In all thy works, the Scriptures teach, remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin, words which convey to the pastor a silent admonition to omit no opportunity of exhorting the faithful to constant meditation on death. The Sacrament of Extreme Unction, because inseparably associated with recollection of the day of death, should, it is obvious, form a subject of frequent instruction, not only because it is right to explain the mysteries of salvation, but also because death, the inevitable doom of all men, when recalled to the minds of the faithful, represses depraved passion. Thus shall they be less disturbed by the approach of death, and will pour forth their gratitude in endless praises to God, who has not only opened to us the way to true life in the Sacrament of Baptism, but has also instituted that of Extreme Unction, to afford us, when departing this mortal life, an easier way to heaven.
In explaining what is more necessary on this subject we shall follow almost the same order observed in the exposition of the other Sacraments. Hence we shall first show that this Sacrament is called Extreme Unction, because among all the unctions prescribed by our Lord to His Church, this is the last to be administered.
For this reason it was also called by our predecessors in the faith, the Sacrament of the anointing of the sick, and also the Sacrament of the dying, names which easily turn the minds of the faithful to the remembrance of that last hour.
That Extreme Unction is strictly speaking a Sacrament, is first to be explained; and this the words of St. James the Apostle, promulgating the law of this Sacrament, clearly establish. Is any man, he says, sick amongst 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. When the Apostle says that sins are forgiven, he ascribes to Extreme Unction the nature and efficacy of a Sacrament.
That such has been at all times the doctrine of the Catholic Church on Extreme Unction, many Councils testify, and the Council of Trent denounces anathema against all who presume to teach or think otherwise. Innocent I also recommends this Sacrament with great earnestness to the attention of the faithful.
Pastors, therefore, should teach that Extreme Unction is a true Sacrament, and that, although administered with many anointings, each given with a peculiar prayer, and under a peculiar form, it constitutes not many, but one Sacrament. It is one, however, not in the sense that it is composed of inseparable parts, but because each of the parts contributes to its perfection, as is the case with every object composed of many parts. As a house which consists of a great variety of parts derives its perfection from unity of plan, so is this Sacrament, although composed of many and different things and words, but one sign, and it effects only that one thing of which it is the sign.
Pastors should also teach what are the component parts of this Sacrament, its matter and form. These St. James does not omit, and each is replete with its own peculiar mysteries.
Its element, then, or matter, as defined by Councils, particularly by the Council of Trent, consists of oil consecrated by the Bishop. Not any kind of oil extracted from fatty or greasy substances, but olive oil alone (can be the matter of this Sacrament).
Thus its matter is most significant of what is inwardly effected in the soul by the Sacrament. Oil is very efficacious in soothing bodily pain, and the power of this Sacrament lessens the pain and anguish of the soul. Oil also restores health, brings joy, feeds light, and is very efficacious in refreshing bodily fatigue. All these effects signify what the divine power accomplishes in the sick man through the administration of this Sacrament. So much will suffice in explanation of the matter.
The form of the Sacrament is the word and solemn prayer which the priest uses at each anointing: By this Holy Unction may God pardon thee whatever sins thou hast committed by the evil use of sight, smell or touch.
That this is the true form of this Sacrament we learn from these words of St. James: Let them pray over him . . . and the prayer of faith shall save the sick man. Hence we can see that the form is to be applied by way of prayer. The Apostle does not say of what particular words that prayer is to consist; but this form has been handed down to us by the faithful tradition of the Fathers, so that all the Churches retain the form observed by the Church of Rome, the mother and mistress of all Churches. Some, it is true, alter a few words, as when for God pardon thee, they say (God) remit, or (God) spare, and sometimes, May (God) remedy all the evil thou hast committed. But as there is no change of meaning, it is clear that all religiously observe the same form.
It should not excite surprise that, while the form of each of the other Sacraments either absolutely signifies what it expresses, such as I baptise thee, or I Sign thee with the sign of the cross, or is pronounced, as it were, by way of command, as in administering Holy Orders, Receive power, the form of Extreme Unction alone is expressed by way of prayer. Wisely has it been so appointed. For since this Sacrament is administered not only for the spiritual grace which it bestows, but also for the recovery of health, which, however, is not always obtained, therefore use a deprecative form, in order to implore of God's mercy what the virtue of the Sacrament does not always and uniformly effect.
In the administration of this Sacrament special rites are also used, consisting principally of prayers offered by the priest for the recovery of the sick person. There is no Sacrament, the administration of which is accompanied with more numerous prayers; and with good reason, for at that moment more than ever the faithful require the assistance of pious prayers. All who may be present, and especially the pastor, should pour out their fervent aspirations to God, and earnestly commend to His mercy the life and salvation of the sufferer.
Having thus proved that Extreme Unction is truly and properly to be numbered among the Sacraments, we rightly infer that it owes its institution to Christ our Lord. It was subsequently made known and promulgated to the faithful by the Apostle St. James.
Our Saviour Himself, however, seems to have given some indication of it, when He sent His disciples two and two before Him; for the Evangelist informs us that going forth, they preached that all should do penance; and they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.
This anointing cannot be supposed to have been invented by the Apostles, but was commanded by our Lord. Nor did its power arise from any natural virtue. Its efficacy, we must believe, was mystical, having been instituted to heal the maladies of the soul, rather than to cure the diseases of the body. This is the doctrine taught by St. Denis, St. Ambrose, St. Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Great; so that it cannot be at all doubted that Extreme Unction is to be recognised and venerated as one of the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church.
But although instituted for the use of all, Extreme Unction is not lo be administered indiscriminately to all.
In the first place, it is not to be administered to persons in sound health, according to these words of St. James: Is anyone sick amongst you? This is also proved by the fact that Extreme Unction was instituted as a remedy not only for the diseases of the soul, but also for those of the body. Now only the sick need a remedy, and therefore this Sacrament is to be administered to those only whose malady is such as to excite apprehensions of approaching death.
It is, however, a very grievous sin to defer the Holy Unction until, all hope of recovery being lost, life begins to ebb, and the sick person is fast verging into a state of insensibility. It is obvious that if the Sacrament is administered while consciousness and reason are yet unimpaired, and the mind is capable of eliciting acts of faith and of directing the will to sentiments of piety, a more abundant participation of its graces must be received. Though this heavenly medicine is in itself always salutary, pastors should be careful to apply it when its efficacy can be aided by the piety and devotion of the sick person.
Extreme Unction, then, can be administered to no one who is not dangerously sick; not even to those who are in danger of death, as when they undertake a perilous voyage, or enter into battle with the sure prospect of death, or have been condemned to death and are on the way to execution.
Furthermore, all those who have not the use of reason are not fit subjects for this Sacrament; and likewise children who, having committed no sins, do not need the Sacrament as a remedy against the remains of sin. The same is true of idiots and insane persons, unless they give indications in their lucid intervals of a disposition to piety, and express a desire to be anointed. To persons who from their birth never enjoyed the use of reason this Sacrament is not to be administered; but if a sick person, while in the possession of his faculties, expresses a wish to receive Extreme Unction and afterwards becomes delirious he is to be anointed.
The Sacred Unction is to be applied not to the entire body, but to the organs of sense only, to the eyes, on account of sight; to the ears, on account of hearing; to the nostrils, on account of smell; to the mouth, on account of taste and speech; to the hands, on account of touch. The sense of touch, it is true, is diffused throughout the entire body, yet it is more developed in the hands.
This manner of administering Extreme Unction is observed throughout the universal Church, and is in keeping with the medicinal nature of the Sacrament. As in corporal disease, although the malady affects the entire body, yet the cure is applied to that part only which is the seat and origin of the disease; so likewise this Sacrament is applied not to the entire body, but to those members in which the power of sensation is most conspicuous, and also to the loins, which are, as it were, the seat of concupiscence, and to the feet, by which we move from one place to another.
Here it is to be observed that, during the same illness, and while the danger of dying continues the same, the sick person is to be anointed but once. Should he, however, recover after he has been anointed, he may receive the aid of this Sacrament as often as he shall have relapsed into the same danger of death. This Sacrament, therefore, is evidently to be numbered among those which may be repeated.
As all care should be taken that nothing impede the. grace of the Sacrament, and as nothing is more opposed to it than the consciousness of mortal guilt, the constant practice of the Catholic Church must be observed of administering the Sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist before Extreme Unction.
And next, let parish priests strive to persuade the sick person to receive this Sacrament from the priest with the same faith with which those of old who were to be healed by the Apostles used to present themselves. But the salvation of his soul is to be the first object of the sick man's wishes, and after that the health of the body, with this qualification, if it be for the good of his soul.
Nor should the faithful doubt that those holy and solemn prayers which are used by the priest, not in his own person, but in that of the Church and of our Lord Jesus Christ, are heard by God; and they are most particularly to be exhorted on this one point, to take care that the Sacrament of this most salutary oil be administered to them holily and religiously, when the sharper conflict seems at hand, and the energies of the mind as well as of the body appear to be failing.
Who the minister of Extreme Unction is we learn from the same Apostle that promulgated the law of the Lord; for he says: Let him bring in the priests (presbyters). By which name, as the Council of Trent has well explained, he does not mean persons advanced in years, or of chief authority among the people, but priests who have been duly ordained by Bishops with the imposition of hands.
To the priest, therefore, has been committed the administration of this Sacrament; not, however, to every priest, as holy Church has decreed, but to the proper pastor who has jurisdiction, or to another authorised by him to discharge this office.
In this, however, as also in the administration of the other Sacraments, it is to be most distinctly remembered that the priest is the representative of Christ our Lord, and of His spouse, holy Church.
The advantages we receive from this Sacrament are also to be accurately explained, so that if nothing else can allure the faithful to its reception, they may be induced at least by its utility; for we are naturally disposed to measure almost all things by our interests.
Pastors, therefore, should teach that by this Sacrament is imparted grace that remits sins, and especially lighter, or as they are commonly called, venial sins; for mortal sins are removed by the Sacrament of Penance. Extreme Unction was not instituted primarily for the remission of grave offences; only Baptism and Penance accomplish this directly.
Another advantage of the Sacred Unction is that it liberates the soul from the languor and infirmity which it contracted from sins, and from all the other remains of sin. The time most opportune for this cure is when we are afflicted with severe illness and danger to life impends, for it has been implanted in man by nature to dread no human visitation so much as death. This dread is greatly augmented by the recollection of our past sins, especially if our conscience accuses us of grave offences; for it is written: They shall come with fear at the thought of their sins, and their iniquities shall stand against them to convict them. Another source of vehement anguish is the anxious thought that we must soon afterwards stand before the judgment seat of God, who will pass on us a sentence of strictest justice according to our deserts. It often happens that, struck with this terror, the faithful feel themselves deeply agitated; and nothing conduces more to a tranquil death than to banish sadness, await with a joyous mind the coming of our Lord, and be ready willingly to surrender the deposit entrusted whenever it shall be His will to demand it back. To free the minds of the faithful from this solicitude, and fill the soul with pious and holy joy is, then, an effect of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.
From it, moreover, we derive another advantage, which may justly be deemed the greatest of all. For although the enemy of the human race never ceases, while we live, to meditate our ruin and destruction, yet at no time does he more violently use every effort utterly to destroy us, and, if possible, deprive us of all hope of the divine mercy, than when he sees the last day of life approach. Therefore arms and strength are supplied to the faithful in this Sacrament to enable them to break the violence and impetuosity of the adversary, and to fight bravely against him; for the soul of the sick is relieved and encouraged by the hope of the divine goodness, strengthened by which it bears more lightly ail the burdens of sickness, and eludes with greater ease the artifice and cunning of the devil who lies in wait for it.
Finally, the recovery of health, if indeed advantageous, is another effect of this Sacrament. And if in our days the sick obtain this effect less frequently, this is to be attributed, not to any defect of the Sacrament, but rather to the weaker faith of a great part of those who are anointed with the sacred oil, or by whom it is administered; for the Evangelist bears witness that the Lord wrought not many miracles among His own, because of their unbelief.
It may also be truly said at the Christian religion, since it has struck its roots more deeply in the minds of men, stands now less in need of the aids of such miracles than it did formerly, at the commencement of the rising Church. Nevertheless, faith should be strongly excited in this respect, and whatever it may please God in His wisdom to do with regard to the health of the body, the faithful ought to rely on a sure hope of attaining, by virtue of this sacred oil, health of the soul, and of experiencing, should the hour of their departure from life be at hand, the fruit of that glorious assurance: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.
We have thus explained briefly the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. But if these points are developed by the pastor at greater length and with the care the subject demands, it is not to be doubted that the faithful will derive very great fruit of piety from his instruction.Back