In the Parish which I have come to since returning to live in Sydney, there is an apparently long standing custom of holding what is described as a " Healing Mass" once a month. Inserted into the celebration of the Mass before the Eucharistic Prayer , is a communal rite of administering the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Those in attendance - about 70 people all go up for the Anointing except one.


Until the Second Vatican Council, the Sacrament was described as Extreme Unction - that is the Last Anointing given when a person was in  imminent danger of death through illness or advanced old age. In those days, when popular Western culture was more friendly to the Catholic Church than it is to-day, the references in the news to someone being " given the Last Rites of the Catholic Church" ( though these include more than this Sacrament) were always uttered with great solemnity and were a sure indication that the person was on the brink of death.

However Pope Pius XI as early as 1923 had made it clear that it was NOT necessary that a person be in immediate danger of death for the Sacrament to be administered (Actae Apostolicae Sedis  15 ( 1923) 105.But this teaching did not get the degree of attention necessary to change what was the day to day practice in the Church. Then the Second Vatican Council did manage to achieve an impact , and, in the Apostolic Constitution " Sacram Unctionem" Pope Paul VI developed this teaching with reference to Mark 6:13 and James 5 : 14-15.

But whilst the imminence of death was no longer the sole focus of the discipline surrounding the administration of the Sacrament, the danger
of death, through advanced age or serious illness remained the express focus . Then in January1983 , Revised Code of Canon Law was promulgated and it - issued under the authority of the Holy  Father- made precise the mode of implementation of the teaching of the Holy Fathers and the Council.

The Canon Law prescribes very thoroughly, as one might expect, the nature of the Sacrament, its Form and Matter , ordinary and extraordinary Ministers of the Sacrament, permitted recipients and the arrangements for the celebration of the Sacrament. There is no room  for misunderstanding.

Canon 998 Tells us :

" The anointing of the sick, by which the Church commends to the suffering and glorified Lord the faithful who are dangerously ill so that he may support and save them, is conferred  by anointing them with oil and pronouncing the words prescribed in the liturgical books."

So from the beginning we see the focus strictly on those dangerously ill.

The following Canon 999 begins the Chapter on the Celebration of the Sacrament by governing who may bless the Oil which is used for the anointing. This role is reserved to the Diocesan Bishop or his equivalent in the Law, or " in a case of necessity" by a Priest.

The Diocesan Bishop  normally carries out this function during the annual Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday.  His equivalent would for example be a Diocesan Administrator even though not a Bishop. A case of emergency enabling a Priest to act, might arise through supplies of the oils being exhausted and being unable to be replenished in time to meet the need for an urgent anointing.Emphasising the latter point, the Canon confines the Priest to blessing the oil during the actual administration of the Sacrament.

Canon 1000 # 1 Specifies : " The anointings are to be carried out accurately, with the words and in the order and manner prescribed in the  liturgical books. In a case of necessity, however, a single anointing on the forehead, or even on another part of the body  is sufficient while the full formula is recited."

Here the Sacramental Form, the normal anointing on the forehead and then on the hands is allowed to be varied where necessary.One might easily envisage the case of a  major train wreck where only parts of the bodies of some victims might be accessible as lengthy rescue measures are put in hand.

Canon 1000 # 2  Specifies " The minister is to anoint with his own hand , unless a grave reason indicates the use of an instrument". The Church has been anointing for 20 centuries and is no stranger to situations of infectious diseases.

Canon 1001 States :
" Pastors of souls and those who are close to the sick are to ensure that the sick are helped by this sacrament in good time."

The Church wants the needs of Christ's faithful vigilantly overseen.

Canon 1002 Comes right to the point of our opening concern:

" The communal celebration of anointing of the sick, for a number of the sick together, who have been appropriately prepared and are rightly disposed, may be held in accordance with the regulations of the diocesan Bishop."

So here we have it:

" of the sick"

" appropriately prepared"

"rightly disposed"

in accordance with the regulations of the Diocesan Bishop which of course must ,at a minimum, conform to the requirements of Canon Law.

Before we go to the particular case, let's finish our examination of what the Canon Law requires.

Canon 1003 # 1 Opens Chapter ii which considers " The Minister of the Anointing of the Sick".


" Every Priest, but only a Priest, can validly administer the anointing of the sick."

This is of critical importance touching as it does the importance and responsibilities of Holy Orders and the very validity of the Sacrament.

Canon 1003 #2 addresses a question of pastoral responsibility that might arise :

" All priests to whom has been entrusted the care of souls , have the obligation and the right to administer the anointing of the sick to the faithful entrusted to their pastoral care. For a reasonable cause , any other priest may administer this sacrament if he has the consent, at least presumed, of the aforementioned priest." 

All reasonable problem circumstances seem well covered in the above.

Canon 1003 #3 Makes clear the rights of a Priest as regards transporting the Matter of the Sacrament:

" Any Priest may carry the holy oils with him, so that in case of necessity he can administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick."

This Canon confirms an easing of the discipline in this regard compared to the 1917 Code. However, considering the Church's traditional and special veneration of the sacred oils the Priest remains obliged to provide for their special and sacred character and distinct care in the process of so carrying them.

Finally , in Chapter III Canons 1004 to 1007 address the subject of who may be anointed. Let's look at that:

Canon 1004 #1 :

" The anointing of the sick can be administered to any member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to  be in danger by reason of illness or old age."

It should be noted here that danger of death on account of imminent battle or execution does not qualify one for the " anointing of the sick". Similarly disability in and of itself does not qualify one.

Canon 1004  # 2 :

"This sacrament can be repeated if the sick person , having recovered, again becomes seriously ill or if, in the same illness, the danger becomes more serious."

We see here that unlike Baptism and Holy Orders for example, the Sacrament does not imprint a character. Whilst in the past it may have been underused, it ought not be overused or administered as a matter of routine.

Canon 1005 Addresses some doubtful cases a resolute manner:

" If there is any doubt as to whether the sick person has reached the use of reason, or is dangerously ill or is dead, this sacrament is to be administered."

Canon 1006 Clarifies a particular circumstance:

" This sacrament is to be administered to the sick, who , when they were in possession of their faculties, at least implicitly asked for it."

The Canon envisages a case of a person in a deteriorating condition.

Canon 1007 Goes to the issue of disposition:

" The anointing of the sick is not to be conferred upon those who obstinately persist in manifestly grave sin."

This is quite clear.

Now we are able to assess the particular situation of the local come one, come all,  monthly"Healing Mass".

The first problem we face is that this is a monthly occurrence for all comers.No effort is made to instruct people attending, many of whom are there at Mass most days, who may be anointed.  The clear impression given to all, and obviously gained by those regularly attending, is that everyone is entitled. FALSE - as we see from Canons 998 , 1002 and 1004 #2 above.

Whilst a few of those presenting themselves obviously qualify by virtue of very obvious serious illness evidenced by near immobility, deathly pallor, tremors and or very advanced old age, and I am prepared to concede that some of those appearing hale and hearty may know they suffer  illness, it is not nearly reasonable that everyone of the church full is in that condition.

To cap it off, at the end of the ceremony, each of the Priests administers the Sacrament to the other! Neither shows any sign of dangerous illness or any illness for that matter, and they are both very far from " old age".

But, assuming for a moment, that at a given "Healing Mass"EVERYONE, Priests included,  did qualify, the appearance of the same people almost without exception the next month and the next and the next - with no discernible change in their condition ( except in the case of the aged who obviously are older) is clearly an abuse of the Sacrament.

Perhaps some might be inclined to seize upon Canon 1005 above and its reference to cases of doubt about a person being dangerously ill, to throw a coverall defence over the practice ("how do we know they are not dangerously ill?" ).  The intention of the Canon is clear.  It is addressing particular individual cases, such as a Priest might encounter at an accident scene for example, and such glib attempts to subvert the intention of the Law are unworthy of any Catholic , let alone a Cleric.

Correcting this abuse would require very careful instruction of the faithful. For these are all good people. They obviously like the concept and for them it is " nice" and it is consistent with their devotion.But, if the integrity of the Sacraments is to be preserved " niceness" is not enough.

This practice is all of a piece with other false"spirit of the Council" abuses. Just as the General Absolution gave a Drive Through Car Wash mentality to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, this abuse reduces the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to a monthly Grease and Oil Change. Both are contrary to the explicit mind of the Church. The former abuse has been exterminated, it is time that this abuse was also brought to an end. Let us see the Sacraments as they ARE Fathers, and set sentimentality aside for Truth.


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