ASK FATHER: The pastor anoints everyone at Mass, sick or old or not – everyone.

last rites extreme unction anointing viaticum 02From a priest …


Every year at this time, my pastor has a communal anointing of the sick at mass. At the mass, everyone gets anointed, whether they need it or not. Is this correct? What should I, a lowly curate, do about this?

First, tread carefully.  The care of souls is the pastor’s and you assist him.  That said, it may be that the priest is not well educated about the sacrament, especially if he is of a certain age group.  Depending on your relationship with him, you might open up a discussion with him about the Sacrament of Anointing, telling him about some interesting things you read recently.  Hopefully the priest, once better informed, will not just cave in to the false expectations that people have by now and, thus, continue to abuse the sacrament rather than do the right thing (i.e., stop anointing everyone).

The Second Vatican Council said that “’Extreme Unction,” which may also and more properly be called ‘anointing of the sick,’ is not a sacrament for those only who are at at the point of death.  Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for that person to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.” [SC 73]

Let us remember that Anointing was and still is called Extreme Unction… the word “Extreme” does not mean that you are giving it on a skateboard or you are using huge amounts of oil. It means that a person is “in extremis“, that is, “in danger of dying”, as in, soon, in the final moments.

Another problem is that everyone is always in danger of death. However, we make distinctions.  We are always in danger of death from, say, a meteor, a drunk driver, a stray bullet from a drive by shooting, scaffolding falling from on high, earthquakes, etc.  These are all external to us.  There are other dangers that are internal to us, such as fourth stage pancreatic cancer, a known aneurysm, the massive gunshot wound that tore the femoral artery, being 93 years old, being 93 and getting pneumonia, etc.

So, the factors of old age and illness are internal  to our persons.

That said, the law – based on the Church’s teaching – is pretty clear.

Can. 1004 §1. The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, [thus, the ability also to commit mortal sins] begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.

This doesn’t say “everyone”.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

1514 “The anointing of the sick is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.”

Common points? Danger of death… sick and old age.  Not “everyone”.


Some of you might be saying “But Father! But Father! You really hate Vatican II! Vatican II did away with rules. This is the age of mercy! Pope Francis said so! All sacraments should be given to everyone all the time. You make me cry. That means that you must do what I want.  I need to be anointed now.”

Dear Cry Baby.  It is my job to keep you out of Hell.  Therefore, it is my job to say “No!” more often than it is to say “Yes!”.

Let’s not abuse what God has given us, especially something as solemn as a sacrament intended to help us die well.

One of the serious ways to abuse this sacrament is to administer it higgledy-piggledy.  Why?

There is an old distinction about sacraments of the dead (baptism and penance), and sacraments of the living (the other five).  Sacraments of the dead bring you out of spiritual death into life.  Sacrament of the living are to be received by the spiritually alive, in the state of grace. Otherwise, they don’t bring you all that you need from them, even if they are validly conferred.  For example, a man and woman validly marry in the state of mortal sin, but they don’t have the actual graces of the sacrament until they are in the state of grace.  A confirmand or ordinand in the state of mortal sin are ontologically changed by their sacraments, but they don’t enjoy all the benefits of being confirmed or ordained until they return to the state of grace.

Even when a person begins to be in danger of death from old age or illness, the Sacrament of Anointing should – if possible – be received in the state of grace.  If a person is incapacitated, the Sacrament of Anointing also forgives sins, but if a person is capable of confessing he should confess properly and receive absolution before being anointed.

Again, the Sacrament of Anointing, or “Extreme Unction”, unless there is urgent need or incapacitation,  should be preceded by sacramental confession of sins.

These “anointing” Masses could be a great moment for catechesis and spiritual renewal.

At such a Mass it would be good to explain what I explained above, adding what the effects of the sacrament are and aren’t (i.e, it is not just to make people feel good or feel like they belong – which is what Communion is turning into – it is not a moment to “get something”).  They should know that they should receive it in the state of grace.  Therefore, there should be confessors available to hear their sins in regular auricular confession before being anointed.  It could be a two step process.  Catechesis followed by confessions and then the Mass.

Anyway… good luck with the parish priest.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. vandalia says:

    When it is up to me:

    1) Communal celebration? No way. Maybe – maybe – in a retirement home or similar facility but that is the only time I would even consider it. Even then, probably no.

    2) Anesthesia. If you have ever had anesthesia, you are told that there is a specific risk of death. Therefore, I feel this is appropriate for the Sacrament. Preceded, if possible, by confession.

    3) Inpatient admission. If you are admitted to a hospital these days, you must be pretty sick. In addition, even though most places are moving to single rooms there is still a real risk of an employee walking in during the middle of confession. Therefore, I consider this a valid situation where the Sacrament may be appropriate.

    4) ED. There may be situations where there is such distress that it might be reasonable. If you have had a kidney stone, open fracture, etc., you may not be in immediate danger of death, but you think you are. It depends on the exact situation, but I would not damn a priest to hell for doing so.

    There are some Sacraments where given a doubt you do not confer the Sacrament: Most notably, ordination, and to a lesser extent matrimony. In the other cases, it is better to confer the Sacrament when not indicated that fail to do it when needed.

  2. TWF says:

    I believe there is a communal anointing service in the Byzantine Rite. I think during Lent. That may be where these guys get the idea. That being said, it’s definitely not appropriate for the Roman Rite.

  3. Gerard Plourde says:

    This may be a question more appropriate for its own post. Does the Sacrament now also contemplate administrtion to those in danger of death from the effects of mental illness, chronic depression for example? Having friends and relatives who are afflicted with this condition and knowing the way that it drains a person emotionally and spiritually to the point of the real risk of self-harm, it seems to me that reception would be appropriate for them (in addtion to treatment by mental health professionals and medication, of course).

  4. MBinSTL says:

    @TWF, yes, I believe that’s correct. Some years ago, I occasionally attended a small Antiochian Orthodox mission parish, to which some of my friends belonged. I understood, and their priest was always careful to point out too, that as a Roman Catholic I could not receive the Sacraments there, so I just participated in a kind of remote way, as reverently as possible.

    On Wednesday during Holy Week, the afternoon or evening liturgy involves everyone (i.e. everyone “eligible”) receiving the Sacrament of Holy Unction. Byzantine Catholics do the same.

    By the way, I’m not making an argument for such a practice in the Roman Rite; but it is interesting to learn about and witness diversity among the rites.

  5. The Masked Chicken says:

    My battery is going (in my iPad, that is). As for anointing the depressed, that depends, it seems to me on the nature and extent of the problem. If the depression is situational and likely to pass (think, SADS), then, no, but is the person is suicidal and contemplating killing themselves, they have, “turned towards death,” so to speak and, perhaps, while they are restrained or on suicide watch, one could make such a case for Anointing.

    The Chicken

  6. The Masked Chicken says:

    The Latin text reads:

    “Can. 1004 — § 1. Unctio infirmorum ministrari potest fideli qui, adepto rationis usu, ob infirmitatem vel senium in periculo incipit versari.”

    In periculo incipit versari, means, begins in danger of moving (to death). Interestingly, in periculo can, also, mean experimenting with, and experimenting with death is the definition of suicidal ideation.

    The Chicken

  7. Geoffrey says:

    I think this is one sacrament that could use some serious attention and discussion by the bishops (instead of Holy Communion for the adulterous), particularly in regards to mental illness.

  8. vandalia says:

    If someone is hospitalized for depression or other mental illness then I think one can make a reasonable decision that would warrant this Sacrament. This is particularly true since in such situations – depending on the facility – opportunities for confession may be non-existent. (“Well, you can talk with her, but you have to do it in a corner of the occupied day room.” With patients wondering around.) Particularly if there was a history of suicide attempts. If it is “depression” after the depth of a loved one, or mental illness that is well managed with medication/therapy, then I do not think that alone would be grounds for this particular Sacrament. Prayer, yes. Anointing, no. With that said, I would rather face judgement for administering the Sacrament to someone who did not need it, than for refusing to give it to someone who did.

  9. Imrahil says:

    I’m not a priest, but as to

    What should I do about this?,

    a silent voice in my head pops up and repeats a line familiar to all former German conscript soldiers.

    Reporting makes free, and burdens the superior. (“Melden macht frei und belastet den Vorgesetzten.”)

    I’d probably write the father of priests of a diocese, the bishop, a brief letter; without any diatribe against liturgical mistakes, of course, just “to rid myself of a trouble of conscience”, description of the situation, “I await further instructions”.

  10. Jonathan Marshall says:

    It is my job to keep you out of Hell.” – Absolutely spot-on , Father – I only wish more priests and bishops thought the same.

  11. Matt R says:

    Responding to the various comments: The Byzantine tradition, IIRC, has a service of anointing the sick where the anointing is a sacramental, not a sacrament.

    Receiving general anesthesia is not an occasion to receive the sacrament. It is not an injury or illness that puts you in danger. The surgery might, however, be necessitated by something which does put you in danger. My ACL repair did not constitute danger, but a triple-bypass surgery would! Also, if there is a danger of someone walking in, then take care to make sure no one does. Priests can use their manners and ask the intruder to leave… If the person can still confess, Confession is the appropriate sacrament for the forgiveness of sins. Anointing of the Sick completes this, but it is not its primary purpose.

    As far as the anointing of those with mental illness goes, it would seem to be an open question, though I’m generally more skeptical of people with mental illness receiving this sacrament (One example I particularly disagree with is addiction). On the other hand, if there is a question of whether the illness puts the person in danger, then the priest should anoint.

  12. ChesterFrank says:

    I went to a church that had a similar event. A difference was that this particular church held a specific Mass for the sick every week. The anointing was during one of those Masses, and was not done routinely. I questioned it a little, wrongly thinking that it was only used as last rites. I also wonder how many sick people received the anointing who might not have otherwise, thinking they might not have qualified ?” For that reason I did not think it inappropriate, and thought the Priests had much better judgement than me.

  13. arga says:

    The first Saturday morning of every month, my pastor celebrates what he calls a “healing Mass,” in which every single Tom, Dick and Harry, of every age and condition, marches up to the altar and gets Extreme Unction. It is a sorry sight, a great abuse.

  14. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    When I read this,

    Can. 1004 §1. The anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, [thus, the ability also to commit mortal sins] begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.

    I think there must be a translation issue. Because he has reached the age of reason, he begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age?

  15. Nicholas says:

    Chris Garton-Zavesky,

    I believe that reads “A member of the faithful who … Begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.

  16. taffymycat says:

    my father who has dementia but also serious physical sickness has rec’d extreme unction twice of late in hospital/emergency room and in the old latin rite. our priest friend does not have anything to do with novus ordo or new rites only using old latin. the first time my father could not confess because he was so seriously ill they thought he would never awaken in the emergency room–but also due to his dementia he cant confess. he had a good confession about 3 yrs ago from a retired monsignor. this last time he went through amputation at the age of 91 we did not know if he would make it, but the sacrament was given though he could not confess or even stay awake. but because of the grave physical shock/danger to him from surgery the priest did give the sacrament and blessed him w/relic of st. therese. the first time when he nearly died from BP dropping so low, he came to within hours!! of having received the sacrament, it was really surprising and wonderful. this second time he not only survived but is doing quite well. i am so glad we did not hesitate to request the sacrament in the old rite which if you have witnessed is moving, beautiful, powerful….i am so thankful to have priests available who are traditional and completely faithful to old rites and prayers. my old st joseph missal with its liturgical calendar actually works perfectly when i attend latin mass with this group!

  17. Imrahil says:

    Dear Chris Garton-Zavesky,

    he must both have reached the use of reason, and be in danger of death due to sickness or old age (danger which must be present, but need not be immediate, afaik – under present law, it is, again afaik, perfectly admissible to immediately anoint someone who has been diagnosed of influenza; but not the common cold or chickenpox).

    A child may be in danger of death due to sickness, but then it is not anointed because this sacrament, just as Penance, is directed onto the forgiving of post-Baptism sins. – However, such a child may, afaik, be both Confirmed and given First Communion, if at least he has some understanding of the thing.

  18. pjsandstrom says:

    Three important comments:
    1) “extreme” in extreme unction refers to the historical fact that it is the last of a series of ‘anointings’ one would receive as a Christian: at Baptism/Confirmation, at Ordination (if male) and in sickness &/or at the very approach of death.
    2) has no one seen or used this Sacrament as what the Ritual indicates that it historically has been? the “Church’s medicine”? — the application of the Messianic work of Jesus: “to heal the sick and suffering from the ‘inside out’ rather than by attacking the symptoms first — so from the outside — as modern medicine does. That is how it is used in the Eastern Church too — based on the traditional understanding and the Epistle of James 5:13-16.
    3) the Sacrament of Penance is at basis “medicinal” for salvation — as is also the Sacrament of the Sick (Extreme Unction).

  19. cwillia1 says:

    In the Ruthenian Byzantine Church there is an anointing called mirovanije. It is done on major feasts. It is not a sacrament. However, the sacrament is done during Holy Week for everyone who is disposed to receive communion.

    The general criterion for the administering the sacrament is that the Christian be gravely ill. Gravely in the Latin text of the eastern canon law means a serious illness. I don’t know how this squares with the Holy Week practice.

  20. jacobi says:

    My wife was ill recently, about five months back, and I called the hospital chaplain who immediately administered Extreme Unction.

    Since I was not too good myself, and am actually older than her, I also received the Sacrament, all under the inscrutable observation of a declared non-believing other visitor.

    It certainly hasn’t done either of us any harm. She, my wife, is fully recovered and I am still ticking along!

    What effect it has had on the inscrutable non-believer, remains to be seen. But I pray!

  21. ChesterFrank says:

    I read that Extreme Unction involved anointing a person with Oil of the Infirm in multiple places (the senses) and reciting a very specific prayer. Is it still Extreme Unction when the only part anointed is the hands, or the forehead, or both? What if the prayer is only partially said. Is Extreme Unction when a person is near death the only time the Oil of the Infirm is permitted to be used? Are these group anointing’s that sacrament, or a sacramental?

    [Even “back in the day”, that is, according to the EF, in the case of necessity, the prayers and rites can be abbreviated according to circumstances.]

  22. frjim4321 says:

    We do a communal anointing of the sick twice each year, both in the fall and during Lent. It seems to be very much appreciated. It is done at the Saturday evening mass.

    We do make it clear that there should be some infirmity of body, mind or spirit and that it should not be received routinely or by those who are not of catechetical age.

    That being said it is possible that very healthy-appearing people (including children and youth) my be very seriously afflicted though may not appear to be, therefore caution should be exercised so as to not deprive them of the sacrament.

    [Father… I implore you… to take to heart the content of the entry. Consider what you can do to make the celebration of this sacrament more effective, in keeping with the heavy burden of care of souls lain upon your shoulders. Catechesis! Confession!]

  23. TKS says:

    A double whammy in this week’s bulletin: “Anointing Mass: If you are ill, facing surgery, or feel in need of this healing sacrament, please come. Refreshments will follow in the Gather Space.” Followed by: “Dan Schutte, a prolific liturgical music composer, will be featured in a free concert and workshop…”

  24. Joe in Canada says:

    I participated in such a service, as an assistant pastor. I suggested to the pastor that he should use the aspergillium to save time. He didn’t ask me to help the next time.

  25. Father G says:

    Articles 8 to 12 of The General Introduction for the Pastoral Care of the Sick, found at the beginning of printed editions of the Rite Of Anointing, state the following:

    8 The Letter of James states that the sick are to be anointed in order to raise them up and save them. (See Council of Trent, sess. 14, De Extrema Unctione, cap. 2: Denz.- Schön. 1698) Great care and con­cern should be taken to see that those of the faithful whose health is seriously* impaired by sickness or old age receive this sacrament. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 73)
    *The word periculose has been carefully studied and rendered as “seriously,” rather than as “gravely,” “dangerously,” or “perilously,” Such a rendering will serve to avoid restrictions upon the celebration of the sacrament. On the one hand, the sacrament may and should be given to anyone whose health is seriously impaired; on the other hand, it may not be given indiscriminately or to any person whose health is not seriously impaired. A prudent or reasonably sure judgment, without scruple, is sufficient for deciding on the seriousness of an illness; (See Pius XI, Epist. Explorata res, 2 February 1923: AAS 15 (1923) 103-107) if necessary a doctor may be consulted.
    9 The sacrament may be repeated if the sick person recovers after being anointed and then again falls ill or if during the same illness the person’s condition becomes more serious.
    10 A sick person may be anointed before surgery whenever a serious illness is the reason for the surgery.
    11 Elderly people may be anointed if they have become notably weakened even though no serious illness is present.
    12 Sick children may be anointed if they have sufficient use of reason to be strengthened by this sacrament.

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