biopsychosocial beings. The older rite anoints more parts of the body and it is therefore more holistic.” None of the students who expressed this view offered comments on the change in the sacramental formula (the older version with its emphasis on forgiveness, and the newer version with its emphasis on “help” and being “raised up”). The one student who did express a preference for the newer form did make reference to the emphasis on sin in the older rite which seemed too one-sided.

What say you in the world of Pray Tell? What are your thoughts on how my students evaluated the changes associated with the Carolingian Reform? What are your thoughts about how my students assessed the current and former rites of anointing?




  1. Interesting that the students appeared to focus much more on the ritual action than the ritual language. This would track with the educational theories that say that (a) demonstrations/student participation reinforces verbal explanations as a teaching strategy, and (b) when there is a conflict between what is taught with words and what is taught with actions, actions generally win out as the stronger model. (That is, “do as I say, not as I do” is not terribly effective at directing behavior.)

    A question: in presenting the various rituals, how (if at all) was the use of Latin conveyed to the students? When you asked which version the students would prefer to be used if they were to be anointed, was it a choice between two English language versions, or between an old Latin rite and a new English rite? Or did the issue of Latin never come up?

    1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #1:
      I had a similar question as Peter. And another question in the same vein.

      I recall my father talking about when “Father came out to the farm to anoint Pa.” The family members were all told to step outside while the priest did it for grandpa. Did your students talk about the presence or absence of family and loved ones, were they aware of the differences since the reform?

      Thanks for a very stimulating piece, BTW.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #2:
        Re #2

        We often talked about how the Mass is the preferred context for anointing in the present rite and how if a Mass is not possible / practical, then if all possible family and friends should be present. The question of social context was not part of the question of “which rite would you prefer.” This question was just one of about a dozen homework questions I assigned to the students. Comments on this thread indicate to me that greater refinement to this question could be helpful for the students.

    2. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #1:
      Re: #1
      I had talked about how the liturgical language of the Catholic Church was Latin and that Vatican II permitted the use of other languages. With respect to “which rite would you prefer,” I did not specify which language would be used for the older rite. Perhaps if I had done so, the students would have responded differently–but perhaps, having been supplied with the English translation of the Latin, the students would still have chosen the older rite. When I use this question in the future, I will be more specific.

  2. re: “thought that it was a good idea to declare that only priests and bishops could administer the sacrament”. Having been among those waiting for a no-show priest at a scheduled pre-surgery anointing, and having been at the bedside of a dying Catholic who was not anointed because the priest (who appeared to be working on his computer in his study less than 100 yards away) was too busy to walk across his parking lot and administer the sacrament, I wonder what your students would think of laity (or deacons) being extraordinary ministers of the sacrament under those situations.

  3. I doubt that many of the laity understand that the Anointing of the Sick is not last rites. Even I, in the week before my great aunt’s death, asked my cousin “will a priest come soon?” as if that were shorthand for last rites. I doubt that my aunt was anointed, as she rarely if ever had a priest visit her in her home. I do believe in the power of the Apostolic Blessing, but the scarcity of priests today means that many of the dying will not confess, be pardoned, and be anointed.

    Would it be ontologically and theologically possible for deacons to anoint? This would require deacons to hear confession and absolve, but perhaps an exception can be made for this very instance. This change might ensure that more of the ill and dying receive anointing, especially before death.

    The difficulty with the maintenance of the Carolingian Reform into the postconciliar age resides in the inability of many already overburdened priests to perform hospital work. A bishop could ordain deacons who primary role is not celebrating Mass but serving the sick and dying.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #6:
      The sacrament of the anointing does not require confession and absolution, since the sacrament includes forgiveness of sins. Nonetheless, one of the stumbling blocks to allowing deacons to anoint has been that very association of anointing with forgiveness of sins, reserved only to priests and deacons. I’ve never fully understood this particular stumbling block, since deacons (and lay persons) can baptize, a sacrament which likewise includes the forgiveness of sins without confession and absolution…

    2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #6:
      I BIshop could also easily ordain married viri probati as simplex Priests restricted to assisting the dying.

      I have a feeling in our lifetime, we will see the return of the simplex, whether celibate or not.

      1. @Todd Orbitz – comment #9:

        I agree that the simplex priest (and by necessity the homilary) will return out of need. Your solution to the crisis is perceptive. A simplex priest could also say Mass for the spiritual needs of the ill, albeit without a personal homily or sermon (this might not matter in this situation). The greatest stumbling-block to the resurrection of the simplex priest is the idea that a fully licensed priest is “more a priest” than a simplex priest. This prejudice is irrational and must be overcome.

  4. There is a whole group of professionals – chaplains certified by the National Association of Catholic Chaplains – whose sole focus is the spiritual care of the sick and dying. Some are priests, more are deacons. Most are lay women and men. I cannot speak for other chaplains yet I must say that it has been an ongoing sorrow for me that I am not able to minister fully to those within my own communion. My ministry within my own church is restricted and truncated.
    However, it has been my privilege and source of grace to be able bless, reconcile and pray for forgiveness for thousands of people outside the Roman communion during my 30+ years serving as a hospital chaplain. There is no doubt in my mind that this work, and the work of thousands of other Catholic chaplains is efficacious and blessed by God. We are certainly ready and able to provide this ministry within our own church.

  5. Tim Brunk : @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #2: Re #2 We often talked about how the Mass is the preferred context for anointing in the present rite and how if a Mass is not possible / practical, then if all possible family and friends should be present. The question of social context was not part of the question of “which rite would you prefer.” This question was just one of about a dozen homework questions I assigned to the students. Comments on this thread indicate to me that greater refinement to this question could be helpful for the students.

    It’s not about social context as such, I think, and it’s not about whether it is preferable to celebrate within Mass or not (there are good arguments either way), it’s about the fact that every sacrament is a communal activity in the life of the Church. It sounds as if the question put to the students did not clarify the different theologies underpinning the two rituals, and they nearly all elected to be anointed as individuals, not as members of the Body. I find that rather depressing.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #10:
      Oh, I have no doubt that the students would want to be anointed in a communal setting. Readings and class discussion repeatedly draw attention to the importance of the community from a psychosocial perspective (it feels good to be surrounded by family and friends) and from a theological perspective (the gathered friends and family as an effective sign of Christ’s presence with the anointing therefore the “act” of those gathered even though ministered by the one ordained). Did the former rite *require* that no one besides the sick person and the priest be present or, as per Anthony in comment #2, was it simply the way it was done?

      1. @Tim Brunk – comment #12:
        The Priest would often dismiss the family because he would often hear Confession at the same time. We were asked to leave the hospital room just one year ago when the Priest heard confession and gave Viaticum. We were called back in for the Annointing, but it was almost before it began along with the Apostolic Pardon.

        It was seen as just more efficient. And yet, at the same time, my Father remembers being there holding the candles for the Priest when his Mom received the Annointings, and that she was surrounded by family. (Both him and his brother vested in cassock and surplice first.)

  6. As far as deacons not being able to anoint or hear confessions is concerned, we should not be focusing on which part of the grace of orders is the power to celebrate which sacrament. We should instead be talking about the fact that restricting anointing to priests is depriving many of our people of the Church’s ministry of touch.

    I think we desperately need the tangible in our rituals to combat an increasing tide of words. In the present climate of shock and scandal at child sex abuse, whether by an ordained or a non-ordained person, we also need to be training both lay and ordained people in the art of touching people in an appropriate and Christlike fashion, so that touch in a sacramental context is always viewed as something positive rather than negative. Talk to any sensitive lay minister who takes Communion to the sick and housebound to discover exactly how important the covering of a hand with your own hand, the hand laid gently on the arm, etc, etc, is when it comes to praying with people who are combatting sickness and facing death. From time to time I hear about anointings that take place which are not celebrations of the sacrament of healing but which appear to be trying to make up this deficit in our pastoral care.

    We need the Church’s ministry of touch, both with oil and without. The question is, how will this ministry be exercised in the future?

  7. I have never experienced the Anointing of the Sick in either rite, so I can’t speak to it personally. However, I have noticed something similar when people’s only experience of the old Mass is the English text – the reaction is usually long the lines of “why can’t we have this in the English Mass?”

    I’m also curious to know if the old Anointing of the Sick ritual required people leave, or if it was just how it was done. A fair comparison would be to look at how both forms are celebrated today, rather than to compare the “new” rite as it is currently done with how the old rite was done in a past cultural context.

  8. To me, the most important shift was that the sacrament is no longer reserved for people in immediate danger of death. It’s not clear to me how that shift was explored in the class.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #16:
      The shift from “imminent death” to ” *begins* to be in danger of death” is explored at great length in this course. Students are well aware that the sacrament is not reserved for the dying. My introductory remarks above do not make this point explicit but I did note the Carolingian shift to preparing for a good death. No student thought that restricting the sacrament to the actively dying was a good idea.

  9. Paul Inwood : It sounds as if the question put to the students did not clarify the different theologies underpinning the two rituals, and they nearly all elected to be anointed as individuals, not as members of the Body. I find that rather depressing.

    I wouldn’t read so much into the students’ answers. Those answers indicate that, *on the whole* and *considering the factors that occurred to them*, those students prefer the older rite. You oughtn’t to tar them as indecently individualistic simply because you find that to be a crucial change.

    And of course, to speak to the questions of celebration more generally, there is nothing in the old rite to require the *absence* of the other faithful. In fact, while it has been noted that as a practicality involved in hearing confession families et al. were typically dismissed from the room for at least that moment, the Rituale itself makes no mention of any such dismissal; this may be prudent, but not required. In fact, the rite mentions “bystanders” (circumstantes) before the confession and then afterward, as the anointing proper is about to commence, instructs the priest to admonish those present (astantes) to pray for the sick person. In other words, regardless of what was practiced in fact, the rite presumed the presence of some of the faithful (most likely the household).

  10. I think I might be able to add a few things to what Aaron already has said concerning the communal nature of the older Rite.

    The Rite for Extreme Unction is described in the Rituale in Title VI, Ch. II. I’m working from a fairly late copy (a 1962 Parish Ritual which had Msgr. McManus as its editor), but to my knowledge, the only change was the 1959 indult to use vernacular for much of the rite (excepting the prayers immediately before/after the anointings, and the anointings themselves).

    In no place does it exclude the presence of others. Todd and Aaron rightly point out that the sick person might elect to have his/her confession heard (VI, ii, 4), but otherwise there is nothing to suggest that others would not be permitted back into the room immediately afterwards.

    References to others are made at the Asperges (4), the urging of those present to pray for the sick person with the option of using the seven penitential psalms and the Litany of Saints (7), and an instruction to the household concerning the event of the sick person’s condition worsening (15). Msgr. McManus’ Parish Ritual also explains that it is customary for a reading of the Gospel and prayers with those present before the administration of the Sacrament, though these prayers are not part of the Rituale proper.

    It is also worth noting that there is no reason to think that the more recent emphases on encouraging family to be present and seeking Anointing when in danger rather than merely in danger of death would likewise apply to the Sacrament in the Extraordinary Form as well.

  11. Tim Brunk : The shift from “imminent death” to ” *begins* to be in danger of death” is explored at great length in this course. Students are well aware that the sacrament is not reserved for the dying.

    This is another supposed distinction between the two rites that I think deserves closer attention lest we misrepresent the older form. The two disciplines can certainly be distinguished by the modern canonical and ritual instructions about when to anoint: proposals to specify that the danger must be “of death” were rejected when drafting the new CIC, and the possibility of a further anointing for the same illness worsening (as opposed to recurring) is also a shift in practice.

    Yet the New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law claims the ambiguity concerning the required gravity of danger was allowed “not to minimize the seriousness of the condition which calls for the celebration of the sacrament but to remove all hesitation about when it will be proper and fruitful to celebrate.” This reading sees the canon as attempting to preclude unreasonable impediments to anointing (like “medical confirmation of the possibility or even proximity of death”) without shifting the bar too far concerning the required gravity of the danger.

    From the other side of the spectrum, nowhere did the immediately previous discipline demand that Anointing be reserved to those in extremis. (1917) Can 940 §1. Extrema unctio praeberi non potest nisi fideli, qui post adeptum usum rationis ob infirmitatem vel senium in periculo mortis versetur. “Qui versetur periculo mortis” – who is in danger of death, not *imminent* or *impending* death or even *certain* danger. We could excuse the rite itself, then, from the flaws of its common usage, and see convergence in the disciplines.

    1. @Aaron Sanders – comment #20:

      The Weller edition of the Rituale (1950) certainly adds to the point you are making as well as is seen in the Translator’s note:

      Last anointing is the sacrament of Christian consolation, wherein a member of Christ is made ready to share mystically by his bodily death in the sacrificial death of the Head of the human race. […] The note of consolation is so marked a feature that any illness which could prove fatal warrants its administration, long before the death rattle announces that the end is at hand. As the rubric below directs: It must be received if possible while the sick person is still conscious and rational, so that the recipient himself, in order to receive the sacrament more fruitfully, may assist with faith and devout intention while he is being anointed with the holy oil.” Wherefore, so utterly reprehensible the practice, encountered all too frequently today, of delaying the sacred anointings until the last agony has begun. Rather than delay until the final moments, the rubrics provide that, should there be any doubt about the illness being critical, the sacrament may be administered conditionally. Better too early than too late! Moreover, the last sacraments are three. Penance and Holy Eucharist ought precede extreme unction. And instead of the sorry and unbecoming spectacle of the priest racing with death to the bedside of the sick, the Church prescribes […] a devout and dignified procession from church to home, with the minister assisted by clergy and acolytes, and accompanied by pious layfolk, all of whom are to assist in imparting the consoling mysteries to the one afflicted on his bed of pain, and by their prayerful attendance give comfort and encouragement to him in the loneliness of the final combat.

      While there are some differences in the canonical understanding between the current CIC and the former (namely between being in periculo vs. in periculo mortis as before), the idea of unnecessary delay was already seen as problematic long before the reformed rite.

      In any case, it is important to remember with disciplinary matters such as this, that it is the current universal law that dictates the use of even the older rite, as is clarified in Universae Ecclesiae. It would seem to me that this would lead to the possibility of the Sacrament being administered absolutely and not conditionally, even in the older rite, provided the sick person is in danger.

  12. BTW, it seems that Trent session 14 ought to be taken into account in this discussion:
    “CANON IV.–If any one saith, that the Presbyters of the Church, whom blessed James exhorts to be brought to anoint the sick, are not the priests who have been ordained by a bishop, but the elders in each community, and that for this Cause a priest alone is not the proper minister of Extreme Unction; let him be anathema.”

    One could possibly claim that this canon condemns only one *particular line of reasoning* as to why non-priests can confer this sacrament, but when coupled with the force of the earlier chapters it seems clear that Trent meant to define the proper minister of the sacrament.

    1. @Aaron Sanders – comment #21:
      Oh I agree with Aaron, Trent did mean to define the proper minister. The question is whether a further development on that point is possible or advisable, given the variety in church practice before the Carolingian era but also the statements of Trent.

  13. I think this is a Sacrament whose historical roots were born of pastoral practice and moved to an admission ticket to heaven practice as the words, practioner, and time became more exact. It should be today a Sacrament infused with bedside manner. Many have seen words botched, order mangled, and families comforted by the healing presence of Christ because the person who came to pray was there for them. When I have witnessed that, the Sacrament has brought healing beyond words.

    The more antiseptic the ritual, the response of “well thank you Father,” should alert us to the understanding of the Sacrament. I trust the ordained of this column of responders have been put in places where the healing is beyond this world.

    In a parish where the ritual takes place…our pastor has this practice twice a year on “time change Sunday”… Those without the need for the Sacrament came forward with one who did. Very powerful.

  14. Tim Brunk : @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #2: Re #2 We often talked about how the Mass is the preferred context for anointing in the present rite and how if a Mass is not possible / practical, then if all possible family and friends should be present. .

    I would appreciate why (or where in the books) Mass is the preferred context for anointing; I have not seen that said before. The presence and participation of family and friends is easier in a home or sickroom setting, and I think that non-Catholic or non-observant Catholic family members appreciate that the anointing, at least, is one place where they can feel included in the ritual. (After laying on my hand, I invite each of those present to do the same.) The effect, I feel, is that the sick person and those around acquire a sense almost of vocation, accepted by the sick person and recognized by those closest to them, to engage the illness as a special stage in their Christian life.
    How much of that is lost in large group anointings during Mass, I don’t know.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    1. @MIchael Slusser – comment #25:
      I think the Mass as preferred setting is my own extrapolation of the Council’s expressed wish in SC 27 that, whenever possible / suitable, rites should be celebrated in a communal context. I am not necessarily thinking of group anointings, though I am not excluding them either. Having one individual anointed in the context of Mass can be quite moving (e.g., before major surgery so that the Mass can be coordinated). In any case, I think part of the meaning of anointing is to affirm the place of the sick person as part of the Body–and reception of communion in the context of a Mass is perhaps the supreme expression of being of the Body.

  15. In my life as a parish priest, I administer the Sacrament in different contexts, from Anointing in hospitals, to Anointing at Mass. Each has their own charisms.

    At my last assignment, we would have AOS every First Friday of the month. People would be Anointed because it was offered (their thinking…the more Sacraments the better). Others came because of physical illness; others because of emotional concerns. They came because they new they weren’t alone in their sufferings.

    In Nursing Homes and monthy Shut-in visitations, the focus is more on Perseverance and Assurance of God’s Presence, while still being connected with the Church or Parish. I see the need, as JPII tried to do, to give meaning and value to Old Age. They are understanding what “Offering it up” entails.

    In a hospital setting I witness various contexts. For a non life threatening illness, the focus is on Healing and/or Understanding as to the Why. I personally try to assure them that they are not just another number; they are important because they are in the hospital, be it for an ingrown toenail or heart attack.

    For more serious cases, it IS a preparation for Death. These people become more Peaceful and Accepting. It also gives the family a time to prepare for death.

    In my experience, the common denominator is being connected in some way, shape, or form to God and His Church. For myself my job is to bring wherever people are in their life to that realization. It’s not necessarily just an issue of “embalming” or “healing”, it’s more of an Encounter with Jesus, the Lord of Life. And while I am the dispenser of the Sacrament, in these various contexts I am also a recipient.

  16. I have been ordained 40 years. In the 60s, I would return to my old Protestant prep school and talk with the chaplains. Back then one of the Catholic students was in a wreck and badly burned. The school chaplain came while the priest was there anointing. The chaplain was shocked,,,the priest mumbled the whole thing in Latin and took no notice of the family gathered around him. Lately, I have been in and out of the hospital.A priest, a graduate of St John’s yet, came in to anoint me, mumbled the whole rite in English from memory. Perhaps he had some experience with the old rite. I was startled. Likewise, the laity bringing Holy Communion seemed not to appreciate the new rite for Communion of the sick…they did everything but make use of the beautiful rite. What they substituted was not worth it.

  17. The Mass is a very suitable setting for the anointing of those who are still quite capable of getting around or who can be easily brought to church by family or friends. I’ve found that catechesis is very important so as to make it as clear as possible who the sacrament is optimally intended for. For instance, it is well known that the anointing can be appropriate for those who are going to have surgery, but not just any minor surgery. I have instructed people that Holy Communion is the ordinary sacrament for healing, and the anointing is the extraordinary sacrament. Some priests have been careless, I believe, in over using the anointing to the point that it has become routine. One can also offer prayers for people who are not well without having to anoint them.

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