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XI. The Ceremonies of Extreme Unction

The Externals of the Catholic Church

The ministry of the Catholic Church is at its best in the care which it manifests towards the sick. In the sick-room and at the death-bed the Catholic priest wins the grateful love of the faithful and the admiration of those who are not of the One Fold. There is no part of his work, no service that he renders to his flock, that is better calculated to make men of all creeds respect the priest. When they see him wending his way to the homes of the poor, through darkness or rain or snow, when they know that no danger of contagion can keep him away, that no peril is worthy of notice when a soul is at stake, they realize that the priest believes what he teaches.

“The Last Anointing.” In this chapter we shall take up the ceremonies of the Sacrament by which a soul is prepared for its passage to eternity. Why is this Sacrament called Extreme Unction? Because it is the last or extreme anointing which the Catholic receives. At Baptism his breast and shoulders were anointed with the Oil of Catechumens and his head with Chrism. At Confirmation he was marked on the forehead with Chrism, to show that his faith must be manifest to the world. If he has been raised to the priesthood, he has received on his hands another anointing by which these members were consecrated to God’s service. And, now that he is about to cross the threshold of eternity, his various senses receive a last anointing in the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.

The Oil of the Sacrament. For this Sacrament the oil which is used is olive oil, consecrated by a bishop on Holy Thursday of each year. It is known as “Oleum Infirmorum” — the Oil of the Sick — and it is applied by the priest to the principal organs of the body through which sin may have come upon the soul

A Symbol of Strength. The symbolism of oil can be easily understood if we remember the many uses for which it was employed among the ancients. It was a medicine, a food, a source of light, and especially a means of producing that strength and flexibility of muscle which athletes seek to acquire. The gymnast, runner, boxer or wrestler of the old Olympic games rubbed oil into the pores of his skin, and thereby nourished and strengthened his muscular system in preparation for his contests. So it is with the sacramental oil with which the Church anoints her children to give them spiritual strength in their conflict with Satan.

Scriptural Authority. Like all the other sacraments, Extreme Unction was instituted by our Blessed Saviour; but there is no mention of it in the Gospels. We find the first account of it in the Epistle of St. James the Apostle, where the manner of administering it and the nature of its effects are clearly set forth: “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.”

The Sacrament of Exteme Unction should, if possible, be given when the patient is in full possession of his mental faculties and realizes the importance of the Sacrament, and not when he is deprived of his senses and is in the throes of death.

In the Sick-Room. When it can be done, the Holy Viaticum is given to the sick person before Extreme Unction. It may be well to mention the various things which should be prepared. These should always be kept together and in readiness in every Catholic household, for in each the day will come (and may come suddenly) when they will be needed.

A table should be provided. A small firm stand, perhaps two feet square, is suitable. The articles for the administration of the sacraments should not be placed on a bureau which is partly occupied by other things. The table should be entirely covered with a clean white cloth. On this is placed a standing crucifix and two blessed candles, which should be lighted when the priest is expected; a saucer containing holy water (with a sprinkler, if possible); a glass of fresh water, a spoon, a plate with small crumbs of bread, a towel, a napkin (to be used as a Communion-cloth) and seven small balls of clean cotton.

Through mistaken devotion prayer-books, rosaries, statues, pictures, etc., are sometimes placed on the table. These should be omitted. The table is, for the time, an altar, which is a resting-place for the Blessed Sacrament when Holy Communion is to be given, and for the Holy Oil used in Extreme Unction.

The parts of the sick person which are to be anointed should be washed before the priest arrives — the face, hands, and feet.

When the priest is known to be carrying the Blessed Sacrament it is a laudable custom for one of the family to meet him at the street-door with a lighted candle, and all the others present should kneel when he enters. It is almost needless to say that at the administration of sacraments none but blessed candles, of unbleached yellow wax, should be used.

The Prayers Before the Anointing. As the priest comes into the sick-room he says, in Latin, “Peace be unto this house and all who dwell therein.” He sprinkles the sick person, the room and the other persons present with holy water, uttering the words of the Psalmist: “Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop, O Lord, and I shall be cleansed; Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy. Glory be to the Father,” etc.

He then hears the confession of the sick person, if it has not been previously heard, and gives the Holy Viaticum, if it is to be given. He then recites three prayers. The first asks that “into this house may come eternal happiness, divine prosperity, serene joy, fruitful charity and lasting health; that the devils may flee; that the angels of peace may be present; that all evil discord may disappear.” The second asks blessings from our Lord Jesus Christ on the house and on all who dwell in it, that He may give them a good angel as their guardian; that He may protect them “from all the powers of darkness, from all fear and perturbation.” The third asks again for the angel of God “to guard, protect, cherish, visit and defend all who dwell in this abode.”

The Confiteor is then recited. It may be said in English (or any other language) by the sick person or by those who are present. The priest says, in Latin, the concluding sentences, which are, in English: “May the Almighty God have mercy on thee,” etc. As he pronounces the final words he makes the sign of the cross.

Then, before the anointing, the priest offers a prayer to the angels and saints, which opens with an invocation of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, with a threefold sign of the cross over the patient: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, may all the power of the devil be extinguished in thee, by the imposition of our hands and by the in vocation of all the holy Angels, Archangels, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins, and all the Saints. Amen.”

The Anointings. At the anointing of the sick person, those who are in the room should kneel and pray. The Oil of the Sick is carried in a small gold-plated box, known as an oil-stock, which is enclosed in a leather case. The oil is usually soaked into cotton, to avoid danger of leakage. The priest dips his thumb into the oil and makes the sign of the cross with it on several parts of the sick person’s body; first on the eyes, with the words, in Latin: “By this holy unction and His most loving mercy may the Lord pardon thee whatever thou hast sinned by sight.” Then on the ears, with the same formula, except the last word, which is “hearing.” He anoints the nose, mentioning the sense of smell; the lips, for taste and speech; the palms of the hands, for the sense of touch; and the feet, for sins committed by walking. The last-mentioned anointing may be omitted if it cannot be done conveniently. Each unction is wiped away with cotton.

When a priest receives Extreme Unction his hands are anointed not on the palms, but on the back. The reason is that his palms have been previously consecrated with oil, at his ordination.

The Final Prayers. The priest then prays, “Kyrie eleison,” etc. — “Lord, have mercy” — after which the Our Father is recited secretly down to the last words, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” which are said aloud, in Latin. Then follow several versicles with their responses: “Make safe Thy servant, my God, who trusts in Thee. Send him, O Lord, help from Thy holy place, and defend him from Sion. Be to him, O Lord, a tower of strength from the face of the enemy. May the enemy avail naught against him, and the son of iniquity be powerless to harm him." These and the other prayers are varied according to the sex of the sick person — “Thy handmaid” instead of “Thy servant,” etc.

Three prayers are then offered. The first asks for forgiveness of sin and restoration of bodily health. The second, in which the Christian name of the sick person is used, implores refreshment of soul and divine healing; and the third begs that he may be restored to Holy Church “with all desired prosperity.” This concludes the ceremonies of Extreme Unction.

The Apostolic Blessing. Immediately after the administration of this Sacrament it is usual to impart the Last or Apostolic Blessing, which gives a plenary indulgence to the recipient. This indulgence is gained, not when the prayers are read, but at the moment of death — “in articulo mortis.”

The priest exhorts the sick person to elicit acts of contrition, faith, hope and love, and to invoke the Sacred Name of Jesus. A prayer is offered to “the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation,” to look with favor upon His servant and to grant him the pardon of all his sins. After the Confiteor has been said, the Blessing is given, as follows:

“May our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, Who gave to Peter the power to bind and to loose, receive thy confession and restore to thee that first robe of innocence which thou didst receive in Baptism; and I, by the power given to me by the Apostolic See, grant thee a plenary indulgence and remission of all thy sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. “Through the most sacred mysteries of man’s redemption may God remit unto thee the pains of the present and future life, open to thee the gates of heaven, and bring thee to everlasting life.”

And with a solemn benediction, “May Almighty God bless thee, Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” the ceremonies are concluded which prepare the Christian soul to meet its God.