QUAERITUR: priest lays on hands, deacon anoints the sick


From a reader:

Father, I have a question about what happened during all the Masses (OF) this weekend at my local parish.  I’m assuming it was the same at the other two because it was advertised, but the Mass that I attended had Anointing of the Sick at the end of the Liturgy of the Word.  All the people who wanted to receive it (about 40) lined up in the center aisle then proceeded down while the priest laid hands on them and then they split off to the sides.  Then he and the deacon separately proceeded with the oil on the palms. My understanding is that only priests and bishops can give this sacrament, but what if the priest lays on hands and a deacon places the oil on the palms?   

In the Novus Ordo there are provisions for the administration of sacraments during Mass, as you point out, after the Liturgy of the Word.  I don’t much go for that, but it can be done licitly.

I am sure the the priest thought he was doing a good thing in trying to make it available to people who might not have come onto his radar screen otherwise.

I have reservations about Anointing during Mass and inviting anyone to come to receive it.  This sounds like a dicey approach to the administration of the Sacrament.  Given what I am reading in the description, I suspect there may not have been a clear preaching beforehand about the sacrament, its effects, and who may received it.  I don’t know that, of course.

First, who is going to go forward to receive this Sacrament?  Anyone at all… even those who don’t need it.  They will go because they don’t have a clue what the sacrament is really for.  Of course it might all have been explained in a sermon before, etc.  Still…

The reception of sacraments requires some preparation, unless it is an emergency. 

There is an old distinction between the sacraments of the "living" and the sacraments of the
"dead".  The sacraments of the living are those which are to be received in the state of grace.  Those of the dead are to be received by those who are spiritually dead in sin.  Baptism and Penance are for the dead and the others are for the living.

The sacrament of Anointing is normally to be received in the state of grace, though it can confer when necessary sanctifying grace.  So, unless there is an emergency or pressing need, reception of the sacrament of Anointing should usually be preceded by sacramental confession.  Again, if there is an emergency, the sacrament can be given without sacramental confession because, in those cases, the sacrament of Anointing can also forgive sins, as the Council of Trent affirmed and the CCC reaffirms.  This effect of forgiveness of sins when necessary is one of the reasons why only priests can given this sacrament.

But the sacrament of Anointing is not a substitute for the sacrament of Penance in normal circumstances.

That brings us to the next point.  You say the priest laid on hands but the deacon anointed.   I am pretty sure that is not merely illicit, but it is also invalid

The rite calls for the priest to lay on hands, say the form of the sacrament and anoint with oil.  The form of the sacrament is the words to be spoken and the matter is the anointing with oil. 

In the ritual for anointing during a Mass, the rubrics say that "the priest" is to do these things, not "the priest or deacon".  The Prenotanda at the beginning of the book indicate:


16: The priest is the only proper minister of the anointing of the sick. 

19: When two or more priests are present for the anointing of the sick person, one of them may say the prayers and carry out the anointings, saying the sacramental form.  The others may take the remaining parts, such as the introductory rites, readings, invocations or instructions. Each priest may lay hands on the sick person.

44: … The words "priest," "deacon," and "minister" are used advisedly.  Only in those rites which must be celebrated by a priest is the word "priest" used in the rubrics (that is, the sacrament of penance, the sacrament of anointing of the sick, the celebration of viaticum within Mass).  Whenever it is clear that, in the absence of a priest, a deacon may preside at a particular rite, the words "priest or deacons" are used in the rubrics. …


The parish priest really ought to review these things. 

Just the other day the Holy Father spoke to the Congregation for Clergy and stressed that priests need to have a sound doctrinal foundation.  There are theological aspects of the sacrament of anointing which must be clear in the minds of the ministers.

Let’s review:

Only priests can anoint.  Deacons cannot anoint.  If deacons do that, who knows what grace might come from their actions, but they simulate a sacrament, which is a grave abuse and, if they know this, a very serious sin.

Sacraments have both matter and form.  The form is the words and the matter is the material part, the physical aspect.  In the sacrament of Anointing the matter is the anointing with oil by the priest.  The priest must do it, because the effects of the sacraments are threefold, that is, strengthening of the sick person, possible physical healing, and the forgiveness of sins.  This is based on Scripture and it is defined by the Church.

If this is going on, and the priest will not correct the practice, then the diocesan bishop must be informed.

For questions about how the rite is to be conducted, one can have recourse always to the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments.  In the case of the question about validity of a sacrament in a concrete case you must have recourse to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. However, after the pastor, the diocesan bishop really ought to be the best first source to consult for this.

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  1. jpoppe says:

    I thought deacons can baptize. Don’t they annoint then?


  2. jpoppe says:

    Sorry, this is conversation on a specific sacrement, general. I will take the advise of the anti-spam work a little further and “read, then think, then post.


  3. Anyone may baptize validly. Only priests can anoint.

  4. a catechist says:

    It’s my understanding that all deacons receive a written copy of their faculties at their ordination or incardination to a new diocese, and Annointing of the Sick would not be listed there. One suspects in this case a simple review of faculties with the priest and deacon would clear up this misunderstanding. Also, I wonder how recently ordained the pastor and deacon were–a lack of knowledge about the diaconate might have contributed. You say above that the priest must correct the practice, and while I don’t mean to undermine the authority of the pastor, I think the deacon is at least equally obliged to observe the limits of his Holy Orders and the rubrics.

  5. For a deacon to attempt to administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick is simulation; it is certainly always invalid and no authority in the Church can make it otherwise. Therefore, “a catechist” is absolutely right that, though the pastor should not instigate or approve of such things, a deacon, if he is asked to do such things, must absolutely refuse.

    Cf. Council of Trent, Session 14 Canones de sacramento extremae unctionis, in Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta, p. 713, can. 4, ll. 41–44: “Si quis dixerit … proprium extremae unctionis ministrum non esse solum sacerdotem: a.s.”

  6. Andrew says:

    Only a priest (i.e., a Bishops and presbyters) can anoint the sick (cf. c 1003, §1). Therefore, the anointing referred to in this reader’s letter would have been invalid. Those who simulate a sacrament can be punished with a just penalty (cf. c 1379); at the very least, the priest and deacon should be given a decent talking to by the Bishop – this is basic sacramental theology, and so they should have known better!!!

  7. inillotempore says:

    The deacon at the nouvus ordo church we used to attend taught that the priest is the ordinary minister of the sacrament, but in extreme cases, a deacon may officiate (e.g. danger of death and no priests to be found). The deacon then has to see the bishop afterwards and get his permission after the fact, or some such thing(kind of the opposite of a judge issuing a “roaming” search warrant).

    This does not surprise me here in this diocese (Springfield, MA); we have a liberal bishop who welcomed the moto proprio S.P. by yanking the only TLM in the diocese (which was celebrated once a month in the toughest neighborhood in western MA at 4:00PM Sunday afternoon), by saying there was “no interest”.

    Needless to say we attend Mass as the TLM friendly (or at lease tolerant)diocese over the county line (Worcester, MA).

  8. Well said, Father Z. Deacons have no business anointing. IMHO, they really baptize or bless marriages except perhaps in emergencies or mission situations where no priest is available.

    The end of the “Golden Age of the Diaconate” came about in large part because the deacons began to take upon themselves the duties of the presbyters. I fear a similar backlash if deacons do not resist the pull to become “presbyters, second-class.”

    We have the charism proper to our ordo, and presiding and anointing is not part of it.

  9. Johnny Domer says:


    I don’t think it matters how newly-ordained a priest or deacon is…this sort of thing is basic knowledge that every priest or deacon MUST know; indeed, any seventh grader studying the Baltimore Catechism knows that the priest is the minister of Extreme Unction. If the priest and deacon didn’t know, then somebody is criminally at fault; either the seminary/formation program that didn’t teach this to them, or themselves for ignoring Church teaching. This is like a surgeon not knowing basic anatomy.

  10. Matt says:

    *extremae* unctionis

    As in not for everyone on every day whenever you feel like it. The sacrement is watered down when a person is given the sacrament, but is under no immediate threat of death.

    Whats next. Father I have had a head cold for 5 days. Can I get the annointing of the sick? The priest should promptly tell the faithful they should go see a doctor first.

    God did teach man how to be a physician after all. The priest is the physician for the soul and the doctor is the physician for the body. One cannot forsake the other and expect to have a healthy life. Extreme Unction should be reserved for those times when the doctor can no longer or will not be able to heal the body. Then our spiritual doctor cares for that which survives the body into eternal salvation.

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