“Going up to him, [he] bound up his
wounds, pouring in oil and wine....”
Ordinary of the Mass
Mass Text - Latin
Mass Text - English
The good Samaritan administered
first aid according to the medical practices of his times. There were no
packaged sterile dressings, and no bottles of iodine or mercurochrome. The
wine he poured into the injured man’s wounds was at least somewhat
antiseptic, and olive oil is said to have healing properties. My own
grandmother, twenty centuries later, doctored her children and grandchildren
with the very same olive oil—it was her universal remedy for everything,
either by the tablespoon or rubbed into the ache or pain.
It is probably with this in mind
that our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Extreme Unction with olive oil
being the matter of the Sacrament. It symbolized the healing—both physical
and spiritual—that the Sacrament is supposed to confer. The most direct
reference to the Sacrament (today, often called the Anointing of the Sick)
is found in the Epistle of Saint James, where he says:
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.
But we know that the Sacraments were
instituted by Christ, Himself, and not by any of the Apostles. The best
description we have is in Saint Mark’s Gospel where our Lord sent the
Apostles to go before Him into the towns He intended to visit:
And he called the twelve; and
began to send them two and two, and gave them power over unclean
spirits.... And 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.
The tradition of the Church is to
confer the Sacrament with the “Oil of the Infirm,” blessed by the bishop on
Holy Thursday. Of course, this Anointing, like all of the sacraments, is
much more than just the physical thing it represents. We see this in the
words which effect the Sacrament—what we call the “form” of the
Sacrament—which the priest utters as he anoints each of the five senses:
Through this holy anointing, and
His most tender mercy, may the Lord forgive you whatever sins you
have committed through the sense of sight (the power of hearing)
(the sense of smell) (the power of speech or taste) (through the
sense of touch).
If it is convenient, the priest will
also anoint the feet of the sick person, imploring forgiveness for sins
committed through the power to walk.
The proper course of things is for
the sick person to make a good Confession of his sins, then to be Anointed,
then to receive Holy Communion (called Viaticum—“food for the way” when
received by those close to death), and finally to receive the Apostolic
Blessing. Clearly the priest should be called long before the sick person
loses consciousness, for some of these things require consciousness, and all
of them are better if the sick person is aware of them. The priest may
conditionally absolve and anoint an apparently dead body if the person has
died within the past few minutes, but if the family does its proper job this
should rarely be necessary.
In Confession the priest forgives the sins of the sick person.
The Anointing removes any remaining venial sins, eliminates
the physical effects of sin on the sick person, comforts the soul at the
approach of death, and may affect the physical recovery of the sick person
if recovery would be advantageous to the health of the soul.
Holy Communion brings the usual increase in sanctifying grace,
and provides, as I said, “food for the way”—the journey to heaven.
Finally, the Apostolic Blessing bestows a plenary
indulgence—“full pardon and remission of your sins”—which the sick person
receives at the moment of death.
While these “last rites” are not
absolutely necessary for salvation, it is the will of our Lord and His
Church that they be received by the sick if at all possible. To
unnecessarily avoid reception of the Sacrament would seem to be an affront
to God, Who has given it to us.
Again, I would urge all who must
care for the sick to be sure to call for the priest at the earliest possible
time in the patient’s illness. Any illness that represents a possible
danger of death is the occasion for anointing, and the same person may be
anointed a number of times for a number of illnesses recovered from. But
even if the call is urgent and the hour is late, be sure to call for the
priest. By doing so, you will put yourself in the position of that Good
Samaritan, who “bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine....” You will
be the good neighbor to someone at the time in his life when he most needs