“Ask a Priest: When does a person receive the anointing of the sick?”

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Q: My dad is ill with cancer. My aunt wants his last rites done. I said it isn’t time yet since he doesn’t even know he has cancer. He is coherent, it hasn’t hit his brain, so we have time. Had she suggested anointing of the sick, I would have agreed. Last rites would make him lose hope. She told me all Catholics get it done every year?! We all are Catholics, and I have never heard such a thing. Is it a yearly ritual to have your last rites in some places? -T.F.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It is in a difficult moment such as this, when your dad has cancer, that the Church particularly wants to be there to support him and the family. A key part of this help is the sacraments, especially the anointing of the sick, which can bring spiritual healing and, God willing, physical healing as well.

The Catechism in No. 1514 states 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.”

That is worth noting: The anointing can be given to anyone suffering from a serious illness or facing “a serious operation. The same holds for the elderly whose frailty becomes more pronounced” (Catechism, No. 1515).

Now, you mention that your aunt wants “his last rites done.” The term “last rites” has been and is commonly used to refer to the anointing of the sick, or what used to be called extreme unction. Last rites can also refer to the three sacraments (confession, anointing of the sick, and viaticum, or Communion) normally given to a person approaching death. These three sacraments can also be offered to anyone suffering a serious illness or in decline in old age.

At this point it might be good to touch on two considerations. (I don’t know all the details of your situation, so gauge these comments for yourself.) First, your dad in principle has a right to be told about his state of health. This can build a climate of trust and support within the family. It can be unsettling to a suffering person to sense that others are hiding something from him. Second, your dad has a right to have access to the anointing of the sick. As mentioned above, it is a sacrament given by Christ specifically to help people in their time of suffering.

Maybe it would help you to think of the sacrament as the anointing of the sick rather than as the last rites. Possibly you could explain to your dad that the sacrament is there to strengthen him, not to signal his imminent death.

It is simply not true that all Catholics receive the last rites (or the anointing of the sick, if you prefer that term) every year. Some parishes might schedule an annual Mass where the anointing of the sick is offered to the sick and elderly, but that is a different case.

In any case you will want to ensure that the sacrament is offered to your dad. Rest assured of my prayers for him and all the family. God bless.

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