When Pope John Paul II received one of the last sacraments of Catholic life yesterday, he underwent one of the best known but most misunderstood rituals of the Roman Catholic Church.
The anointing of the sick, formerly called extreme unction and popularly known as last rites, is often dramatized in fiction and on screen as a deathbed ceremony. But that is no longer the case.
"It's not just reserved for the dying any more," said the Rev. John A. Williamson, associate pastor at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. "Typically it's saved for people in more debilitated conditions. But we give it for people going in for cataract surgery, all kinds of reasons." A priest typically administers the sacrament by daubing blessed oil on the subject's forehead and hands. As he does so, then he prays, "Through this holy anointing and his most loving mercy, may the Lord assist you by the grace of the Holy Spirit so that when you have been freed from your sins, he may save you and in his goodness raise you up."
Many faiths provide the sick and dying an opportunity to confess or express remorse in order to receive absolution. For Catholics, the anointing of the sick is one of the seven sacraments and the route to forgiveness of sins even if the patient isn't able to make a full confession.
Originally considered a rite of healing, anointing with oil gradually became more associated with forgiveness of sins in preparation for heaven. It eventually took on the name extreme unction and was conferred as a deathbed sacrament, typically in private by a priest.
After the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, the sacrament was renamed and refocused on all those seriously ill. Now, it is sometimes conferred on an entire group of worshipers, and even to some who are not physically ill. It can also be received more than once.