A clear distinction is made in the “new” Order for the Care of the Sick (issued by Pope Paul VI in 1972) between those who are seriously ill and those who are dying. Extreme Unction or Last Rites as it used to be called is now more fittingly called the Anointing of the Sick (or Sacrament of the Sick), for the sacrament is to be given to those who are seriously ill or sick, but not to those who are dying. And certainly not to those who are dead.
The effect of the Sacrament is summarised in the Introduction to the Rite:
“The sacrament provides the sick person with the grace of the Holy Spirit by which the whole man is brought to health, trust in God is encouraged, and strength is given to resist the temptations of the Evil One and anxiety about death. Thus the sick person is able, not only to bear his suffering bravely, but also to fight against it. A return to physical health may even follow the reception of this sacrament if it would be beneficial to the sick person’s salvation.”
Who may be anointed?
The rite states that “there should be special care and concern that those who are seriously ill due to sickness or old age receive this sacrament”.
Anointing is not a magic remedy. A person should, as far as possible, be able to take part in the celebration consciously and actively. It is a misuse of the sacrament to “put it off” until the person is very seriously ill.
Old people may be anointed if they are in a weak condition, even though no dangerous illness is present. It is not a question of anointing people who have reached a certain age. It is not simply a question of years, but of the debility that goes with age, and this varies from person to person. The Church stresses, however, that all who receive this sacrament appreciate that it is not given to prepare them for death. It is given that they might have strength to overcome their condition.
Surgery - even very common or ‘routine’ surgery is always to be taken seriously. It is always appropriate that the sacrament be given before surgery. Where possible, please ask for the Sacrament of the Sick before going into hospital.
The sacrament of the dying is Viaticum, literally meaning Holy Communion given ‘for a journey’.
The dead should not be anointed. Instead the priest is asked to pray for the dead person, asking that God forgives his/her sins and graciously welcomes him/her into his kingdom. And so, while the priest will not anoint the person who has died, he would certainly want to called upon - day or night - and would want to join with those who are present in praying for the person who has died.
The Sacrament of the Sick is given to those present who wish to receive it after the 9.30am Mass on the first Sunday of each month Also at any other time on request - either in the church, in hospital, or in the home of the sick.