The Anointing of the Sick is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. What this means is that it is one of the chief means of grace instituted by Christ during his time on earth. Since 11 February is World Day of the Sick, we thought we might break open this ancient and sacred rite of the Church to see what hidden graces it provides.

This sacrament is one of the least known of the Church. Yet, it has been there since the Church’s foundation, a fact the apostle James testifies to:

If one of you is ill, he should send for the elders of the church, and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again; and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven’ (James 5:14-16).

While it used to be reserved for those dying, its permission has been expanded to include those who face ‘the danger of death’ either from sickness or old age (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1514). It is a humble sacrament since its requirements are simple: a priest of the Church lays hands on the sick and prays ‘in silence’ before anointing the person with blessed oil. As such, it is also a silent sacrament, yet it holds great power.

What is this power?

1. Strengthening of the soul

According to the Catechism, the ‘first grace’ of the sacrament is the grace of ‘strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age’ (§1520).

In the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews, the author (possibly Paul) tells us that Jesus came in order to ‘take away all the power of the devil.’ Mysteriously, the writer refers to death – more precisely, ‘the fear of death’ (Hebrews 2:15). One of the ways the devil held sway over humanity was by manipulating our fear of death, tempting us down paths of despair, anger, even violence in our most vulnerable moments.

Through the mystery of Christ’s Passion, however, death has been overcome and we no longer need to be enslaved by that same fear. We can trust that God truly is the God of the living and death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). The primary grace of this sacrament is to strengthen us in that faith.

2. Healing of the body

The prophet Isaiah signalled that in the future, when God’s kingdom reigns, sins will be forgiven and diseases will be healed (Isaiah 33:24). Both of these things marked Jesus’ ministry, communicating to Israel something very specific: God’s kingdom was at hand.

The Catechism also tells us that the healing of physical illness ‘announced a more radical healing: the victory over sin and death through his Passover’ (§1505).

A diseased and decaying cosmos is only the symptom of the more ancient problem of original sin. Instead of treating the symptoms alone, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter and deals with sin.

Jesus charged his disciples with healing the sick and the Church has always taken up this call (Matthew 10:8). Yet, healing is not magic. While there is a connection between our faith and God’s healing, it’s not so easy to understand why and when God grants healing or to whom. This is why a grace of the sacrament is healing of the body, but only ‘if such is God’s will’ (CCC §1520).

3. Forgiveness of sins

Healing and forgiveness are deeply connected realities. This is why one of the graces of the sacrament is also the forgiveness of sins. The epistle of James tells us this clearly:

The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again; and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven’ (James 5:15-16).

The Church has always understood the sacrament to be a means of remitting venial sin.

'The Taking of Christ' by Caravaggio (1602)

4. Union with Christ’s Passion

One of the unique aspects of Catholic theology is the reverence with which it considers the mystery of human suffering. While, on the one hand, it recognises what suffering is – a consequence of original sin that has, ultimately, no place in God’s intention for creation – it also recognises the way in which suffering itself has been redeemed by the suffering of Christ.

In a mysterious way, through the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, a person is ‘consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion,’ since through Christ suffering itself ‘acquires a new meaning’ (CCC §1521).

St Paul said that through his own suffering he makes up ‘all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church’ (Colossians 1:24). It is one of the baffling passages of the New Testament, revealing that Jesus invites us to enter into the mystery of suffering, in union with Him, in order to find eternal life.

5. Sanctification of the Church

This is an interesting one. The graces of the sacrament are not only about the individual. We are not isolated individuals but a mystical communion, the Body of Christ. By entering more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s Passion, and by uniting their suffering with His, the sick are able to build up the Body of Christ, contributing to its sanctification.

Lumen Gentium says this:

By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayers of her priests the whole Church commends the sick to the suffering and glorified Lord . . . she exhorts them, moreover, to contribute to the welfare of the whole people of God by associating freely with the passion and death of Christ (§11).

In other words, by being holy you help the Church. Uniting yourself with the Passion of Christ is a holy thing that will make you holier. Ergo, doing it helps the Church. The sacrament of anointing gives you the grace to be able to do this.

6. Preparation for Death

Finally, one of the most obvious, since this sacrament used to be reserved for those who were dying.

The Catechism makes clear that this life on earth is a war and we should see it as such. But primarily it is a spiritual war. Keeping with this theme, the Catechism beautifully articulates the grace given to us as we draw closer to death:

The Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it. It completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life: that of Baptism which sealed the new life in us, and that of Confirmation which strengthened us for the combat of this life. This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house’ (§1523).

Like Gondor or Helm’s Deep, fortified against the enemy, the Anointing of the Sick readies us for the final battles that face us as we pass into eternal life.