Be Prepared for that Last Step: Extreme Unction continued
What is the purpose of Holy Anointing?
When should we receive it? Why do we need it? And why does hell hate it?
First of all, there has been a bit of abuse of this Sacrament in our modern time; although its use has been broadened a bit in relation to a person’s proximity to death due to an illness, it still is only for maladies that have real life-threatening potential. Because an illness may be painful, it does not mean it is life-threatening.
Therefore, anointing someone for a cold, cough, fever, stomachache, ear infection, arthritis or the like is outside the scope of the Sacrament; the ritual actually has special blessings for sick adults and children for cases when Holy Anointing should not be administered. Therefore, there needs to be a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the illness and death.
So if one is diagnosed, for instance, with an untreatable type of cancer, or if a needed treatment of some potentially lethal disease is rather aggressive and has a significant failure rate, then the Sacrament can be received, even at the onset of the sickness, and it can be repeated if the condition worsens considerably; most especially when death seems near. However, as there can be gray areas in these regards, and considering that what is life-threatening for one person may not be another, it is always good to consult a knowledgeable priest in the case of doubt or confusion.
What, then, are the effects of the Sacrament and why are they so profitable to our salvation and perhaps, as death is near, so necessary?
The anointing with consecrated olive oil well represents the effect it signifies: an increase of grace and the comfort that comes with it.
Christ instituted this Sacrament to give the soul strength and comfort at the time of its likely greatest difficulty and danger. In the presence of the priest who alone can administer it, the Sacrament is ordered to inspire trust and confidence in God, providing the soul with assurance of help against temptation and the fear of dying. It disposes the dying soul to be patient and resigned, to accept the kind of death God wills and understand it as most beneficial to its salvation, while soothing the affections for the loved ones it will soon depart.
Along with this, the soul finds special strength against the devil, who now endeavors to make his greatest effort to ruin it: as the whole kitchen sink can get thrown into the mix, the soul is assisted to combat the strong temptations that may set in, to repel sadness, despair, and fear of God’s judgment, together with newfound strength to combat the ruling sin of one’s life.
As if this were not enough, Holy Anointing also remits sin and some of its temporal punishment, which is why, incidentally, the sacrament is not to be given to infants or children under the age of reason.
In the older and venerable Roman rite, whenever possible, all the senses are anointed separately, and this is because each sense is a gateway to temptation and sin. While doing so, the priest implores God through the anointing and His mercy to forgive whatsoever sins one may have committed through that particular sense – hearing, speech, touch, and so on.
Although the Sacrament is primarily concerned with the remission of venial sin, it also can remit mortal sin, provided the person is unable to confess and has at least imperfect contrition. This is why it is so important to contact a priest while the sick person is still lucid and in a good mental state, so as to give him the chance to make a sincere confession before being anointed.
Although the priest must do all he can to dispose a person to repentance, obviously there are greater signs of this when a person is conscious. Furthermore, although it may happen that a good-willed Catholic calls the priest to the bedside of a non-Catholic relative who is unconscious, if the dying person never gave any manifest intent to convert, the sacrament cannot be administered. (While on the subject, if you are wondering what a priest does when he comes across an accident and is unable to determine whether the person is Catholic or not – which is usually the case – he can anoint the person, but he does so conditionally.)
With the forgiveness of sins, Holy Anointing also removes what is called the “remains of sin,” that is, a certain weakness and laziness of soul, whereby new strength is gained to repel a distaste for spiritual things and some of our evil inclinations.
The entire Sacrament, therefore, is all about preparing the soul to meet Christ, its Savior and Judge, which is why everyday we ought to pray for a holy death; that is, a death in a state of grace, fortified by the Sacraments so as to deny the devil his greatest prize. Remember that resigning ourselves to and embracing the type of death God wills is so meritorious that it actually has the potential to remit all the temporal punishment that we have incurred through life due to sin; we can actually bypass Purgatory, because it is a most perfect way in a certain regard to unite ourselves with the Cross of our Lord and His own Death.
Holy Anointing is about making that happen; the devil knows that, and that is why he tempts us in so many ways to put off the Sacrament until it is too late because of the strength it gives us to do just that.
Practically then, make sure those closest to you know to call a priest in the event of a life-threatening condition; keep the number handy, and perhaps even carry one of those cards in your wallet or purse that identifies you as a Catholic and that a priest is to be notified in the event of a serious accident. But even in the case of sudden death, call the priest anyway, as a warm body can still be anointed conditionally.
All the Sacraments of the Church are about life, and all the Sacraments of the Church emphasize the God-given dignity of man. Holy Anointing points out that our lives are sacred even unto death, that there is value and meaning in anything we may endure or suffer in a life given over to God. The presence of a priest at the bedside of a dying man or woman bears testimony to God’s commitment to us to the very last moment of our earthly sojourn, and shows how God desires to make use of everything for His glory and our salvation – and the devil’s humiliation.
We must foster an insistence and stubbornness within ourselves, parents, siblings, spouses, and children over the reception of Extreme Unction when it is our time; let it be the exclamation point on a life-long preparation for death.
Again, Christ gives us what we need: a sacrament to sweeten the pain of separation, a sacrament to help us die in the arms of God, a sacrament to help us take the most important step in life from this world into the next, and a sacrament that should be what God intends it to be – a source of comfort, strength, grace, and health, where we emerge the victor in the fight.
November 13, 2020