What are the conditions under which Anointing of the Sick is administered?

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The Anointing of the Sick, traditionally known as Extreme Unction or Last Rites, is a sacrament in the Christian faith primarily associated with providing comfort and spiritual strength to individuals who are seriously ill, facing major surgery, or nearing the end of life. This sacrament is deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the practices of the early Church. It is administered to convey God's grace to the recipient, through the Holy Spirit, for healing and strength during a time of vulnerability.

Biblical Foundations

The scriptural basis for the Anointing of the Sick can be found in the New Testament, particularly in the Letter of James. James 5:14-15 says, "Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven." This passage clearly lays out the early Christian practice of visiting the sick, praying for them, and anointing them with oil as a sign of healing and forgiveness.

Theological Significance

Theologically, the Anointing of the Sick is understood as a sacrament of healing. While physical recovery is not guaranteed, the primary effect of the sacrament is spiritual healing. It offers peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that accompany serious illness or the frailty of old age. According to Christian belief, the sacrament provides a special grace that unites the sick person more closely to Christ's Passion in a special way, offering a gift of the Holy Spirit that renews confidence and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the Evil One, particularly despair and a lack of faith.

Conditions for Administration

The Anointing of the Sick is not limited to those who are at the point of death. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, "The Anointing of the Sick is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone 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." (CCC 1514). The conditions under which this sacrament is administered are therefore broader than often perceived:

  1. Serious Illness or Declining Health due to Old Age: The sacrament may be received by anyone suffering from a serious illness or whose health is seriously impaired by old age. This includes chronic conditions, serious diseases, or illnesses that are life-threatening.

  2. Before Surgery: It is appropriate to receive the sacrament before undergoing any serious medical procedures that could result in death or serious complications.

  3. Mental Illness: While traditionally focused on physical illness, the Church recognizes the severe strain that significant mental health issues can also place on a person’s spiritual state. Those suffering from debilitating mental health conditions may also receive this sacrament.

  4. Renewal of the Sacrament: If a sick person who received the sacrament recovers but then falls ill again, or if during the same illness the person's condition becomes more serious, the sacrament may be received again.

  5. Old Age: The frailty and challenges associated with old age are also grounds for receiving the sacrament, even if no serious illness is present.

The Ritual of Anointing

The sacrament itself involves several key elements: the laying on of hands, the anointing with oil blessed by the bishop (usually olive oil), and prayers. The priest, who administers the sacrament, lays hands on the sick person, prays over them in the faith of the Church, and then anoints the forehead and hands of the person (other parts may also be anointed depending on local custom). These actions are accompanied by liturgical prayers that ask for the special grace of healing and strength.

Pastoral Considerations

As a pastor, it is crucial to approach the administration of this sacrament with sensitivity and compassion. The presence of the priest and the prayerful support of the community can have a profound comforting effect on the sick and their families. It is also important to educate the faithful about the purpose and benefits of the Anointing of the Sick, correcting any misconceptions that it is only for the dying. This sacrament reaffirms the value of human life, the importance of spiritual health, and the reality of God's grace in times of physical and mental suffering.

In conclusion, the Anointing of the Sick is a profound testament to the Church's care for the bodily and spiritual welfare of its members. Administered under conditions of serious illness, impending surgery, old age, or severe mental affliction, it is a source of comfort and a powerful aid in the face of human frailty. Its administration is a call to the whole community to bear witness to the compassionate and healing ministry of Jesus Christ, who is ever present in His Church.

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