Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Is it possible, in the anointing of the sick within Mass, to use the sacramental form, “Through this holy anointing …,” only once, for all of those to be anointed, and to anoint each individual silently? Would such sacraments be valid? — K.L., Halifax, Massachusetts
A: According to the liturgical and sacramental theology such a practice would not be a valid administration of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. The introduction to the Rite of Anointing of the Sick, when addressing the anointing of large groups (within or outside of Mass), states the following:
“108. The rites for anointing outside Mass and anointing within Mass may be used to anoint a number of people within the same celebration. These rites are appropriate for large gatherings of a diocese, parish, or society for the sick, or for pilgrimages. These celebrations should take place in a church, chapel, or other appropriate place where the sick and others can easily gather. On occasion, they may also take place in hospitals and other institutions.
“If the Ordinary decides that many people are to be anointed in the same celebration, either he or his delegate should ensure that all disciplinary norms concerning anointing are observed, as well as the norms for pastoral preparation and liturgical celebration. In particular, the practice of indiscriminately anointing numbers of people on these occasions simply because they are ill or have reached an advanced age is to be avoided. Only those whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age are proper subjects for the sacrament. The Ordinary also designates the priests who will take part in the celebration of the sacrament.
“The full participation of those present must be fostered by every means, especially through the use of appropriate songs, so that the celebration manifests the Easter joy which is proper to this sacrament.
“109. The communal rite begins with a greeting followed by a reception of the sick, which is a sympathetic expression of Christ’s concern for those who are ill and of the role of the sick in the people of God. Before the rite of dismissal, the blessing is given. The celebration may conclude with an appropriate song.
“110. If there are large numbers of sick people to be anointed, other priests may assist the celebrant. Each priest lays hands on some of the sick and anoints them, using the sacramental form. Everything else is done once for all, and the prayers are said in the plural by the celebrant. After the sacramental form has been heard at least once by those present, suitable songs may be sung while the rest of the sick are being anointed.”
Later in the rite, describing the ritual to be used for anointing within Mass the same principles apply, it says:
“137. The liturgy of the word is celebrated in the usual way according to the instructions in no. 134. The general intercessions are omitted since they are included in the litany. In the homily, the celebrant should show how the sacred text speaks of the meaning of illness in the history of salvation and of the grace given by the sacrament of anointing.
“A brief period of silence may follow the homily.
“138. The priest may adapt or shorten the litany according to the condition of the sick persons.
“139. In silence, the priest lays hands on the head of each sick person. If there are several priests present, each one lays hands on some of the sick.
“140. The priest says a prayer of thanksgiving over blessed oil or he may bless the oil himself (see PCS 21), using one of the following:
“141. The priest anoints the sick person with the blessed oil. If there are large numbers of sick people to be anointed, other priests may assist the celebrant. Each priest anoints some of the sick, using the sacramental form as described in no. 124.”
The sacramental form found in the above-mentioned 124 is:
“First he anoints the forehead, saying:
“Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. R/ Amen
“Then he anoints the hands, saying:
“May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up. R/ Amen.
“The sacramental form is said only once, for the anointing of the forehead and hands, and is not repeated. Depending upon the culture and traditions of the place, as well as the condition of the sick person, the priest may also anoint additional parts of the body, for example, the area of pain or injury. He does not repeat the sacramental form.”
I think it is therefore clear that the sacramental form must be repeated each time a person is anointed.
In this case, it is like other sacraments where an action takes place while the sacramental form is pronounced, such as baptism and confirmation. In all these sacraments the action and the words must be pronounced by the same person at the same time.
There might be some historical doubt as to whether this is true for baptism since there have been cases of multitudes being baptized in a single occasion, beginning with the 3,000 Christians added on the day of Pentecost.
Ordination, at least in the Roman rite, separates the imposition of hands and the sacramental form so that several men can be ordained to a particular degree of ministry at the same time.
Matrimony is usually simultaneous, but it is possible to be married by proxy in separate venues.
In some special cases, the absolution of a sin has to be delayed so that there is a temporal separation between the matter and form of the sacrament.
The Eucharistic sacrifice and the real presence take place at the words of consecration, but the transformation involves all the hosts intended for consecration by the celebrant and not just the host in his hands.
* * *
Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.