Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Ave Maria!

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost—4 September A.D. 2011

On Extreme Unction

Ordinary of the Mass
Mass Text - Latin
Mass Text - English

“He bound up his wounds pouring in oil and wine.”[1]

    The story of the Good Samaritan may be one of the most well known in the New Testament.  In it our Lord adds an unexpected twist, in that both the Priest and the Levite would have been well respected members of Jewish society;  both associated with the Temple where God Himself dwelt and was worshipped by Jewish people.  One might have expected the Priest or the Levite to be the hero of the story.  The Samaritan, on the other hand, was despised by Jewish society—they were foreigners who were planted in the land of Israel after the Assyrians had taken the Jewish residents into captivity.  Perhaps worse, the Samaritans imitated the Jewish religion, but had their own Temple, a rival to the one in Jerusalem, in Samaritan territory on Mount Gerizim, on the west bank of the Jordan.  To the observant Jew this rival worship was a species of blasphemy, for sacrifice was to be offered only at Jerusalem.  A “good Samaritan” was a sort of contradiction in terms.

    The story is often quoted as an example of the charity Christians should have for their neighbors in distress—and as an admonition that we should include all men and women in the circle of our “neighbors.”

    The act of the Samaritan in treating the man by pouring oil and wine into his wounds is very Mediterranean.  My Italian grandmother used to treat every conceivable illness with “a little drink of olive oil.”  And, of course the alcohol in the wine would work as a weak antiseptic.  For people who spent a lot of time in the sun, olive oil was a preferred skin conditioner, believed to give health to the whole body.  It is not surprising that our Lord chose olive oil as the matter for the Sacrament of healing that we know as Extreme Unction (or in modern terms, the Anointing of the Sick).  The Sacraments always serve as an outward sign of whatever it is they effect.

    We first hear of this Sacrament being worked at our Lord’s command by the twelve Apostles in Saint Mark’s Gospel:

    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.[2]

    Later on, in Saint James’ Epistle the Apostle wrote:

    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.[3]

    It is from Saint Mark that we know the Sacrament to have been instituted by Christ, but it is Saint James who describes the dual purpose of the Sacrament, which is both physical healing and the forgiveness of sins.

    I mention this Sacrament today to emphasize the importance of calling the priest whenever you or someone in your care develops a serious illness.  The best time to call is at the early stages of the illness, while the sick person is quite conscious, and able to make a good Confession and receive Holy Communion in addition to the Anointing and the Apostolic Blessing.  That will give the Sacrament the best chance to achieve its purpose of healing and forgiveness.  But do not be afraid to call if the illness has progressed a bit or comes on severe and unexpected.  The priest will even conditionally anoint the person who seems to have just died, for spiritual death may not coincide with a clinical symptom like the stoppage of the heartbeat.  But, again, earliest is best.

    It should calm the dying person to know that he is in the state of grace, his sins have been forgiven, and he is prepared to meet our Lord at the gates of heaven.  Death is difficult enough without having to worry about such things, or having one’s family worry about them.

    The Unction is performed with one of the three oils blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday:  the Holy Chrism for Baptism, Confirmation, and the consecration of bishops, altars, chalices, patens, and church bells;  the Oil of Catechumens for Baptism, the ordination of priests, and the consecration of altars and kings;  and the Oil of the Sick, which is used for our Sacrament of Extreme Unction and for the consecration of altars.

    The sick person is anointed on each of the organs of the senses—eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and hands—and on the feet if this can be done conveniently.  “By this holy anointing and God’s most tender mercy, may you be forgiven of any sins you may have committed through your sense of sight ... sense of hearing ... sense of small ... and so on.”  A single anointing on the forehead will suffice if the others cannot be performed.

    By the bedside there should be a prepared a table with a white table cloth, two blessed candles and a crucifix, some cotton balls, holy water, and water for the sick person to drink after Holy Communion.  The priest should be met at the door with a burning candle.  But please recognize that all of these things can and should be done without if their lack will delay reception of the Sacrament—do not hesitate to call the priest!  And as a practical matter do not light candles if oxygen is in use, or there is other danger of fire.

    On account of the privileges promised by our Blessed Mother, it is a worthy custom to vest the sick person in the Brown Scapular—but one should bow to the directions of the hospital staff if the Scapular might become entangled in the wires and tubes that they must place on the patient.  In such a case, we usually tie a Scapular to the bed rail.  Remember that one remains enrolled in the Confraternity of the Scapular, even if it is taken off to bathe, or for surgery, or for some other legitimate reason.

    I mentioned the Apostolic Blessing.  That is not a Sacrament, but a very important act of the Church.  While a person is still alive the Church here on Earth has jurisdiction over him, can forgive his sins, and can forgive even the punishment due to sin.  You are probably familiar with the idea that you can gain indulgences for yourself or for the souls in Purgatory—forgiveness of the punishment due to sin—by performing some holy act under the conditions specified by the Church.  Normally, you gain the indulgence when the specified conditions are completed—the Apostolic Blessing works differently, for the indulgence is gained only at the moment of death—and that, of course, is a good thing, very likely insuring the soul’s immediate entrance into Heaven.

    The Church is so concerned with the salvation of souls, that any priest may administer these last rites to those in danger of death, even if he is under censure or fallen away from the Faith.[4]  It makes sense to carry something that identifies you as a Catholic if you are unable to speak in some emergency

    If you find yourself in the position of caring for the sick, remember your obligation to summon the priest at the earliest possible time.  And remember that doing so will make you like the good Samaritan in today’s Gospel—a true neighbor to one in need.


[4]   o.c. 938; n.c. 1003


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