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Sacrament for the Sick and Sacraments for the Dying: When Are They Celebrated?

Sacrament for the Sick and Sacraments for the Dying: When Are They Celebrated?


Many people are often confused about what sacraments we receive when we are sick and what sacraments we receive when we are dying. Oftentimes the parish receives calls requesting a priest to anoint someone who is dying when the dying person has already been anointed recently. Other times a request comes in to anoint someone who is already dead. This article is meant to help us understand the sacramental teachings of the Church for those who are sick, those who are dying, and those who have already passed from this life.


A brief history.

Before the Second Vatican Council in 1962 we often heard the phrase “last rites.”  “Last Rites” actually refers to the reception of three different sacraments: Anointing [called Extreme Unction in the past], Confession, and Viaticum [Eucharist for those who are dying]. What has changed?


The first document issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1963 was the Constitution on the Liturgy [CSL]. The council fathers issued revisions of our liturgical rites “because with the passage of time, however, certain features have crept into the rites of the sacraments and sacramental that have made their nature and purpose less clear to the people of today . . . “ [CSL 62].


One change concerned the sacrament appropriate for those who are sick. The CSL states:

’Extreme Unction,’ which may also and more properly be called “anointing of the sick” is NOT a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one 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.” [CSL 73].


In 1972 Pope Paul VI established a new sacramental form for the sacrament of the sick. In 1974 the Rite of Anointing and Pastoral Care of the Sick was approved for use in English in the United States.  After several years of use, it was revised and the Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum [RAPCS] was mandated for use in the United States in 1983.


Who should receive the anointing of the Sick?


The sacrament of anointing is for those who are sick. The rite states:

The sacrament of anointing is the proper sacrament for those Christians whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age.”  [RAPCS, 97].

The sacrament of anointing may also be celebrated with a sick person before surgery; with elderly people who have come notably weakened by age even if there is not serious illness; and with children who are sick if they have sufficient reason to be strengthened by the sacrament. {RAPCS, 10,11, 12]


The sacrament has a twofold purpose. First, we believe that if it is God’s will, the person be physically healed of illness. The primary effect of the sacrament is a spiritual healing that gives the Holy Spirit’s gift of courage and peace to those who face serious illness or old age.


Sacraments are for the living. Thus one who has died would not be anointed.

“When a priest has been called to attend those who are already dead, he should NOT administer the sacrament of anointing. Instead, he should pray for them, asking that God forgive their sins and graciously receive them into the kingdom.” [RAPCS, 15]


The church also cautions against misuse of the sacrament. It should be “celebrated only when a Christian’s health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age.”


May the Anointing of the Sick be repeated?


The rite states that the sacrament of anointing may be repeated:

“when the sick person recovers after being anointed and, at a later time, becomes sick again;

                 When during the same illness the condition of the sick person becomes more serious.

                In the case of a person who is chronically ill or elderly and in a weakened condition, the sacrament of anointing may be repeated when in the pastoral judgment of the priest the condition of the sick person warrants the repetition of the sacrament.” [RAPCS, 102].


The sacrament of the anointing of the sick may only be celebrated by a priest [or bishop].


What About a Person Who Is Dying?


If a person is in proximate danger of death, and has already been recently anointed, they do not need to be anointed again. The anointing of the sick is normally NOT one of the last rites. The primary sacrament for the dying is Viaticum. It comes from the Latin meaning supplies for the journey. Viaticum is the name given to the Eucharist when a person is dying. The dying need the strength of the Eucharist for the journey they are about to undertake.

“The celebration of the eucharist as viaticum, food for the passage through death to eternal life, is the sacrament proper to the dying Christian.” [RAPCS, 175].

The Church even cautions that the anointing of the sick should be celebrated at the beginning of a serious illness because then Viaticum “will be better understood as the last sacrament of Christian life.” [RAPCS, 175]. If a person lingers in a grave condition of a period of days or longer, he or she should be given Viaticum frequently if not daily.


If a dying person is unable to receive the eucharist under the form of bread, they may receive it under the form of wine alone.


What about the sacrament of penance?


If a person is sick and requests the sacrament of anointing the Church advises that the sacrament of penance [or confession or reconciliation] take place at a previous visit to the sick person. If it is necessary to celebrate the sacrament of penance during the rite of anointing, it takes place during the penitential rite.


If a person is dying the Church advises that the sacrament of penance [or confession or reconciliation] should be celebrated in a previous visit. If this is impossible, the sacrament of penance should be celebrated BEFORE the rite of Viaticum begins. “Alternatively, it may be celebrated during the rite of viaticum, replacing the penitential rite.” [RAPCS, 187].


What if a person has a sudden illness and is in the proximate danger of death?


It can happen that a person suddenly becomes ill or is dying from some other cause that places them in the proximately danger of death. In this instance, the Church provides for a continuous rite when the person is given three separate sacraments in a single celebration: penance, anointing, and Viaticum.


“If death is imminent and there is not enough time to celebrate the three sacraments . . . the sick person should be given an opportunity to make a sacramental confession, even if it has to be a generic confession. After this the person should be given viaticum, since all the faithful are bound to receive this sacrament if they are in danger of death.” [RAPCS, 30]


What if the person has already died?


As stated above, the sacraments are for the living. They are not be celebrated with someone who is already dead.

“A priest is NOT to administer the sacraments of penance and anointing.” [RAPCS, 223].

The Church, however, has special prayers for use by a minister who is called to be present at a person who has already died.

“To comfort those present the minister may conclude these prayers with a simple blessing or with a symbolic gesture, for example, making the sign of the cross on the forehead. A priest or deacon may sprinkle the body with holy water.” [RAPCS, 225].