Extreme Unction is a Sacrament in which the sick, by the anointing with holy oils and the prayers of the Priests, receive spiritual succor and even corporal strength when such is conductive to their salvation. This unction is called Extreme, because it is usually the last of the holy unctions administered by the Church.
The Apostle St. James clearly refers to this Sacrament and points out its efficacy in the following words: "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."[James v. 14, 15.]
Several of the ancient Fathers allude to this Sacrament. Origin (third century) writes: "There is also a remission of sins through penitence, when the sinner...is not ashamed to declare his sin to the Priest of the Lord, and to seek a remedy...wherein that also is fulfilled which the Apostle James saith: 'But if any be sick among you, let him call in the Priests of the Church, and let them impose hands on him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord."[Homil. ii. in Levit.]
St. Chrysostom (fourth century) says: "Not only when they (the Priests) regenerate us, but they have also power to forgive sins committed afterward; for he says: 'Is any man sick among you; let him call in the Priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.'"[Lib. iii. de Sacred.]
Pope Innocent I (fifth century), in a letter to a Bishop named Decentius, after quoting the words of St. James, proceeds: "These words, there is no doubt, ought to be understood of the faithful who are sick, who can be anointed with the holy oil, which, having been prepared by a Bishop, may be used not only for Priests, but for all Christians."[Epist. xxv. ad Decentum.]
The Sacramentary, or ancient Roman Ritual, revised by Pope St. Gregory in the sixth century, prescribes the blessing of oil by the Bishop, and the prayers to be recited in the anointing of the sick.
The venerable Bede of England, who lived in the eighth century, referring to the words of St. James, writes: "The custom of the Church requires that the sick be anointed by the Priests with consecrated oil and be sanctified by the prayer which accompanies it."[Comment in locum.]
The Greek Church, which separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the ninth century, says in its profession of faith: "The seventh Sacrament is Extreme Unction, prescribed by Christ; for, after He had begun to send His disciples two and two (Mark vi. 7-13), they anointed and healed many, which unction the Church has since maintained by pious usage, as we learn from the Epistle of St. James: 'Is any man sick among you,' etc. The fruits proper to this Sacrament, as St. James declares, are the remission of sins, health of soul, strength--in fine, of body. But though it does not always, at least, restores the soul to a better state by the forgiveness of sins." This is precisely the Catholic teaching on this subject. All the other Oriental churches, some of which separated from Rome in the fifth century, likewise enumerate Extreme Unction among their Sacraments.
Such identity of doctrine proclaimed during so many ages by churches so wide apart can have no other than an Apostolic origin.
The eminent Protestant Leibnitz makes this candid admission: "There is no room for much discussion regarding the unction of the sick. It is supported by the words of Scripture, the interpretation of the Church, in which pious and Catholic men safely confide. Nor do I see what any one can find reprehensible in that practice which the Church accepts."[Systema Theol., p. 280.]
Protestants, though professing to be guided by the Holy Scripture, entirely disregard the admonition of St. James. Luther acted with more consistency. Finding the injunction of the Apostle was too plain to be explained away by subtlety of words, he boldly reject the entire Epistle, which he contemptuously styled "a letter of straw."[Lib. de Captiv. Babyl.]
It is sad to think that our separated brethren discard this consoling instrument of grace, though pressed upon them by an Apostle of Jesus Christ; for, surely, a spiritual medicine which diminishes the terrors of death, comforts the dying Christian, fortifies the soul in its final struggle, and purifies it for its passage from time to eternity, should be gratefully and eagerly made use of, especially when prescribed by an inspired Physician.