UPDATE: The diocese has now rescinded this policy.
A Massachusetts diocese has authorized a change to norms for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, permitting a nurse, rather than a priest, to conduct the physical anointing, which is an essential part of the sacrament.
“Effective immediately I am allowing the assigned Catholic hospital chaplains, standing outside a patient’s room or away from their bedside, to dab a cotton swab with Holy Oil and then allow a nurse to enter the patient’s room and administer the oil. If the patient is alert, the prayers may be provided via telephone,” Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Mass., told priests in a March 25 message.
“The hospitals need to control bedside access to patients so as to reduce transmission of COVID-19 as well as to preserve very limited supplies of masks and other personal protection equipment(PPE),” Rozanski explained, noting that the policy was devised in consultation with “pastoral services at both Mercy Medical and Baystate Medical centers.”
Mercy Medical Center is a Catholic hospital, and a part of Trinity Health, a Catholic healthcare system.
The Church teaches that only a priest may validly perform the sacrament.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Springfield told CNA March 27 the permission reflects diocesan policy “for now.” The spokesman said the policy was proposed by the Trinity Health system, and has also been proposed to other dioceses.
Trinity Health has not responded to questions from CNA.
According to the Church’s canon law, “the anointing of the sick, by which the Church commends the faithful who are dangerously ill to the suffering and glorified Lord in order that he relieve and save them, is conferred by anointing them with oil and pronouncing the words prescribed in the liturgical books.”
“The celebration of the sacrament includes the following principal elements: the ‘priests of the Church’ – in silence – lay hands on the sick; they pray over them in the faith of the Church – this is the epiclesis proper to this sacrament; they then anoint them with oil blessed, if possible, by the bishop,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains.
“Only priests (bishops and presbyters) are ministers of the Anointing of the Sick,” the catechism adds.
The minister of the sacrament, who must be a priest for its valid celebration “is to perform the anointings with his own hand, unless a grave reason warrants the use of an instrument,” according to canon 1000 §2 of the Code of Canon Law.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments has spoken on related questions regarding the sacrament of baptism. In a letter published in 2004 by the Canon Law Society of America, Cardinal Francis Arinze, then prefect of the congregation, explained that “if a minister administering the Sacrament of Baptism by infusion pronounces the words of the sacramental form but leaves the action of pouring the water to other persons, whoever they may be, the baptism is invalid.”
With regard to the anointing of the sick, in 2005, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained “the Church has identified down the centuries the essential elements of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick…a) subject: the seriously ill member of the faithful; b) minister: “omnis et solus sacerdos”; c) substance: the anointing with blessed oil; d) form: the minister’s prayer; e) effects: salvific grace, the forgiveness of sins, the relief of the sick person.”
“The Sacrament is not valid if a deacon or a layman attempts to administer it. Such an action would be a crime of simulation in the administration of a sacrament, to be penalized in accordance with can. 1379, CIC,” the congregation added.
Canon law establishes that a person who “simulates” a sacrament, or celebrates it invalidly, is subject to ecclesiastical discipline.