Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago offered strong support this week to a plan by five Roman Catholic parishes to comfort AIDS patients through anointing rites.

Bernardin, leader of the nation's second-largest archdiocese, had taken up the issue of AIDS in a pastoral statement last October when he called on parishes to "open their doors and their hearts to those touched in any way" by the deadly disease.

"Thus, the archdiocese fully supports the efforts of those parishes that have made a special attempt to minister to those affected by AIDS," said a statement Wednesday.

The introduction to the sacrament, which involves prayers and the pouring of oil on the victim's forehead, notes that the seriously ill need "the special help of God's grace . . . lest he or she be broken in spirit and subject to temptations and the weakening of faith."

Formerly called extreme unction or last rites, anointing once was administered to Catholics only when death threatened.

Since the early 1960s, many parishes have held services to anoint groups of sick or aging people with holy oil, said Paul Spalla, a deacon at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church.

Spalla, whose church has scheduled the first of the services for AIDS patients July 25, noted that "these are Catholic people who are very sick."

"A number of pastors in the area have been administering the sacrament to people in private," Spalla said. "This is an experiment to reach parishes where there is a big number of people with the disease."

If the services at Mount Carmel are well received, he said, they will be held every three months, rotating among that church and four other North Side parishes.