Anointing: Not So Easily Categorized

It is a feature of post-conciliar catechesis to subdivide the seven sacraments into three neat categories: initiation, healing, and vocation. If one looks at the surface, it makes sense to group Baptism-Confirmation-Eucharist as the liminal event that completes one’s initiation into the Body of Christ. Penance and Anointing share a remedial quality. As practiced in the West, Marriage and Orders are almost always tines of a fork in adult life, each leading to its own expression of vocation.

A close examination shows these divisions are not so self-contained. Baptism inspires a vocation as well: the call for the believer to be priest, prophet, and king witnessing to Christ in the world. Many believers emphasize Baptism as the primordial sacrament of vocation. I would not disagree.

Baptism also forgives sin. Indeed, it may be the primordial sacrament of forgiveness, as practiced in the early Church, as well as when it is celebrated with believers who have reached the age of reason. We might recategorize the three sections with a symmetrical three sacraments each:


Yet details of pastoral practice frustrate an absolute delineation. In effect, Penance is now part of the initiation sequence. Its catechesis is required before completing the initiation of the infant-baptized. Some believers seem to lump it in with the non-repeatable sacraments like Confirmation. Even if some theologians might argue Penance is an elementary-age interloper, in practice, it is the second of four initiation sacraments.

Consider, too, that other category, the repeatable sacraments: Eucharist and Penance in practice. Anointing in theory. Orders too, in that a person can be ordained twice and consecrated (a bishop) once.

In a word, our sacraments have issues when we try to box them in. But I’d like to consider a notion that sacraments, instead of being easily categorized into three neat boxes, are actually a tangle of threads. Where our practice is clear and spiritual fruitfulness is great, the sacraments are a beautiful tapestry. Where not, perhaps a tangle of knots and confusion. Where does Anointing lie? In the tangle, or in the tapestry?

As we’ve just completed an exhaustive survey of the pastoral care rites, it seems timely to devote some reflection space to Anointing. I’d like to propose that Anointing of the Sick has qualities of vocation. This is not a new idea. I was exposed to it in grad school through Jake Empereur’s book Prophetic Anointing. The Benedictine Sister Genevieve Glen also has contributed significantly in the theology and pastoral reflection of this sacrament. While I don’t profess an up-to-date familiarity with the current scholarly approach on Anointing, I would offer a few thoughts, channeling Empereur and Glen somewhat, and my own observations from a few years spent in ministry to the sick and dying.

Anointing of the sick and especially the elderly, has an echo of baptism. At our moment of being born again, we are designated priests, prophets, and kings. The sick person serves the faith community in each of these roles, though in a distinctive way. The Old Testament understanding of the priest was a person who prayed to God, interceded on behalf of the people. Prayer is one way in which sick people serve and assist the Body.

I once spent two months in bed from a back injury and subsequent surgery and recovery. It was a frustrating time, eight weeks of doubt and concern. But I tried to pray. When I got sick of praying for myself, I tried to pray for others. 

Many elderly folks I’ve known have been superb at maintaining prayer as a connection to their parish. Like priests of old, they are set apart, and they have time, silence, and the space in which to pray for others.

As prophets, the sick and the elderly stand in stark witness in a culture that tries to cover up illness and death. As the media bombard us with visions of young people full of vitality, strength, beauty, and accomplishment, the sick stand in contrast. The elderly and the sick remind each of us, and all of us, that we are mortals, that our bodies and minds will fail, and eventually we will hand over our lives. Will we do so with dignity? Or will we be dragged kicking and screaming into what lies in the afterlife? Get a clue, the ill and the dying are saying to us.

The experience of illness is also one of identification with Christ the King. Christ was a King who acceded to sacrifice, handing himself over, and surrender to the Father’s will. The royalty of a Christian is based not on the finery of externals. Nor does it accompany the use of power. Few believers have the opportunity to witness to the true royalty of Christ in asuch a profound way than when we are sick and dying.

Anointing is also a sacrament of vocation. The elderly believer enters into a stage of life, crossing a threshhold into a time of decreased mobility, vigor, and … is there anything positive? The sick person struggles with meaning, decreased freedom, a change in lifestyle sometimes short-term, sometimes not. Can there be a positive from this,too? One would hope so. Jake Empereur suggests the sick and the elderly have a special vocation, and Anointing of the Sick is the ritual celebration for both the anointed and for the Church: 

This sacrament is a celebration of the fact that because of Christianity, the sick and old person who is fragmented can be brought back together again. It is an articulation of the truth that by dying to oneself, by being the kind of marginal human being a sick and old person is, one opens oneself to a fra greater wholeness. In turn, the sick and old person who is anointed, as well as the rite itself, speaks to the Church reminding it that there is a deeper meaning to sickness and old age than what can be explained by the medical and psychological professions. Thus, those who are anointed minister to the rest of the Church who are well and in the fullness of life. (Jake Empereur, SJ, Prophetic Anointing, p 141)

This is why the Church’s liturgies for pastoral care of the sick and dying are so important. It is vital that the anointed experience in the rite what is expected of them. They are not passive recipients of spiritual healing. They are not being sent off alone with a blessing and a prayer. Likewise, the faith community, especially the family and friends of the anointed, will need to see through the rituals that there is something beyond a person’s failing body. How do we find an encounter with Christ in the midst of suffering and failure?

I’d like to leave off with that thought for now. It is worth exploring in more depth, but I’ll leave that for a better theologian or after some reflection time. Meanwhile, any of your thoughts to add?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Anointing: Not So Easily Categorized

  1. Jim McK says:

    I have been wrestling for some years with the notion of anointing in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, ordination and of the sick. The motivation for this originally was the name of Jesus, since Christ means anointed, but it has stretched beyond this.

    Your grouping of the sacraments with Baptism is interesting to me. I came to a framework similar to yours, with 7 sacraments in three groups of three:

    Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist;
    Reconciliation, A. of the Sick, Eucharist;
    Marriage, Orders, Eucharist.

    I like that the 3 middle terms are the three sacraments that anoint. Of course, it is never that easy. The relation between baptism and confirmation is too difficult, especially since many writers include chrismation as part of baptism and mean baptism-with-chrismation rather than simply the water. This obscurity is practiced, since those who are baptized as infants receive 2 chrismations (at baptism and at confirmation) while adults receive only one, after coming up from the water. So any diagram is bound to oversimplify, since the practice is so complex.

    [Recently I had some thoughts on the first column, on the order of ‘God loves you’ as baptism, ‘Really, God loves you’ as reconciliation, and ‘I love you’ in marriage as the image of ‘God loves you’. But I have not developed that much.]

    Starting from adult initiation, the chrism signifies prophet, priest and king, or speaking, offering and doing. Reconciliation is a response to the improper use of the kingly ‘doing’ or deeds, so it follows confirmation (or immediately precede it); presumably one does not have the authority to do kingly deeds before initiation, so no need to confess NOT doing them. Applying this to those baptized as infants would mean reconciliation, confirmation, eucharist as the sequence.

    In the Anointing of the Sick, the person is recognized as a priest who offers their suffering as Christ offered his own suffering for us all. It is not just a matter of prayer as you describe it, but of suffering: the sufferings of the anointed are joined to the redemptive suffering of Christ, the Anointed. Every pang of every pain is reminiscent of Christ on his way to Calvary.

    There is a lot more to this, which I would love to explore in this context of liturgy, but you already have said that about your own ruminations.

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