Question: As a nurse in a hospital, I have often seen patients being anointed by priests. I know that the priest lays his hands on the head of the sick person and applies holy oil on the forehead, but I have never understood exactly what these gestures mean. Can you explain? Also, why do many people die even if they are anointed?
— J.K.,Evanston, Wyo.
Answer: One of the principles of theology is that grace builds on nature. This means, in the case of the sacraments, that ordinary gestures and symbols are taken up into the liturgy and given supernatural meanings. In the case of the laying on of hands in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, the ordinary gesture of reaching out to greet, embrace or console someone becomes a gesture in which Christ greets, embraces and consoles the one who is sick.
The official Introduction to the Rite of Anointing of the Sick explains this gesture: “The Gospels contain a number of instances in which Jesus healed the sick by the laying on of hands or even by a simple gesture of touch. The [post-Vatican II] ritual has restored to major significance the gesture of the laying on of hands with its several meanings. With this gesture the priest indicates that this particular person is the object of the Church’s prayer of faith. The laying on of hands is clearly a sign of blessing, as we pray that by the power of God’s healing grace the sick person may be restored to health or at least strengthened in time of illness. The laying on of hands is also an invocation: the Church prays for the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the sick person. Above all, it is the biblical gesture of healing and indeed Jesus’ own manner of healing: ‘They brought the sick with various diseases to him; and he laid hands on every one of them and healed them’ (Lk 4:40)” (No. 106).
There is the same relationship between ordinary and extraordinary in the anointing on the forehead with holy oil. In human cultures, oils and lotions are used to heal, soothe and protect. So in the sacrament, the anointing with holy oil signifies the healing, soothing, protecting power of the Spirit. On this, the Introduction I just quoted states: “The practice of anointing the sick with oil signifies healing, strengthening and the presence of the Spirit. In the Gospel of Mark the disciples were sent out by the Lord to continue his healing ministry: ‘They anointed many sick people with oil and cured them’ (Mk 6:13). And St. James witnesses to the fact that the Church continued to anoint the sick with oil as both a means and a sign of healing (Jas 5:14). The Church’s use of oil for healing is closely related to its remedial use in soothing and comforting the sick and in restoring the tired and the weak. Thus, the sick person is strengthened to fight against the spiritually debilitating effects of illness. The prayer for the blessing of the oil reminds us, furthermore, that the oil of anointing is the sacramental sign of the presence, power and grace of the Holy Spirit” (No. 107).
Many people do, indeed, die even after being anointed. The sacramental rite doesn’t promise or guarantee healing; it serves as a spiritual strengthening in whatever condition the sick person is in— on the road to recovery, in crisis or facing death. This is why the sacramental rite of anointing offers many options and has to be adapted by the priest to the circumstances of the sick person.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.