By Michael Quinlan, SJ
Extreme Unction and the Sick Room
Christ, in His loving care for the souls He redeemed, has provided salutary remedies for all the needs of our spiritual life. Hardly are we born to temporal life when the stain of original sin is washed away by the saving waters of Baptism, and we become one of Christ’s fold, “members of Christ.” When we reach the age of reason and are consequently exposed to the danger of losing the grace of holy Baptism, He fortifies our souls by Confirmation, and in this sacrament He strengthens the supernatural life imparted to the soul by Baptism. Then, as our nature inclines us to evil, we have, in the sacrament of Penance, another heavenly bath which heals those gaping wounds contracted by mortal sin; it restores once more that robe of beauty which we lost by sin, and once more we come the friends and adopted children of God. But just as our body requires constant nourishment so also our souls need strength and help in our journey towards Heaven, and the Sacred Heart of Jesus has left us His own Body and Blood to be the food of our souls; thus our weakened forces are repaired and we can continue our journey, increasing in God’s holy friendship, till we safely reach the throne of God in Heaven. But different people travel towards Heaven by different routes. Some choose the married state, and Christ has blessed that state by raising Matrimony to the dignity of being a Sacrament; the married couple thereby get grace to keep faithfully the contract of life-long companionship and to bring up their children in the fear and love of God. Others are called to the priestly state, and they require special aid, in order that they may dispense to others the Sacraments of Christ. For this end our Saviour has left the sacrament of Holy Orders. But every child of Adam—priest or layman—must cross the threshold of death; and we require very special help for fortifying our souls in our passage from this world into the next. In that dread time the body is prostrated by the ravages of sickness, and the Devil is making his final attack to win our souls for himself. Hence we have need of a special remedy, and, thanks be to God, we have it in the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.
Sending for the Priest
No one likes to face the fact that he is dying, and so those who are in real danger of death often deceive themselves as to the seriousness of their condition; they try to banish the thought of death, and they delay in seeing a priest. Unfortunately, they are sometimes encouraged in this by their friends. Near relations are liable to have their eyes blinded by their love for the sick person, and they are afraid to convince themselves of the fact that he is going to die. They may not notice the change for the worse that is gradually taking place, while a passing visitor would perceive it at once. It happens also that doctors sometimes do not realize their grave obligations in this matter; they tell the patient not to be over-anxious, and they give the relations evasive or false answers, though they know well the end is near. Hence we should not postpone sending for a priest till the doctor gives the patient up as hopeless. Long before that stage there is usually danger of death—not perhaps immediate danger, but still there is danger, and it is at that period that the priest should be sent for.
People sometimes excuse themselves for not calling in a priest by saying that they do not wish to alarm the patient, as they think that all hope of recovery is past, once the person has received the Last Sacraments. But nothing could be further from the truth. One of the effects of Extreme Unction is the restoration of bodily health, if this is for the good of the person’s soul. This effect, as we shall see, does not take place in a miraculous way, and we cannot expect it to take place if we delay Extreme Unction until nothing short of a miracle would cure the sick person. Again, the danger of alarming the patient is far greater if the priest is not sent for until the last moment. If the priest is sent for in good time, his ministrations do not alarm the sick person; on the contrary, they are a great comfort to him, because the dying person becomes reconciled with God, and if he is to die, he will have a peaceful and happy death.
So, those responsible for the dangerously sick have very serious obligations in this matter, they should always send for a priest if there is an obvious danger of death. They should not wait till the patient asks for one, or nor attend to his excuses for postponing it. And even if the person becomes unconscious or delirious, it is not too late, because the Church provides even for such cases, as we shall see later on. If they suspect that the sickness is liable to be serious, they should insist on the doctor telling them the true state of affairs; and if danger of death is feared they should let the priest know. They may then leave to the priest the ultimate decision about the administration of the Last Sacraments. But it cannot be repeated too often if there is probable danger of death, send for the priest.
Extreme Unction in Holy Scripture
We now come to a more detailed account of the sacrament of Extreme Unction. The Scriptural foundation for our doctrine about this Sacrament is taken from the Catholic Epistle of Saint James the Apostle: 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 5:14, 15) There is another passage in Holy Scripture in which we read of anointing the sick. Saint Mark (6:13) says: And the disciples anointed many sick persons and cured them. Hence the Council of Trent, interpreting Scripture and the tradition of the Church, declares that the “sacred anointing of the sick was instituted by Christ Our Lord as a real and true Sacrament of the New Law; it was insinuated in Saint Mark’s Gospel, and it was promulgated by Saint James.”
Effect of Extreme Unction on the Soul
The Council of Trent declares that “Our Lord has fortified the end of life with the sacrament of Extreme Unction as with a most powerful protection”
It brings great peace to the dying soul. By his very nature man dreads nothing in this world more than death, and this dread is increased by the memory of past sins, especially when the voice of conscience utters its bitter reproaches. Besides, there is the anxious reflection that before long the soul must appear before the judgment seat of God. One of the effects of Extreme Unction is to free the mind of the faithful from this anxiety and to fill it with peace. It gives the soul an increase of confidence in God’s mercy, and makes it resigned to die. It is wonderful sometimes to see the change produced in a sick person after he has received the Last Sacraments. Before them his soul was filled with terror at the thought of death, but after them he is a peace with God and quite resigned to die.
It blots out venial and mortal sins. Saint James says, And if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven. Extreme Unction is classed among the Sacraments of the Living, and hence it presupposes that a person has already made his peace with God by confessing his sins. But, let us suppose, as frequently happens, that confession is not possible. For instance, a person may be unconscious or delirious or he may be suddenly seized with a severe illness which renders him incapable of making his confession. In such cases Extreme Unction would blot out mortal sins if the person had previous sorrow for the sins. If the dying person is able to confess, he should do so he cannot dispense himself from this obligation; but if Confession is impossible then Extreme Unction would supply the defect. Hence, how important it is to get a priest for people struck down by accidents, etc. If the sick person returns to consciousness, or to the use of reason, the obligation of confessing sins not previously confessed, still exists.
In addition to sin the sacrament of Extreme Unction blots out the remnants of sin. The remnants of sin are of two kinds:
The bad dispositions that sins, and especially habits of sin, leave in the soul. Even if these previous sins are pardoned they leave some evil effects behind them in the soul. Just as bodily diseases, when cured, leave the body weak, so also sins, though forgiven, leave a weakness in the soul. There still remains a spiritual debility, such, for instance, as remorse and sadness, sinful imaginations and memories resulting from habits of sin which render the soul inclined to fall again. And the Devil, knowing these weaknesses, redoubles his efforts and snares to secure the eternal loss of the soul. Extreme Unction gives special graces by which the departing soul is protected from these effects of sin and of sinful habits, and it gives energy and strength to the sick person to enable him to persevere to the end in the grace he received and to be saved.
The second remnant of sin already forgiven is the debt of temporal punishment due to it. Extreme Unction does not remit all the temporal punishment—this is the function of Baptism—but it remits a great part of it, and the amount remitted varies according to the quality of the person’s dispositions.
Lastly, Extreme unction was instituted to restore the sick to health, when this would contribute to the salvation of the soul. This effect of bodily health does not take place in any miraculous way, but, according to the common opinion, it takes place in the following way: The sick person, after receiving the Last Rites of the Church, gets a claim to a special providence of God over the course of his malady. God guards him by guiding the doctor to choose the right remedy or treatment, or by directing those who are nursing to take proper care and precautions. That all this should produce the effect of restoring to health without a miracle, it is clear that time is needed. S o, it is very foolish to delay Extreme Unction until there is no chance of recovery without a miracle.
But Extreme Unction contributes to restoration of health in another way. One of the effects of this Sacrament is the comfort which it brings to the soul of the sick person, and the peace of soul resulting thereby is conducive to his recovery. When the mind and conscience are troubled, the body is also affected, and sickness is less easily cured; but when the mind is at rest, then the chances of recovery are greater. Even non-Catholic doctors have observed this effect of Extreme Unction in their patients, and they are often anxious that Catholics, when dangerously sick, should have the priest.