The Sacrament of Anointing: Paradigmatic Shift inUnderstanding in a Postmodern World

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2009 »Volume 46 2009 Number 2 »The Sacrament Of Anointing Paradigmatic Shift In Understanding In A Postmodern World

By Izunna Okonkwo

Izunna OKONKWO is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Onitsha, Nigeria. He holds a Master’s degree in Religious Studies, and Master of Advanced Studies in Theology and Religion from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KUL), Belgium. Presently, he is a PhD research student in the Faculty of Theology of the same University.


Various thinkers have taken change as the only thing that is permanent. This seems to be applicable in the understanding of the sacraments in the history of the Church as well. A concept, which was neither used by the early Christians nor found in the New Testament later, gained what one may call popular significance in the life of the Church. William J. Bausch observes that the first Christians "were interested in the whole community celebrating the wonderful works of God in Jesus, not in individuals privately manipulating objects to tease out grace."1 Over the years, the approach has significantly changed in the understanding of the sacraments that a new perception has become necessary.

The thrust of this paper is to move from the classical scholastic understanding of the sacraments into modernity, with particular reference to the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. In this effort we will look at sacraments as markers in the history of faith of a Christian. The sacrament will be situated within the Christian journey of faith in the world. Attempting to establish a link between, the sacrament of anointing and the action of the Holy Spirit we will also view the healing perspective of the sacrament in postmodernity with hope of situating it in the context of African inculturation theology.

Since not all the Christian churches consider anointing to be a sacrament we will approach it from the Catholic background.

The Classical View on the Sacraments

The traditional (scholastic) understanding of the sacrament as the outward sign of the inward grace instituted by Christ to confer grace to the soul of the recipient so much prevailed in the Church that the sacraments were more of less seen as mechanical and automatic transmitters of grace.2 As the view was maintained, the involvement of the recipient was only considered to be passive for it was sacrificed at the altar of ex opera operato principle (with emphasis that the validity of the sacrament does not depend on the worthiness of the minister). The scholastic theology of the sacraments, borrowing from Aristotelian hylemorphic dualism ofmateria et forma (matter and form), substance and accident and cause explained the efficacy of the sacraments within the context of a mystery one cannot but receive in wonder and amazement.3 The Council of Trent promoted this way of understanding sacramental efficacy and gave it pride of place in Catholic theology over the years. The post-Tridentine sacramental theology considered the seven sacraments to have been explicitly instituted by Jesus.4 However, the beginning and the middle of the twentieth century witnessed a paradigmatic shift among the theologians over the scholastic interpretation of sacramental efficacy.

In such a transformed understanding, sacraments have been perceived as sources of renewal and channels of authentic life.5 From this point of view, however, they still refer to or symbolize something beyond themselves – something mysterious, something which cannot be seen, something special.6 David N. Power, attempting to offer a sacramental theology that tends towards praxis, perceives sacraments as language event, an expression, which seems to have satisfied postmodernity’s inclination.7 Going further in his interpretation, he presents sacrament as a gift. From its point of view as a language, God speaks to the believer in various ways. He also pictures it, not only as a gift but also as a free gift of God to humanity who is expected to reciprocate with a loving response.8

It is against this background that one may say that sacraments are not entirely abstract benevolence that points to the eschatology. On the other hand they play significant role in the here and now occurrences of the believer that we can say that they are connected to the journey through life.

Sacrament and Journey through Life

The postmodern perception of the sacraments leads to attribution of the sacraments to various life moments. Baptism, confirmation and Eucharist are seen as sacraments that initiate a Christian into the community of believers, the basic sacrament of the encounter with God.9 Against this background, the administration of the Eucharist is seen as the fulcrum of a process that starts at baptism. Of the Eucharist John Hadley says:

Neither the Eucharist nor the life of Christ which it reveals, are to be separated off from the life of theworld. Jesus didn’t stay aloof from the world’s life, in all its glory and ghastliness but entered it fully, took it on board as it were, and offered it to God. And the Eucharist continues this representative, ‘priestly,’ life of Christ, involving us in it at every level.10

Though Hadley made the observation with regard to the sacrament of the Eucharist, a closer look at other sacraments in our time reveals their connectedness to life events. Through the sacrament of reconciliation and anointing of the sick (sacraments that are linked with the negative experiences of human beings’ existence) the Church accompanies the believers on their road to repentance.11 The sacraments of marriage and holy orders, normally received at a later age "seal an adult commitment of the faithful and empower their call before God."12 Sacraments, though, are no ordinary celebrations. They are special occasions for experiencing God’s saving presence. However, there is an anthropological basis for the celebration of these sacraments that may require consideration preceding their theological imperative.13 Analogously, it is believed that there is "a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of spiritual life."14 In other words, it is important for people to be in touch with what the sacraments celebrate if the rituals are to be as meaningful as possible for them.

Sometimes people who participate in a sacramental celebration do not fully appreciate one or another of the dimensions of a sacrament’s meaning. In this case, the sacrament speaks its meanings, as it were, to those attending the ceremony/celebration and invites them to find out more about what each sacrament stands for. The sacrament also calls people to get in touch with the sacred realities it celebrates. Each sacrament has a real foundation in the life and ministry of Jesus, and (of course) relates to his (Jesus) stories and teachings.

For instance, Baptism calls to mind the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the way Jesus gathered a community around himself. It also reminds us of the command of the risen Lord to carry the gospel to others and to baptize them. Eucharist reminds us of the Last Supper. Those familiar with the Gospels are also reminded of other meals to which Jesus invited even those who were rejected by others. Reconciliation reminds us of Jesus’ invitation to forgive one another, and of the way he forgave those who put him to death.

The more a Christian responds to this call (for example, Reconciliation’s call to forgive and accept forgiveness), the more he/she finds meaning in the sacrament. We will at this juncture explore the sacrament of anointing of the sick along above claims.

Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick

Anointing of the Sick is the ritual anointing, practiced in some Christian churches, of a sick person. It was formerly known not just as unction (anointing with oil) but Extreme Unction instead of "anointing," or even unction of the sick. Some Churches prefer using administration of the sick. All the same, it is the essential aspect of the Church’s concern for the sick and the weak.15 In it, the Church expresses the profundity of her service to the entire humanity. It came to be in the course of history as a way of imitating Jesus’ concern for the sick, the weak and the suffering and as a celebration of his death and resurrection. It passed through various stages to arrive at its present form.16 With the Second Vatican Council the anointing of the sick has regained its former status of importance. As such, it is no more "thought of as the last anointing or the Extreme Unction, but as giving strength to sick people in the physically and spiritually endangered state they have entered through illness."17 In the opinion of the Fathers at Vatican II, "‘Extreme Unction,’ which may also and more fittingly 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 appropriate time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived."18

The above view encapsulates how the sacrament will be perceived in the contemporary era. It may be pertinent for us to see next the place of the Holy Spirit and the concept of healing in the Anointing of the sick.

Anointing of the Sick and the Holy Spirit

The centrality of the place and action of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of the Anointing of the sick is very evident. The Holy Spirit who is also ‘received’ in other sacraments is renewed in a unique fashion. Lambert Leijssen links up this action to the community experience: "in a postmodern age, the attention given to this sacrament can clearly be directed to the communal dimension and the gift of Spirit, as a silent glimmer of participation in the divine mystery of self-offering, resembling Jesus, the icon of the invisible."19 After the laying on of hands (in an ordinary form of anointing), the minister says a prayer of thanksgiving over the oil. He praises God for his saving work in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.20 In the official formula for anointing, the minister specifically mentions the grace of the Holy Spirit: "through this holy anointing may the Lord in his Love and Mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit."21 Subsequent prayers also give vent to the place of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, "the sacrament is experienced as a symbolic action whereby this life situation is placed in the light of faith before God and whereby we know ourselves to be carried by God’s nearness, becoming new people in the gift of the Spirit."22

Though this is the case in all the sacraments, it appears to be exceptionally applicable in the anointing of the sick. The council of Trent expounded St. James’ teaching regarding holy anointing with particular reference to the central reality of the sacrament – which is the grace of the Holy Spirit and its effects on sin.23 It is because of its association with sin that this sacrament is, in most cases, considered together with the sacrament of penance. This, perhaps, stems from supposed biblical reference to Anointing that links it up with healing and forgiveness of sin (Jas 5:14-15).

Anointing of the Sick: Sacrament of Healing

There has been a dispute with regard to enlisting Anointing of the sick as one of the sacraments in Christendom. While the Protestants do not consider it to be a sacrament on the ground that it is missing in the Scriptures, the Catholics insist that it was instituted by Christ and has to be guarded as a sacrament. The New Testament presents accounts of Christ’s ministry to the sick and the vulnerable. In some cases Christ links sickness to sin. Jesus cured the paralytic and later told him: "now you are well again, do not sin anymore, or something worse may happen to you" (Jn 5:10-14). Reading further, one notices that in the same fourth gospel, Jesus exonerates sin as the cause of infirmity after healing the man born blind. To his disciples who inquired to know the person whose sin(s) caused the man’s blindness he answered: "Neither he nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that the work of God might be revealed in him" (Jn 9:2-3). William J. Bausch contends that sickness is a sign of a deeper, more general evil aboard in the world, an inescapable symptom of human being’s need for deliverance. On account of this, "he proffers that every healing, therefore, and every use of Christ’s sacrament of the sick must basically be a call to conversion and faith and a fuller sharing in the Easter mysteries."24

Nevertheless, at the time this sacrament of the sick was simply regarded as Extreme Unction, it was taken to be the sacrament that forgives sins that the dying person may begin his or her journey into the next world in a state of grace. Of paramount importance, however, is its connection to healing: spiritual and physical. Some contend that the recipient had to show signs of life if the anointing was to have any spiritual effect on the soul. Perceived as the sacrament that heals, it has not been entirely freed from the ambivalence that is found in some of the other revised sacramental rites for while it is now primarily a sacrament of the sick it is still also a sacrament of the dying.25 Understood as such, in postmodernity issues like the minister and the oil for the administration of the sacrament seem to be attracting attention more than ever.

Anointing and Postmodern Exigencies

Some sacraments have both extraordinary and ordinary ministers. Such flexibility gives sense of belonging to the lay faithful and materializes, in a way, the Vatican II’s improved and humane understanding of the clergy and the laity as People of God. Sacrament of anointing of the sick has only the priest as the minister. Deacons are not considered to be ministers even in extraordinary cases like in periculo mortis (when death threatens). It has been observed that: "given the new role of this sacrament in the care of the sick, the question has arisen whether someone other than the priest can act as the minister."26

With increased decline in the number of those who are embracing ordained ministry in some countries, the call requires to be given the attention it demands. This needs not to be considered as an entirely novel practice as it was already employed in the early Church. The members were (then) permitted to go home with blessed oil to anoint their sick ones. Besides, at the wake of collaborative ministry, the pastoral care (even of the sick) is no more the prerogative of ordained ministers. Drawing from the situation on the ground, one anticipates that the present regulation can be relaxed.27 The sacrament of penance (which only a priest can administer) most often linked with the sacrament of anointing appears to be under crises that argument for its "laicization" may soon be heeded.

Anointing: A Call for Inculturation

With the paradigmatic shift witnessed in the Church, thanks to Vatican II, good elements in people’s culture are now being incorporated into the Church. This is being implemented in various fashions in liturgical celebration. Oil, which is used in the anointing of the sick, is appreciated in many cultures as having curative effects. Usage of olive oil is apparently foreign to some of these cultures. Nigeria for instance has several species of oil from plant (palm tree) that are domestically processed. Since olive oil is neither easily available nor affordable, one expects that the Conference of Bishops in that (and other) regions would consider adapting the oil they use to what the believer is familiar with.

Sacraments like Baptism, Eucharist and marriage have attracted the attention of several authors and "contextual theologians" in such a way that one begins to wonder whether the sacrament of Anointing of the sick is being catapulted to the domain of the scholastic abstract framework. However, every culture has a way of attending to the sick. Integration of the sacrament of Anointing and the people’s concern for the sick is very likely to appeal more to the sick and his or her family members. How this could be done is anticipated to be one of the concerns of theologians in this third millennium.

Evaluation and Conclusion

Sacraments are still important in the Church and in the life of the believers. The wave of postmodernity calls for a dynamism that is very likely to revitalize the role of the sacrament in the Church’s life and mission. Due to its connection to the vulnerability of human nature, the importance of the sacrament of Anointing cannot be overemphasized. One may say that James’ assertion that the presbyters (elders) are to minister to the sick (Jas 5:14-45), go beyond the restriction with regard to the contemporary minister of the sacrament of penance. It is hoped that postmodern sacramentology would address the issue of its expectations in the face of the fast changing world. One may say that if the sacraments appeal more to believers, because of their relevance in various life moments, there is very likely to be, not only a change in, but also a sustained approach to the sacraments.


1. William J. Bausch, A New Look at the Sacraments (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1984), 1.

2. Lambert J. Leijssen, With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit: A Postmodern Look at the Sacraments(Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006), 9.

3. Ibid.

4. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. XIV: Ecclesiology, Questions in the Church, the Church in the World, tr. David Bourke (London: Longman and Todd, 1976), 136.

5. Anselm Grün, The Seven Sacraments, tr. John Cumming (London: Continuum, 2003), 2.

6. Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction in the Catholic Church, revised and updated edition (Missouri: Liguori/Triumph, 2001), 5.

7. David N. Power, Sacrament: The Language of God’s Giving (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 51.

8. Power, Sacrament, 59-85.

9. Leijssen, With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit, 42.

10. John Hadley, Bread of the World: Christ and the Eucharist Today (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1989), xii.

11. Leijssen, With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit, 42.

12. Ibid.

13. Liam G. Walsh, The Sacraments of Initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1988), 3.

14. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nairobi: Paulines, 1992), 314.

15. Grün, The Seven Sacraments, 246.

16. Leijssen, With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit, 79-82.

17. Anselm Grün, The Seven Sacraments, 246.

18. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 73.

19. Leijssen, With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit, 85.

20. Grün, The Seven Sacraments, 246.

21. International Commission on English in the Liturgy, A Joint Commission of Catholic Bishop’s Conference (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1982), 132.

22. Leijssen, With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit, 86.

23. See Paul VI, Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum, 30 November, 1972, in Vatican Council II: More Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Mumbai: St. Paul’s, 2003), 35-37.

24. Bausch, A New Look at the Sacraments, 203.

25. Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred, 345-346.

26. Leijssen, With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit, 87.

27. Ibid.

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