5. EXTREME UNCTION
Christ is the Good Samaritan, for by the hands of His representative, the priest, He pours into the wounds of the sick oil to effect his spiritual and physical cure.
1. In administering Extreme Unction the priest anoints the Christian who is in danger of death with the holy oils upon the organs of his five senses, and prays over him; by means of which the spiritual and not unfrequently the bodily malady of the sick man is cured.
The priest anoints the sick man with consecrated oil in the form of a cross on his five senses, which have been instrumental to his sins (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands and feet); at every unction he repeats the following form of prayer: “Through this holy unction and through His most tender mercy, may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins thou hast committed by seeing, hearing, etc.” If the sick man is actually expiring, the priest only anoints his forehead; but he continues to anoint the other parts, so long as life has not departed. Extreme Unction is also called the last sacrament, because it is generally the last which is administered to the dying.
Extreme Unction is mentioned by St. James in his epistle.
We read: “Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick man, and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him” (Jas. v. 14, 15). Pope Innocent I., in the fourth century, expressly declared that these words referred to the Sacrament of Extreme Unction; and in the sixth century St. Caesarius, Bishop of Aries, exhorts Christians in case of serious illness, to receive the Lord’s body and be anointed with oil for their bodily restoration and the forgiveness of their sins. The sacred unction of the sick was instituted by Our Lord as a true sacrament of the New Law (Council of Trent, 14, 4). It confers grace, remits sin, and comforts the sick.
2. Extreme Unction acts spiritually as oil does materially; it strengthens, heals, and aids the soul to attain eternal salvation.
Oil strengthens the body (pugilists or wrestlers are rubbed with oil to give them greater power, and render it difficult for their adversary to grasp them); it possesses a healing power (witness the Good Samaritan, who poured oil on the wounds of the man who had fallen among thieves); and it imparts suppleness and flexibility.
1. Extreme Unction strengthens the sick because it confers on him grace to bear more easily the inconveniences and pains of sickness, and enables him more readily to resist temptation of all kinds.
A complete change is sometimes wrought in the sick by the reception of this sacrament; whereas they were previously impatient and in great dread of death, they become tranquil and patient and resigned to the will of God. At the close of life the adversary of our souls strains all the powers of his craft to ruin us utterly if he can, and make us fall from our trust in the mercy of God (Council of Trent, 14). Extreme Unction banishes the demon. It is recorded of St. Eleazar that on the near approach of death, his countenance became distorted, and he cried out that the devil was tormenting him; but after he had been anointed, peace and joy returned to him.
2. Extreme Unction is for the healing of the soul, and often times of the body; it effects the remission of mortal sins, which through infirmity of mind or body the sick man has not been able to confess, as well as the remission of some temporal punishment. And besides, at times it obtains bodily health, when expedient for the welfare of the soul.
Extreme Unction compensates for all that, through no fault of his own, the sick man left incomplete in the Sacrament of Penance. It is thus the completion of the Sacrament of Penance, or the penance of the sick. By reason of physical and mental weakness the sick are rarely capable of making a good confession or doing penance; there fore the Church deals leniently with them, and by this unction com mends them to the mercy of God. This anointing cleanses away sin, if there be any still to be expiated, and cancels a part of the penalty of sin, in proportion to the contrition and devotion where with the sacrament is received. Extreme Unction often obtains restoration to health. If God foresees that the sick man, if he recover, will make a good use of the remainder of his days for his spiritual advancement, He restores him to health, granting him a reprieve, as it were, that he may prepare himself better for death. But if He foresees that it will be otherwise, He takes him out of the world. As a rule, the sick experience some alleviation after receiving Extreme Unction; this is not to be explained on natural grounds; the peace of mind produced by confession and reconciliation with God acts beneficially upon the body. And in some cases by the interposition of divine power health is restored when human skill could do nothing. How foolish are those who imagine that if they receive Extreme Unction it will be their death warrant!
3. Extreme Unction facilitates our salvation, by increasing in us sanctifying grace and divine charity.
In common with all the other sacraments Extreme Unction imparts a higher degree of sanctifying grace. This is of more importance to us at our death than at any other moment, for the degree of our future felicity depends on the degree of sanctifying grace we possess. And the greater our love of God, the more capable shall we be of the enjoyment of eternal bliss. Thus this holy sacrament cleanses away all that is an impediment to our eternal salvation.
3. Extreme Unction can only be administered to persons who are in danger of death; and they ought to receive it without de lay for the sake both of their physical and spiritual health.
Only in cases of serious illness, that is, when there is danger of death, can the sick receive Extreme Unction. A soldier cannot receive it before going into action, nor a criminal condemned to death. Exception may be made in regard to very aged persons; their advanced age renders them constantly liable to death. The administration of the holy oils should not be postponed until the last moment, for if the sick man be unconscious, they will profit him little; since, as has been already remarked, the utility of this sacrament to the soul depends upon the contrition and devotion with which it is received. And the body cannot profit by it, if the vital spark be all but extinct. It is little use calling out the fire engine when the house is al most burnt down. He who enters upon the journey from time to eternity without fortifying himself with the last sacraments, is like a traveller who starts on his way with an empty purse. Nor can there be contempt of so great a sacrament without heinous sin and an in jury to the Holy Ghost Himself (Council of Trent, 14, 9).
Those who have not yet received the Sacrament of Penance cannot receive Extreme Unction since it is the completion of penance.
To this class belong idiots, and children who have not yet attained the age of reason. It must not, however, be supposed that this includes all children under seven, for children of five years of age have been known on their death-bed to ask for a priest, because they were conscious of having sinned against their parents.
Extreme Unction can only be administered to the sick once in the same illness; but if the sick person recovers temporarily, and then has a relapse, he may be anointed again.
4. Before being anointed the sick man ought to confess his sins, and receive holy communion; and afterwards the Papal blessing is generally given to him.
Confession should precede Extreme Unction, because the recipient of the sacrament must be in a state of grace. Extreme Unction is a remedy; and as medicine is for the living, not the dead, so this Sacrament is of no utility to those who are spiritually dead. Every priest who has been duly authorized by the bishop, may give the Papal benediction with a plenary indulgence, provided he makes use of the proscribed formula. The sick man must call upon the holy name of Jesus (the priest usually repeats some ejaculatory prayer to him, in which the name of Jesus occurs) verbally, if he can still speak, if not, mentally, otherwise the indulgence is not gained, and the crucifix is offered him to be kissed.
It is the duty of relatives, and of those who are in attendance upon the sick, to see that he receives the last sacraments in due time.
This responsibility rests partly with the doctor, who, as a matter of course, ought to apprise the friends of a sick person of his condition when it becomes serious. Catholics ought therefore if possible to secure the services of a Christian physician. Sometimes the atttendants on a sick man fear to agitate him by mentioning the last sacraments to him. This is indeed mistaken kindness, for they cannot thereby retard the approach of death. Such false friends resemble people who do not warn a blind man that he is nearing a precipice, lest they should frighten him. Their cowardice will give them much to answer for. The friends of the sick man should set the room in order, and have everything that is needed in readiness for the administration of the last sacraments. A table should be covered with a white linen cloth, with a crucifix and two lighted tapers upon it, besides a vessel containing holy water, because the priest has to sprinkle both the chamber and the bystanders, and also a glass containing a little clean water, for the priest to wash his fingers and give the ablutions to the sick man after communion. Some cotton wool must also be provided to wipe the parts that have been anointed. While the sick man makes his confession let all leave the room, as the priest may have to speak above a whisper.
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