The term “Extreme Unction” was one commonly used before the Second Vatican Council to indicate one aspect of the sacrament: the last anointing a person received before he or she died.
Though never forbidden to be received more than once, it was often put off until the person was near death. Another common term for the sacrament was Last Rites. After the Second Vatican Council, and with improvements in medicine in the twentieth century, the fuller understanding of the sacrament is celebrated. This is not to deny the fact that the fuller meaning of the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick was always believed or taught.
In the past, people often succumbed to death in situations in which modern medical technology can now aid in the treatment of the person. This is not to deny the spiritual power of the sacrament, but the fact that the infirm may receive the sacrament more than once in life.
Catholics believe that God gives us knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge for the good of mankind. Therefore, technology, medicine, and medical procedures should be used when they do not violate God’s law. Along with technology, the soul is also prepared through the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to fight against evil and depression, and to ask for bodily and spiritual healing.
We read in Sacred Scripture (James 5:14–15), “Is there anyone sick among you? He should ask for the presbyters (priests) of the church. They in turn are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Name of the Lord. The prayer uttered in faith will reclaim the one who is ill, and the Lord will restore him to health. If he has committed any sins, forgiveness will be his.” Clearly, the sacrament is to be used for healing. This verse also serves to introduce the rite of Anointing in which the priest or bishop says this prayer by way of preparing the patient for the sacrament.
Though bodily healing is prayed for in the sacrament, forgiveness of sins and therefore spiritual healing is utmost in the mind of the celebration. If the patient is conscious, then Confession often precedes the anointing. If unconscious, then conditional absolution over the person is given. The Catholic is on a pilgrimage in life toward paradise.
The Lord Jesus gives us every possible way to achieve that end, and the sacrament of Anointing is a vital step in the journey. One of the beautiful prayers said after the sacrament is administered reminds the patient that he or she is surrounded by God’s grace.