Can Deacons Anoint the Sick?
During a healing service at a parish in a South African diocese, the deacon invited and anointed those present with the sacred oil of the sick. This was distressing because the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law expressly forbid anyone but a valid priest or bishop from anointing in this way. Was the deacon not perpetuating a false catechesis or can he plead inadvertent misconduct?
The Apostle James wrote that those who are ill should send for the elders of the Church and they will anoint them with oil in the Lord’s name as they pray for their recovery: the prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again; and if he has committed any sins they will be forgiven him (James 5:14-16).
Only Priests and Bishops
The forgiveness of sin, as the Church teaches, belongs by Christ’s authority to the priests (elders) of the Church. It is this connection with the forgiveness of sin that excludes anyone but bishops and priests from the sacramental anointing of the sick.
The Catechism and canon law preserve this teaching, which flows from Christ’s deep and sympathetic concern for the sick and the poor, and his readiness to cure those who had faith in him.
There is evidence that in the first five centuries it was the custom for a sick person to anoint himself in private or to ask a family member to do it, while prayers were offered for the grace of healing. Seemingly, this custom applied in the case of less serious illnesses, aches and pains. When someone became gravely ill and in need of spiritual help, the bishop or priest was summoned to do the sacramental anointing.
It’s a Sacrament
The anointing of the sick, once commonly called extreme unction, is one of the Church’s seven sacraments. Although deacons pray with the sick person for God’s merciful gift of healing, and bring spiritual and emotional comfort to that person, it is beyond their powers to attempt to administer the sacrament.
You do not say whether the deacon you mention followed the prescribed liturgical rite for the sacrament. Assuming that he did and that he gave some or all present the impression that he was conferring the sacrament, he was seriously out of order and should have known better.
Deacons are trained to know the duties and the limitations of the specific ministry they provide within the sacrament of holy orders.
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