Extreme Unction (Saturday 11th March)
My dear Brethren,
We continue our study of the Seven Sacraments, with the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. It is a dogma of faith that our Lord Jesus Christ instituted this Sacrament. The Council of Trent indeed defined that there are seven Sacraments of the New Law, including Extreme Unction, and that all these sacraments were personally instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ. We see indeed in the holy Gospel that our Lord sent His apostles not only to preach but also to anoint the sick: “going forth they preached that men should do penance: and they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them” (Mk. 6:12-13).
Protestants deny that Extreme Unction is a sacrament. But St James is very clear in his epistle: “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” (Jam. 5:14-15). It is very clear that such anointing has a supernatural effect of grace capable to forgive sins and save a person, hence it is a Sacrament. When St James speaks of “being sick”, it is not a small sickness, a little indisposition, but rather a sickness that could lead to death. Hence the Sacrament is called “extreme unction”, though it does not have to be at the last moment.
By the institution of this Sacrament, our Lord Jesus Christ provided for the most important moment in our life, the moment of our death, that will seal our eternity. All our life should be a preparation for this most important moment: a holy life prepares for a holy death, and a life full of sin prepares for a frightful death in sins. Given such importance, it is not surprising that the devils make a supreme effort in these last moments to snatch souls. It is therefore necessary to have a very special help for such a special moment. The sacrament of Extreme Unction is the help our Lord Jesus Christ has provided for this most important moment: the end of our life.
The matter of this sacrament is the unction with the Oil of the Infirm, blessed by the Bishop on Holy Thursday during the Chrism Mass. This unction signifies clearly the grace of the Holy Ghost strengthening the soul and healing it. It is given on the five senses: the priest anoints the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, the hands plus the feet for this last “crossing”, like the crossing of the river Jordan after the forty years in the desert at the moment of entering in the Promised Land. Indeed, these forty years in the desert after the crossing of the red sea signify our life on earth, nourished by the Holy Eucharist, following Christ in the spiritual desert of this world, on the way towards our Fatherland, i.e. Heaven.
The form of this sacrament consists in the words of the priest: “by this holy unction and His most pious mercy, may the Lord forgive you all the sins you have committed by sight / hearing / smelling / tasting and talking / touch”. This is the “prayer of faith” as St James said. The five senses are the doors of the soul; therefore, all sins are connected to one or the other of the senses.
Extreme Unction is a sacrament of the living, which means one should be in the state of grace in order to receive it. Hence the practice is that the priest would first hear the confession of the sick person and then after give extreme unction. But if the sick person can no longer confess his sins, for instance if he is in the coma, then that Sacrament has power to forgive even mortal sins provided one had the proper attrition, the proper sorrow for his sins, before falling into such coma.
The grace of the Sacrament is taught in the words of St James: “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” (Jam. 5:15). This Sacrament forgives venial sins and if necessary (in the case of inability to confess) even mortal sins; it remits the penalties due to sin and heals the soul; it comforts and strengthens the sick and gives great confidence in the mercy of God; it helps a lot to accept and bear the pains of the end of life, and unites them with the sufferings of Christ Crucified and through Him obtains a final victory over the devil. Sometimes, if it is useful for the soul, God even grants the healing of the body.
If one recovers, and then again becomes sick, he may receive again this sacrament. Even if the recovery is partial, and later the patient relapses in his sickness, this is considered a new danger of death and one can receive again this sacrament. But within one sickness, the grace of that sacrament persists through it: so it is good not to wait the last moment, but rather to benefit from this Sacrament as soon as the sickness could endanger one’s life.
The minister of this sacrament is the duly ordained priest (or the bishop): this is very clear in the words of St James. Some Protestants try to escape the clear meaning of the apostle by mistranslating the Greek word “presbyter” as “elder”: this is a secular translation and not a religious translation: it completely ignores that the very etymology of the word “priest” comes precisely from the Greek “presbyter”. This Greek word “presbyter” has been introduced into Latin and then passed on into present-day (European) languages by the Church, because it had been loaded by the Apostles with such religious meaning that the early Church wanted to keep that word as expressing a lot more than the secular word “elder”.
There are quite a few other Greek words in the New Testament that have also passed on into Latin and current European languages with their religious meaning and one would strip them of this religious meaning if he would return to the secular original meaning. This is the case of the word “episcopos” that has given “bishop” (the letters “p” and “b” are labials, hence the passage from one to the other: in Korean they are… the sameㅂ!) and one should not translate it by “overseer”. That would strip it of the religious meaning given to it by the Apostles.
Why did the Apostles then chose these words whose secular meaning seems far from their religious meaning? Because they wanted to manifest a clear-cut separation both from the Old Testament worship and from pagan worship. Hence, they did not use the words “hieros” for priest. But they choose words clearly pointing to the bishops and priests in the Christian community, but without any connection with pagan religions.
It is important not to fear extreme unction, but rather to ask for it, for it is a great help in sickness. Some people fear to hear about it, because it reminds them of death. But to blind oneself on the subject of death in no way helps a sick person, on the contrary. We all know that we should die one day. The church makes us pray: “from sudden and unprovided death, deliver us, o Lord!” A death is unprovided for, when one has neglected to receive this great sacrament. It is important to ask the priest to come and visit your friends and relatives who are sick, that he may anoint them if the sickness is dangerous to their life. This is a great act of charity towards a sick.
The visiting of the sick, the serving of the sick is a great act of charity, with a marvellous reward: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, because … I was sick, and you visited me:” (Mt. 25:34,36). One should not think of giving only material and physical consolation to the sick, but above all help them to carry their cross in a really Christian manner, in union with our Lord Jesus Christ. The best way to achieve this is to persuade them to accept the visit of a priest, in order to be anointed as St James said. One should not only pray for the sick, but pray with the sick.
The Blessed Virgin Mary is always praying with the sick; she is even closer to us at those moments, when we suffer, as the best of all mothers is close to her children when they suffer. She was at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, close to Him in His sufferings, and she is at the foot of the bed of every sick praying for him and helping him to unite himself with our Lord Jesus Christ. Suffering is a big mystery and difficult to accept; we need her help to accept him and offering it with Him.
This time of Lent, when we willingly take upon ourselves fasting and penances, should also be a time when we redouble our charity for the sick, alleviating their sufferings to the best of our abilities, and helping them to offer everything to the Most Holy Trinity for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Amen.
Father François Laisney