Extreme Unction – by Rogier Van der Weyden

‘Extreme Unction’ was the title given to the ‘Sacrament of the Sick’, until the Vatican Council re-christened it, on the grounds that it was available to all baptised Catholics who were seriously ill, or suffering from the affects of old age, and not only those who were at the point of death.  The sacred anointing of the sick was instituted by Christ Our Lord, and it is mentioned by St. Mark, when he describes Jesus’ instructions for the mission of the Twelve: “So they set off to preach repentance; they cast out many devils, and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them.” (Mk: 6: 12-13).  We find a mention of it, also, in St. James’s Letter: “If one of you is ill he should send for the elders of the church, and they must anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. The prayer of faith will save the sick man and the Lord will raise him up again and if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.” (James: 5:14-16)

I can remember, many times, being called to someone who was ill, in the night, when I was at St. Peter’s, Seel Streeet, Liverpool in the `1950′s, and hearing the Dockers, standing outside the pub saying: “Look, Priest.” The accent was on the word ‘priest’, implying: “Someone’s had it!” (or someone had not much longer in this world). In those days, when people saw the priest going to the tenements, they would assume he had the Blessed Sacrament with him, and they wouldn’t expect him to talk to them.

When administering the ‘Sacrament of the Sick’, the priest begins with a short introduction, ending with these words: “Let us entrust our sick brother/sister to the grace and power of Jesus Christ, that the Lord may ease his/her sufferings and grant him/her health and salvation.” He then invites the sick person to make his/her confession or make an act of sorrow and gives absolution.  Then, in silence, the priest lays his hands on the head of the sick person and prays over him/her, in the faith of the Church. This action is used also in Baptism, Reconciliation and Confirmation; it signifies blessing and healing and follows the instructions given by Jesus, that the Apostles, “… .. should lay their hands on the sick and they will be healed.”

The priest then anoints the sick person on the head, and on the palm of the hands, with the words: “Through this holy anointing may the Lord, in his love and mercy, help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin, save you and raise you up.”

Those of us who have experienced this sacrament at first hand, ether by receiving it ourselves or by being present when someone we are looking after receives it, will have experienced some of the many effects of this amazing sacrament. The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening –  peace and courage – given to the sick person, to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness, or the frailty of old age!  (I could write a book about that – old age, I mean!)  This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens the sick person, against the temptation of discouragement, and anguish in the face of death. His gift of grace is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also, to the healing of the body, if that is God’s will.

By the grace of this sacrament, the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion, thus taking a real share in the saving work of Jesus.  In addition to the anointing, the Church offers those who are about to leave this life, the Eucharist as Viaticum — a passing over – from death to life – from this world to the Father.

All this puts me in mind of one very special occasion. I remember the time when one of the senior members of a Parish family was nearing death, after a long and drawn-out sickness, and the whole family was gathered in the sick room.  I offered Mass for him, and the whole family present were all able to receive Holy Communion and join in the responses for the Anointing and Viaticum. Granddad – the patient – was conscious throughout, and the effect of the joint family prayer gave him great joy and peace.

It happens sometimes that people are reluctant to call the priest, largely because they fear that the sick person may begin to think he is more ill than he had, at first, thought. Priests are trained to handle the situation with great tact. If in doubt, you should explain that the patient is of a nervous disposition and the priest will act accordingly.

For myself, I keep the Holy Oils in the car because one never knows what one may come across when visiting people. I have often used them in the school, when a pupil comes to see me in great distress, either about themselves, or about the family. When that seems to be appropriate, I explain all about the Sacrament and tell them to go and think about it, and if they decide they would then like to receive it, to come back and let me know.  On the occasions when they have come back to me,  I have been impressed by their attitude, and even more, by the results.

The longer I live — especially in my contacts with teenagers – the more I realise what problems they have to face, quite apart from the inevitable ones of growing up. Most often, they are searching for someone willing to listen, and accept them as they are; only then, are they prepared to listen to advice, consider it carefully, and eventually to accept it – in all probability. They long to find someone who will always be there for them – someone who will be a ‘rock’ for them. What we have to remember, is well written in that excellent book, ‘The Little Prince’ where the author makes the point: “You become responsible forever, for what you have tamed — It is only with the heart that you can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”