John Gayford explores a Sacrament of Healing in the Western Church


There are three holy oils (olive oil is traditional but other vegetable oils can now be used sacramentally). They are the Oil of the Sick, the Oil of the Catechumens and Oil of Chrism; blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass (customarily in Holy Week) and each administered with their own particular purpose, ritual and prayers. The history of the various oils is complicated with variation through time and denomination. At the Reformation they were all abandoned by churches of the reformation which included the Anglican Church as being superstition. The oil of chrism for the anointing of monarchs somehow remained in the Anglican Church.

Jesus did not anoint the sick but cured and forgave sins, he himself is called the anointed one (the Messiah). The disciples were instructed to anoint and cure the sick with oil and casting out demons (Mark 6.13). In Luke 10.30-37 Jesus preaches the parable of the Good Samaritan in which oil and wine were applied to wounds. In the Epistle of James (5.14-15) the Church teaches for treatment of the sick ‘call the elders (presbyters or priests) of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord’. This implies that this can only be done by a priest. 

How this was done in the very early Church is not explicit until the 7th century but it is clear that differences were developing between the Eastern and Western Churches. In the Ancient Jewish faith and early Christianity there was always an association between sin and illness and so the forgiveness of sins was an essential element in healing. There was much variation, from simple to elaborate, in how this was done. The oleum infirmarum (oil of the sick) may have been given to the sick persons to anoint themselves; they may even be given it to drink. Historically in some Eastern Orthodox liturgies an extremely elaborate rite is described where seven priests are required in a long ritual that ideally has to be repeated seven times. It would seem that this long rite was only performed on rare occasions and may in the main be celebrated in a Metropolitan cathedral on Wednesday in Holy Week in a special liturgy preferably with seven priests. Practical necessity reduced the rite to being performed by a single priests even in the Eastern churches. 

Ideally it was the bishop who sanctified the oil but the actual anointing could be done by others including a priest, deacon or deaconess in the early church. Oil left over could be used for making bread that could be consumed by the sick person as they recovered. The priest prays and performs the ritual but it is God who heals the soul which in turn will affect the body. At the beginning of the fifth century it is noted that Christians were turning to pagan magicians and sorcerers rather than calling for the elders of the Church. Secular rituals had developed and still exist that use a lamp for healing in which a variety of herbs with claimed properties are burned.

In the Western Church the rite is more likely to be administered by a single priest but with a variety of prayers. Pope Innocent I (Pope between 401 and 417) stated nobody should be anointed who had not repented and that anointing should be postponed if this had not been achieved. For the first eight centuries this was for any illness, but for the next twelve hundred years it was for the dying and was referred to as ‘the Last Rites’. It was Duns Scotus (about 1300) who called it ‘extreme unction’ claiming that the person receiving this sacrament was incapable of further sin. The Council of Trent discussed this issue but final left the issue open. The code of canon law of 1917 stated that this sacrament should only be administered to those in danger of death. Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) spoke against this but it was not until after the second Vatican Council that the definition of illness was extended and could include psychological illness. If the illness remitted and then reoccurred the rite could be repeated and in the case of chronic illness anointing can be repeated at intervals. Canon law of 1983 made the necessary amendments. In pastoral care of the sick there is more involved than just the ritual of anointing. This left room for others to be involved in care and support. Where attendance at Mass becomes impossible the Eucharistic sacrament should be brought to home, hospital or nursing home by a priest who could anoint if needed. Priests are instructed to keep the Holy Oils in a safe place like a locked ambry but some priests like to have the oil of the sick readily available for an emergency when taking the Eucharistic communion to the sick. This may take the form a piece of cotton-wool with a few drips of the oil of the sick on it in a small stock. There are pocket stoles available that is purple on one side for anointing (and confession) and white on the other side for communion.

In the Anglican Church the order of visitation of the sick of 1549 included the anointing of the sick but it was missing from the 1662 version with claims there was an element of superstition needing eradication. The Non-jurors (that is, those who refused the oath of allegiance to the new monarchs William III and Mary II) reintroduced it in 1718 but it was not until the latter part of the 19th century that it was reintroduced by Anglo-Catholics. In 1915 the Guild of St Raphael was formed within the Anglican Church to promote the ministry of healing. This has initially worked through healing services which could incorporate laying on of hands and anointing looking for physical healing but especially the healing of the whole person. Now within the Anglican Church various forms of anointing are performed but it is not always called a sacrament and is not always performed by a priest. Other churches of the reformation occasionally anoint the sick. The Anointing of the Sick may be carried out in the context of the Mass or in connection with an Office of the day or even on its own, either privately or with a congregation. The rite may take place in a person’s home, hospital, nursing home but is also applicable for pilgrimage. Sprinkling with Holy Water may be used in remembrance of the Sacrament of Baptism. If in Church it may coincide with the Angelus and prayers of Our Lady may be invoked possibly with the lighting of a votive candle. There is no reason why more than one person should not be anointed but some precaution should be taken that others are not sacramentally anointed just for the sake of joining in. Where appropriate in public celebrations the priest may say a few words of introduction. The whole sacrament needs to be celebrated in an atmosphere of prayer bearing in mind it is the prayers of the faithful which effect the healing by the anointing. Those suffering from serious illness need God’s grace at a time of anxiety for restoration of human dignity. If the oil has not already been blessed there should be blessing of the oil by the priest as part of the liturgy. As the priest anoints with his right thumb on the forehead of the recipient he says ‘Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit’. A hand or other part of the body may also be anointed. Historically many parts of the body have been anointed, sometimes symbolic of the various senses. Special prayers may be used for children and those about to undergo surgery. If the Blessed Sacrament is to be received this should follow the anointing with the priest wearing a white stole. After anointing a blessing is given unless the Blessed Sacrament is to be received.

The Viaticum is the Latin word meaning ‘provision for the journey’, strictly speaking the last Holy Communion given to a dying person, often given after anointing and part of ‘the Last Rites’. When the Communion is given the priest will say ‘The Body of Christ’ adding the words, ‘May the Lord Jesus protect you and lead you to eternal life’

Even in Catholic circles the question is being asked is it necessary for a priest to do the anointing. For the traditionalist there is no doubt that this must either be a bishop or priest (based on James 5.14). Since Vatican II, the Anointing of the Sick is seen as a liturgical celebration and not just an application of blessed oil. There is now encouragement for a number of people to join in the liturgy to include if possible the person being anointed. More elaborately there are votive Masses for the sick with Gregorian chant settings for Sacramental anointing. 

A deacon can baptise and use the two oils, of the catechumens and the chrism, both of which have been blessed by the bishop, and administer the Blessed Sacrament which has been consecrated at the altar at Mass by a priest. So why not anoint the sick? If no priest is available in an emergency a deacon or a Eucharistic minister can bring the sacrament to the sick but officially they cannot anoint with the holy oil. Much comes down to the interpretation of the letter of St. James (5.14). English translations of this text refer to ‘elders’ of the church. At the time of Our Lord elders were seen as senior Jewish figures who were prominent in the Sanhedrin and are mentioned in the Gospels as challenging Jesus in his ministry. The tradition was of elders together with apostles to appoint elders for each church (Acts 14.23). Some of these were ordained as bishops and priests but others were not. Regardless of their status some had the power to heal the sick as sent out by Jesus (Mark 6.13). St Jerome in the Vulgate Bible in Latin speaks of presbyteros ecclesiae and considered them priests. 

The main message of this sacrament is faith in Christ’s healing power, which heals the whole person, body and soul. Ancient prayers make it clear that this includes forgiveness of sins.


Suggestions of further Reading:-

Dudley, M. and Rowell, G. (editors) The Oil of Gladness; Anointing in the Christian Tradition. SPCK London. 1993. 

Martimort, A.G. The Sacrament: The Church at Prayer (Volume III) The Order of St. Benedict Inc. Collegeville Minnesota 1988.

Kasza, J.C. Anointing of the Sick in the Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology edited by Boersma, H. and Levering, M. Oxford University Press 2015.

Parenti, S. Anointing of the Sick during the Four Centuries both in the East and West. Handbook for Liturgical Studies (Volume IV edited by Chupungco, A.J. A Pueblo Book. The Liturgical Press Collegeville Minnesota. 2000.