Doors to the Sacred: Part VI—Anointing of the Sick
by John Alonzo Dick

This is the sixth and final installment of a multipart series on the sacraments by John Alonzo Dick, professor emeritus of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven. We have conceived of this series as a kind of seminar or “retreat in writing” that aims to give an historical, pastoral, and theological overview of the sacraments and how our understanding of them continues to evolve. A general introduction to the series is available here. Part I, on baptism and confirmation, is available here; part II, on the Eucharist, is available here; part III, on marriage, is available here; part IV, on penance and reconciliation, is available here; and part V, on ordination, is available here. Our sincere thanks to John for sharing his learning and insight with us over the past several months, and for helping us to conceive of the church itself as a sacrament of the “world to come”—Ed.

In ancient times, olive oil was commonly used for medicinal purposes. It was applied to injuries to hasten the healing process. In Luke 10:25-37, for example, Jesus describes the compassionate Samaritan who pours oil and wine on the man who was beaten by robbers and left for dead.

Jesus the Healer

Jesus told those whom he healed that their faith had saved them. One could say his ministry was “faith healing,” but with no pejorative connotations.

In the synoptic Gospels, Matthew records 14 instances of healing by Jesus. Mark records six instances. In Mark 6:13, for example, Jesus sends the disciples out and they anoint many sick people with oil and heal them. Luke, traditionally said to have been a physician, recounts 13 instances of healing. In John’s gospel, we find three key healing accounts: the healing of a nobleman’s son who was at the point of death; the healing of a man at the sheep-gate pool in Jerusalem; and the healing of the man born blind.

Early Christianity

The ministry of healing was an important ministry in the early Christian communities. In the New Testament apostolic letters we find a number of examples. In his letter to the Corinthians, written c. 53 CE, Paul mentions that some members of the community have the gift of healing (1 Cor 12:9). In the Epistle of James, traditionally attributed to James the brother of Jesus and written before 62 CE, the author gives instructions to the Christian community about the ministry of healing: the elders (presbyters) are to be called to pray over the sick person and to anoint the man or woman with oil in the name of the Lord (Jas 5:14-16).

Third and Fourth Century

In a letter from the third-century theologian Tertullian (c. 155–c. 220 CE), he mentions a Christian who cured with blessed oil. There are no other surviving healing texts from the third century. Liturgical documents from the fourth century, however, indicate that the oil blessed for those preparing for baptism was also used for curing spiritual and physical sickness. And there is a prayer for the blessing of oil for strengthening and healing in the early Christian document called “The Apostolic Tradition,” dating most likely from about 375 to 400 CE.

Eighth Century

Up until the eighth century CE, anointing the sick was a widespread practice. It was done by Christian people for their relatives, by men and women with a reputation for healing, and by monks, nuns, and priests. Especially noteworthy, however, is the fact that anointing of the sick remained primarily a lay practice. (One could emulate them today.)

Ninth Century Changes

Indeed, by this time, blessed oil had long been regarded as a substance through which people could be healed. But there had been no official ritual for anointing the sick. That changed in the ninth century. The blessing of the oil became more solemn and more restricted. It was reserved to the local bishop on Holy Thursday. And the anointing of the sick became a strictly clerical ritual. Most significantly, however, the anointing with blessed oil became an end-of-life experience, due no doubt to the high mortality rate and the fear of death at this time.

The sacrament of the sick gradually lost its general healing dimension and became part of the “last rites” before death. Thereafter it came to be called “extreme unction” or “final anointing.” Many people who might otherwise have benefited from the sacrament avoided it or waited until death was imminent before requesting it. It had become a priestly ritual for the dying person.

The Council of Trent

Reacting to the Protestant Reformation, the sixteenth-century Council of Trent stressed that that anointing of the sick was a true sacrament, that it had been established by the historic Jesus, and that it was especially intended for people in danger of death. Trent stressed, of course, that only priests were the “proper” ministers of anointing.

The Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) reclaimed the original meaning of the sacrament of anointing that emphasizes the concern and care of the Christian community and the healing power of Christ. It is intended not just for the end of life but for any time of serious illness or special need.

The council said as well that “extreme unction” should more fittingly be called “anointing of the sick,” because by the 1960s it had become clear that the purpose of the sacrament had originally been for the sick and not just for the dying. The bishops at Vatican II also acknowledged—and this is especially noteworthy—that this sacrament was not a strictly clerical ritual until the ninth century.

Conclusion: Contemporary Reflections

We already have communal rites, in the context of a liturgy, in which the theme and the focus are healing. One can envision anointing rituals performed either by an ordained minister or non-ordained minister or chaplain for people in hospitals or homes. More particularly, I would like to see informal rituals performed by parish nurses and lay ministers who regularly visit the sick. 

I conclude my reflections on the sacraments with the words of my now deceased friend and expert on the sacraments, Joseph Martos: “The only genuine way forward is to look away from ritual and to look instead at what is ritualized, that is, to look at life rather than liturgy and, indeed, to look at the communal lives of people in the church.” I add to this a prayer by the mystic and visionary Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), a remarkable woman and indeed a great healer:

O Holy Power who forged the way for us!
You penetrate all in heaven and earth, and even down below.
You are everything in One. 

Through You, clouds billow and roll, and winds fly!
Seeds drip juice,
Springs bubble out into brooks, and
Spring’s refreshing greens flow—through You—over all the earth!
You also lead my soul into fullness.

Holy power, blow wisdom into my soul
And—with your wisdom—joy.

John Alonzo Dick is a retired professor of historical theology at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). He holds licentiates in historical theology from the University of Nijmegen and KU Leuven, and doctorates in religious studies and historical theology from KU Leuven. For 30 years he taught courses about religion and values in American society at KU Leuven and the University of Ghent. He is the author of The Malines Conversations Revisited (1989), From Malines to ARCIC (1997) with A. Denaux, and Aggiornamento?: Catholicism from Gregory XVI to Benedict XVI (2013) with J. Mettepenningen and K. Schelkens. This year he published Jean Jadot: Paul’s Man in Washington. He maintains a weekly blog at foranothervoice.com.

Image: Nicholas Poussin, The Sacrament of Extreme Unction, 1636–39.

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