At times even some "seasoned Catholics" get stumped by the question "What is the difference between Anointing of the Sick and Last Rites?" Many of us get confused and believe it is the same thing just a different way of naming it. Well, there is a difference and it is important for us to know these differences so that we can better understand and take full advantage of this Sacrament and this Apostolic Blessing (Last Rites).
Anointing of the Sick
Most of usually think of asking for this anointing only when we are nearing death through sickness or old age. However, if this is the case, we would be missing out on the opportunity for God to heal and help us at times when we might need Him the most - when we are having surgery, dealing with a physical, mental, emotional, or even spiritual affliction. It is during these difficult times that we need the Holy Spirit's gifts of strength, faith, peace, and courage. It is during these times, as well, that we should seek to receive this God given sacrament.
The General Introduction of Pastoral Care of the Sick states:
The Letter of James states that the sick are to be anointed in order to raise them up and save them. Great care and concern should be taken to see that those of the faithful whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age receive this sacrament.
How can we decide if we should ask to be anointed? Well, a good or reasonably sure judgment, without an uneasy feeling about the rightness of what one is doing or going to do, is sufficient for deciding on the seriousness of an illness. For example:
And if you are still unsure, when in doubt...ask a priest!
The anointing of the sick is administered, by a bishop or priest, to bring spiritual and even physical strength during an illness. This sacrament, unlike some of our other sacraments, can be administered more than once, especially if a person has a chronic illness.
"The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects:
- the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own 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).
When the Anointing of the Sick is administered to a person who is likely dying the apostolic blessing is given along with the anointing and that is considered last rites, since it is, most likely, the last time the person will receive it.
Does a person have to be dying to receive this sacrament? No. The Catechism says,
"The anointing of the sick is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived" (CCC 1514).
It is important to note that God does not always heal the physical infirmities that afflict us when we recieve this Sacrament. Sometimes this might happen, but it is not guaranteed that once we recieve this sacrament we will be healed from our ailments. It is more of a God given Grace to help us deal with what is in store for us and to help us prepare for that journey.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that Anointing of the Sick can only be administered to the living. This sacrament will not be administered to one who has already passed. It is a Sacrament and sacraments are celebrated and administered only with/to the living.
Last Rites - Last Blessing
After the administration of the sacrament of anointing, the last rites, which is an apostolic blessing that gives a plenary indulgence to the dying person, is performed. As previously mentioned, when a person is nearing death, the apostolic blessing is given along with the anointing and that is considered last rites, since it is, most likely, the last time the person will receive it.
Rev. Mark J. Gantley explains the Apostolic Blessing:
The Apostolic Pardon (or blessing) is an indulgence given in situations of danger of death, usually after the absolution of the sacrament of penance. The focus is on the remission of temporal punishment due to sin. The words of the prayer explain the meaning of the act: "Through the holy mysteries of our redemption may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy." Or "By the authority which the Apostolic See has given me, I grant you a full pardon and the remission of all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
The Handbook of Indulgences #28 states: "Priests who minister the sacraments to the Christian faithful who are in a life-and-death situation should not neglect to impart to them the apostolic blessing, with its attached indulgence. But if a priest cannot be present, holy mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis, at the approach of death, provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross is recommended in obtaining this plenary indulgence. In such a situation the three usual conditions required in order to gain a plenary indulgence are substituted for by the condition 'provided they regularly prayed in some way.'
Scott P. Richert explains, "Extreme Unction is another term, very common in past centuries but rarely used today, for one of the seven sacraments, the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, which is administered both to the dying and to those who are gravely ill or are about to undergo a serious operation, for the recovery of their health and for spiritual strength. Unction means an anointing with oil (which is part of the sacrament), and extreme refers to the fact that the sacrament (at least until recent years) was usually administered in extremity—in other words, when the person to whom it was being administered was in grave danger of dying."