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Encyclopedia > Extreme unction

The Anointing of the Sick is one of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and some Protestant churches.

The former name Extreme Unction was used in the Western (Roman) part of the Catholic Church from the end of the twelfth century until the Second Vatican Council, and was never popular in the Eastern (Orthodox) part. Last Rites is a common but misleading term; the Anointing of the Sick can be received as often as the believer desires and should not be postponed until death is thought to be near, nor is its administration intended to imply an expectation that the recipient is about to die. At one time in history, the sacrament was reserved until death was believed to be imminent, in order to reduce the possibility of the sick person committing further sins after its administration. However, since the Second Vatican Council this is no longer the case.

The sacrament has also been known as the holy oil, or unction, of the sick; the unction or blessing of consecrated oil; the unction of God; the office of the unction; and so on. In the Eastern Church the technical name is euchelaion ("prayer-oil"); but other names are used such as elaion hagion ("holy") or hegismenon ("consecrated"), elaion, elaiou Chrisis, chrisma, and so on. The chief biblical text for anointing of the sick is "Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. And their prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make them well. And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven." - James 5:14,15

It gives spiritual aid and comfort and perfect spiritual health, including the forgiveness of sins to Christians who are seriously ill. Catholics hold that in some cases it effects miraculous cures.

While changes were proposed to this sacrament in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, there are actually hundreds of Catholic priests around the world who still offer the traditional form, matter, and intent of the sacrament of Extreme Unction. For a look at what the sacrament is like in its centuries-old form, watch the movie Brideshead Revisited adapted from the novel by Evelyn Waugh.


To anoint is to rub with oil; the priest uses olive oil. In the Catholic Church the oil (oleum infirmorum) usually has been consecrated by a bishop on Holy Thursday. However if such oil is not available, the priest is able to use other vegetable oil (olive if available), which he himself consecrates for use, though he may not consecrate more oil than he needs for the anointing.

Anointing of the Sick can be performed on an individual basis according to the individual person's needs, or it can be offered on a communal basis. Often Catholic parishes will also offer a communal Anointing of the Sick once or twice a year. In most cases, this is done as part of the Mass. In a communal anointing, the priest calls for anyone who believes that they would benefit from the reception of the sacrament to come forward, and those that come forward then receive the sacrament.

If the sacrament is performed on an individual basis, the priest will perform the sacrament as part of a brief rite, or ceremony, if the time and circumstances permit. Anointing of the Sick can and often is combined with other sacraments, such as confession and communion. (The normal order, if there is no imminent danger of death, would be confession, then anointing, then communion.) The Apostolic Pardon may be given by the priest at the same time, especially if the person is believed to be in danger of death.

In the present rite the Anointing of the Sick is performed by the priest. The priest uses the consecrated oil to trace a cross on the person's forehead. While he does this, he says, "Through this Holy Anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit." He then uses the consecrated oil to trace a cross on a person's palms. While he does this, he says, "May He who frees you from sin save you and raise you up." In the Eastern Churches, the priest also anoints various other parts of the body.

In the event the older form is used, the Priest says, "Per istam sanctam unctionem, indulgeat tibi Dominus quidquid deliquisti, Amen." - "Through this holy unction may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed."



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