The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Number 1511, states: “The Church believes and confesses that among the seven sacraments there is one especially intended to strengthen those who are being tried by illness, the Anointing of the Sick.” This sacrament is instituted by Christ as the others also are. It has its roots in the Sacred Scripture, especially Mark and James in the New Testament.

Traditionally, this sacrament has been called ‘Extreme Unction’ and became more and more reserved for those near death as time moved on. Thus, the misnomer “Last Rites” began to be used even though the Church never taught or used it. Even then, the old rites did invoke the healing power of the Lord and conveyed the hope for recovery to the recipient.

The Second Vatican Council succeeded in bringing about a genuine reform of this sacrament, renaming it “Anointing of the Sick.” The purpose of this reform was to recapture the original meaning of the scriptures and purpose of the sacrament, extending it to those adults who were seriously ill, bearing ongoing infirmities, facing surgery, or advanced in age or near death.

The Church highly encourages people to promptly seek this sacrament from their priest in any of the circumstances mentioned above. The Church highly discourages persons from avoiding this sacrament out of unfounded fear or faulty understanding.

The prayer of anointing itself reflects the healing hope of the Church in the Lord’s power to restore, heal and ultimately save the sick person. The prayers and intercessions included in the Rite of the Anointing of the Sick are positive and directed towards life and health, recovery and restoration, and salvation.

The priest will say the following words as the forehead and palms of the hands are anointed with the Oil of the Sick in the sign of the cross:

“Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you.”

Last Rites

A minister went to the racetrack; when the horses came out on the track, he noticed that a priest went up to one of the horses and put his hands on him and blessed him. The horse ran, and the winner was the horse the priest blessed. In the second race, the priest blessed the horse and won! The minister ran to the ATM and got some money. He returned to the track and watched as the priest went up to a horse and blessed it, but this time also laid hands on his eyes, nozzle, and all four hoofs. The minister was pretty excited and went and put all his money on that horse. The race barely got started when the horse fell dead on the track!

The minister located the priest and asked him, "What happened? Why did that horse you blessed die instead of winning like the others? I put all my money on that horse!" "That's the trouble with you Protestants," answered the priest. "You don't know the difference between a blessing and the last rites!"

Many people, especially older Catholics, are familiar with "last rites." It has become such a widely used and commonly referred to phrase that even non-Catholic Christians use it, and people in the medical profession, especially nurses whose work keeps them near to patients who may be extremely ill in hospitals and nursing homes near death. But what are "last rites"? Is it a thing the Catholic Church has that must be obtained? Do we need to wait until the last possible moment before death to call a priest and get the "last rites" for a dying person?

First of all, what needs to be understood is the false concept that "Last Rites" is a separate and individual kind of "sacrament" unto itself that is only imparted in some form by the priest at the moment before death. Who of us knows exactly when a person is going to die? How can we be so sure that a priest will be available and able to show up for this before the person actually dies? Is this really what the Church teaches us about the Sacraments and their proper function and use? The following reflection is what I prescribe for a deeper and more responsible understanding of the issue.

"Last rites" is not a "thing" that the Catholic Church has that a person must "get" the moment before death. The last rite is an event that might happen if the person does not die before receiving one or all of the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Anointing, and Holy Communion. Let me further explain. The term "last rites" is used to describe an event that might happen before the death of a Catholic person (I use the word 'Catholic' purposefully because there are requests made by unknowing people for this to be imparted non-Catholic people. Since we are talking about Sacraments here, only Catholic persons are eligible for this). For example: If a patient desires a priest to come and that patient receives one or all three of the Sacraments of Reconciliation (Confession), Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Communion (Eucharist) - and dies - that person has received their "last rites" of the Roman Catholic Church.

So, "last rites" is a phrase, a description of an event that might happen after the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, and Eucharist (one or two or all three) have been imparted (celebrated) with a Catholic person, and the recipient dies. It is not a "thing" unto itself but a process or event. The Catholic Church believes and teaches that Catholic Christians should be living the Sacraments (all seven) throughout their lives as the best aid to their salvation in Christ because He established the sacraments for precisely that purpose.

"Thus, just as the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist form a unity called 'the sacraments of Christian initiation, so to it can be said that Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist as viaticum constitute at the end of Christian life 'the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland' or the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimage." Catechism of the Catholic Church; number 1525.

In my previous reflections, I made the point that "last rites" is a descriptive phrase that expresses an event that might happen if a person who receives all three (Reconciliation, Anointing, and Eucharist) sacraments or a combination of them and dies... that person has received their "last rites" of the Roman Catholic Church. It is, therefore, an event rather than a "thing" to get at the last moment of life.

In all my reading of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I have not yet discovered the phrase "last rites" even used. It has become a popular phrase to conveniently use when someone feels the need for a priest, especially if they are dying or close to death. That is fine, providing a greater and more responsible understanding of the process and the power and use of those three sacraments themselves. Unfortunately, it seems that Catholics have developed a sort of tunnel vision and have lost the more profound meaning and purpose of the three sacraments of healing and grace. To call a priest for "last rites" presumes the person will die and not recover. Do we not reflect doubt about the power of these sacraments to heal and save if there is a presumption of death? Our beautiful Catechism states in number 1520 ..."The first grace of this sacrament [Anointing of the Sick] is one of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of grave illness..." Therefore, our first and primary faith in the sacrament is about the power and possibility of recovery, not death. Unfortunately, I have witnessed people who are seriously ill, need the sacraments, and refuse even a priestly visit because of the fear that it will mean they will die! How sad to be deprived of the very spiritual strength needed because of a shallow or faulty understanding of the true meaning and purpose of those sacraments! The Catechism in that same paragraph states, "This assistance of the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God's will." Our focus is not the fear of death and dying but healing, recovery, and life.

When should one receive the sacraments of healing and recovery? Number 1514 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "The Anointing of the Sick 'is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death." It is a sacrament for those who are ill - usually gravely so and ready for important and urgent surgery⁠—and should be sought before any worse condition or deterioration of health sets in on a person's life. These sacraments (Reconciliation, Anointing, Eucharist) should be in the heart and mind of every faithful person at a time in their lives when they are "tried by illness" (number 1511, CCC). They are not to be feared, shunned, or put off by any means! God has provided for us a wonderful and powerful set of Sacraments that give grace and strength when we most need it.

"Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you." The proper time for receiving this holy anointing has certainly arrived when the believer begins to be in danger of death because of illness or old age (1528, CCC). Each time a Christian falls seriously ill, he may receive the Anointing of the Sick. . . (1529, CCC).


Concluding Points

Hopefully, my reflections on the sacraments of the departing have opened up some possibilities for your reflection. These grace-filled and powerful sacraments (Reconciliation, Anointing, and Eucharist) should not be neglected throughout one's illness but utilized to fulfill their purpose—the health, strength, and life of the soul and body—and possible recovery to total health and return to one's regular and daily life. As number 1523 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to the death and resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it. It completes the holy anointing that marks the whole Christian life: that of Baptism which sealed the new life in us, and that of Confirmation which strengthened us for combat in this life." The sacraments received during illness can help us return to our everyday life. Our focus needs to be primarily on our recovery to health and return to service and life. If we die after receiving them, they have served us in passing from this life to eternal life in the Mansions of our Heavenly Father.

"The special grace of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick has its effects: the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his good and that of the whole Church; the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age; the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of Penance; the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul; the preparation for passing over to eternal life." (CCC #1532)

I appreciate your reading my reflections on these sacraments we have come to call "last rites." I hope you have a deeper and richer understanding of this now for yourself and your loved ones. The Catholic Church has never claimed or taught that "Last Rites" must be given to save someone's soul. The Catholic Church believes and teaches that Christians should be living the sacraments throughout their lives as the best aid to their salvation in Christ. "Last Rites," sacraments, or any other rite or ritual of the Church is not magic. The sacraments do not bind God.