Extreme Unction is one of Rome’s minor sacraments. It is only to be ad-ministered to adults who expect that death is at hand and ask for it. One often hears of the administration of this sacrament when accidents or catastrophes occur. It is at such times that priests are seen going in and out among the unfortunates, administering this last rite of the Roman Catholic Church. What is this Roman Catholic sacrament of Extreme Unction? 

The sacrament of Extreme Unction is not only administered in the Roman Catholic Church. It is also administered in the Greek Church. As far as the history of this sacrament as in the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, we read the following in the New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia, and we quote: “Extreme unction is mentioned as the fifth sacrament by Peter Lombard who brings it into close connection with the sacrament of penance. He uses two passages as Biblical authorities, Mark 6:13 and James 5:14-15. These passages have, however, little to do with the sacrament as developed in the Church of Rome. Extreme unction is not often mentioned in the early Church. Augustine, Chrysostom, and Irenaeus speak of it, but do not treat it as a sacrament. Oil was, however, frequently used by Christians in private life, chiefly for the anointing of the sick. Tertullian, for instance, mentions the healing of Severus, the father of the Emperor Antoninus, with oil. Popular superstition soon exploited these experiences, and used the oil in the church lamps. Some bishops, e.g., Chrysostom and Decentius, did not object, but limited the employment to members in good standing. Innocent I also mentions the anointing of the sick, but not of the moribund (dying, at the point of death—H.V.); in case a priest was not available, laymen might perform the ceremony. Toward the end of the eighth century extreme unction entered upon a definite course of development, and was brought into relations with remission of sins; it received, consequently, a sacramental character in connection with penance. The question of the repetition of extreme unction was raised in the twelfth century. A popular superstition held that a Christian who, after participation, has been restored to health was to be looked upon as one departed: he was not to touch the ground with bare feet, eat meat, or cohabit with his wife. When Theodulf of Orleans recommended that the anointing should take place in the church, he had not in mind either exclusively or chiefly the application to the moribund. Hugo of St. Victor was the first theologian to treat extreme unction systematically. He deals, however, only with two questions, the institution and the repetition of the sacrament. From that time on, extreme unction received more detailed attention, particularly by Bonaventura and Thomas Aquinas. The latter treats it from two points of view: (1) the sacrament itself, its effect, matter, and form; (2) its administration and use, the recipients, repetition, and parts to be anointed. The principal features of the sacrament were thus fixed, and received ecclesiastical sanction at the Council of Florence (1439) through Eugene IV, and its final and definite form at the Council of Trent.

Before we quote from the decrees and the canons of the Council of Trent relative this Roman Catholic sacrament, we may say that extreme unction was administered with consecrating oil, with which the sick was anointed, and with audible prayers. The oil was to be applied to the eyes, the ears, the nostrils, the lips, the hands, the feet, and the loins of the sick. By this sacrament it was supposed that the venial, not the mortal sins, were removed, while also physical relief and alleviation from suffering was effected by it, whenever this was not in conflict with the spiritual well-being of the sick (quote from Rev. Hoeksema’s notes on History of Dogma). 

On this sacrament of extreme unction the Roman Catholic Council of Trent has expressed itself as follows: “It hath also seemed good to the holy Synod, to subjoin to the preceding doctrine on Penance, the following on the sacrament of Extreme Unction, which by the Fathers was regarded as being the completion, not only of penance, but also of the whole Christian life, which ought to be a perpetual penance. First, therefore, as regards its institution, it declares and teaches, that our most gracious Redeemer,—who would have his servants at all times provided with salutary remedies against all the weapons of all their enemies,—as, in the other sacraments, he prepared the greatest aids, whereby, during life, Christians may preserve themselves whole from every more grievous spiritual evil, so did he guard the close of life, by the sacrament of Extreme Unction, as with a most firm defense. For though our adversary seeks and seizes opportunities, all our life long, to be able in any way to devour our souls; yet is there no time wherein he strains more vehemently all the powers of his craft, to ruin us utterly, and, if he can possibly, to make us fall even from trust in the mercy of God, than when he perceives the end of our life to be at hand.” 


On The Institution of The Sacrament of Extreme Unction

Now, this sacred unction of the sick was instituted by Christ our Lord, as truly and properly a sacrament of the new law, insinuated indeed in Mark, but recommended and promulgated to the faithful by James the Apostle, and brother of the Lord. Is any man, he saith, 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. In which words, as the Church has learned from apostolic tradition, received from hand to hand, he teaches the matter, the form, the proper minister, and the effect of this salutary sacrament. For the Church has understood the matter thereof to be oil blessed by a bishop. For the unction very aptly represents the grace of the Holy Ghost, with which the soul of the sick person is invisibly anointed; and furthermore that those words, “By this unction,” etc., are the form. 


On The Effect Of This Sacrament. 

Moreover, the thing signified, and the effect of this sacrament, are explained in those words: 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. For the thing here signified is the grace of the Holy Ghost; whose anointing cleanses away sins, if there be any still to be expiated, as also the remains of sins; and raises up and strengthens the soul of the sick person, by exciting in him a great confidence in the divine mercy; whereby the sick being supported, bears more easily the inconvenience and pains of his sickness; and more readily resists the temptations of the devil who lies in wait for his heel; and at times obtains bodily health, when expedient for the welfare of the soul. 


On The Minister Of This Sacrament, And On The Time When It Ought To Be Administered. 

And now as to prescribing who ought to receive, and who to administer this sacrament, this also was not obscurely delivered in the words above cited. For it is there also shown, that the proper ministers of this sacrament are the Presbyters of the Church; by which name are to be understood, in that place, not the elders by age, or the foremost in dignity amongst the people, but either bishops, or priests by bishops rightly ordained by the imposition of the hands of the priesthood. It is also declared, that, this unction is to be applied to the sick, but to those especially who lie in such danger as to seem to be about to depart this life: whence also it is called the sacrament of the departing. And if the sick should, after having received this unction, recover, they may again be aided by the succor of this sacrament, when they fall into another like danger of death. Wherefore, they are on no account to be hearkened to, who, against so manifest and clear a sentence of the Apostle James, teach, either that this unction is a human figment or is a rite received from the Fathers, which neither has a command from God, nor a promise of grace: nor those who assert that it has already ceased, as though it were only to be referred to the grace of healing in the primitive Church; nor those who say that the rite and usage which the holy Roman Church observes in the administration of this sacrament is repugnant to the sentiment of the Apostle James, and that it is therefore to be changed into some other; nor finally those who affirm that this Extreme Unction may without sin be contemned by the faithful; for all these things are most manifestly at variance with the perspicuous words of so great an apostle. Neither assuredly does the Roman Church, the mother and mistress of all other churches, observe aught in administering this unction,—as regards those things which constitute the substance of this sacrament,—but what blessed James has prescribed. Nor indeed can there be contempt of so great a sacrament without a heinous sin, and an injury to the Holy Ghost himself.

These are the things which this holy ecumenical Synod professes and teaches and proposes to all the faithful of Christ, to be believed and held, touching the sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction. And it delivers the following canons to be inviolably preserved; and condemns and anathemizes those who assert what is contrary thereto.


If any one saith, that Extreme Unction is not truly and properly a sacrament, instituted by Christ our Lord, and promulgated by the blessed Apostle James; but is only a rite received from the Fathers, or a human figment: let him be anathema. 


If any one saith, that the sacred unction of the sick does not confer grace, nor remit sin, nor comfort the sick; but that it has already ceased, as though it were of old only the grace of working cures: let him be anathema. 


If any ‘bne saith, that the right and usage of Extreme Unction, which the holy Roman Church observes, is repugnant to the sentiment of the blessed Apostle James, and that is therefore to be changed, and may, without sin, be contemned by Christians: let him be anathema. 


If any one saith, that the Presbyters of the Church, whom blessed James exhorts to be brought to anoint the sick, are not the priests who have been ordained by a bishop, but the elders in each community, and that for this cause a priest alone is not the proper minister of Extreme Unction: let him be anathema. 

The Lord willing, we will criticize this “sacrament” of the Roman Catholic Church in our following article.