Almost every page of Sacred Scripture reminds us that man’s life on earth is fleeting, so fleeting in fact as to be terrifying. “Man cometh forth like a flower . . . and fleeth as a shadow” (Job 14:2). Saint Paul’s words often sound all too true: “The time is short… this world as we see it is passing away” (I Cor 7:29). On the day of baptism life is full of promise, and the end seems far off. But before a man knows it, old age is upon him, and death is just around the corner—any moment could be his last. His day of toil is ended; his turn now to leave the world. Christ provided for every need. When death approaches, He is again present to impart one last sacrament, so that the dying Christian may leave the world as befits him.
A Purifying Sacrament
As he thinks back over the years, bitter regret may fill his soul, regret over the years of sin, over the numerous graces wasted and squandered. There is so much of this in the life of many a man or woman, so many sins committed, so many graces unheeded. But if the sinner must tremble at the approach of death, is there nothing to fear for the man who was fervent and faithful? Would that it were so! But the Christian is not left to himself. At this last hour Christ Himself comes to comfort His faithful with His almighty power of redemption and with His close presence. To prepare them for this hour of final combat He instituted a special sacrament: extreme unction whose effect is summarily given in this prayer:
“Cure, we beseech Thee, O our Redeemer, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the ailments of this Thy sick servant; heal his wounds; forgive his sins; relieve him of all miseries of body and mind; and graciously bless him with perfect health within and without that, being made well again by the gift of Thy goodness, he may be able to take up anew the duties of his state in life.”
Even after a long life of sin, if the Christian receives the sacrament of the dying with the appropriate dispositions, he will go straight to heaven without having to go to purgatory. For what confirmation is to baptism, extreme unction is to the sacrament of penance. As confirmation gives the fullness of the grace of configuration to Christ inaugurated in baptism, so does extreme unction bestow the fullness of the grace of purification begun in penance.
In the view of the Church Doctors this sacrament is, above all, the “consummation,” the completion, of Christ’s purifying action in the soul. “Extreme unction”, says St. Albert the Great, “denotes the full purification of body and soul through the removal of every impediment that would occlude the state of glory to either of the parts of man, that is, to body or soul… Because it takes away every vestige of sin, extreme unction makes possible the immediate entrance to heaven.”
The very symbolism of the sacrament of extreme unction is strikingly suggestive of the effect it produces, namely, the utter removal of all trace of sin in every part of man, in body as well as soul. In the name of Christ the priest applies the holy anointings to every organ of sense, because it is in the senses that every moral defilement has its beginning. Thus, the anointing is applied to the eyes, the ears, the nose, the lips, hands and feet.
The sacrament overlooks none of the faculties of man that may have been accomplices to his sins. The Church is concerned that every possible source of sin be purified. It is her wish that the Christian who is preparing to appear before God should be spotlessly clean throughout. This is the purpose of extreme unction, than which there is nothing that better reveals her earnest wish that every stain of sin be removed from the dying Christian, so that he may be restored, as nearly as possible, to the state of original justice through this final and perfect conformation to the image of Christ.
Purification of the Soul
The Church teaches that extreme unction not only completes the work of purification begun in the sacrament of penance but is the crowning perfection of the whole Christian life. “The Fathers,” declared the Council of Trent, “regarded it as the fulfillment not only of penance but of the whole Christian life, which ought to be an uninterrupted penance.”
St. Thomas expresses the same view: “This sacrament is the last, and in a way, the completion of the whole Christian healing, by which a man is, so to speak, prepared for sharing the life of glory; for this reason it is called extreme unction.”
The sacrament is intended to purify the whole being of man, not only his external senses, but the imagination, the memory, and all the other interior faculties, especially the spiritual faculties of intellect and will. The grace of redemption penetrates all the powers of the soul to their inmost depths. Through the grace of the sacrament peace and tranquility are restored to the imagination and the memory. Thus the aim of the sacrament is the soul’s complete detachment from the world as death and eternity approach. God alone remains. Everything ephemeral and perishable is left behind.
Priests whose ministry frequently calls them to the bedside of the sick can testify to the palpable effects of the grace of this sacrament, and the effects of the state of grace, in the soul of a dying man or woman. As the veil of death gradually obliterates the soul’s outward vision of the things of earth, its inward vision begins to open, more and more, to the clear discernment of the other world. Christ has entered the uttermost recesses of the soul and its every faculty, removing all trace of past sins and every last vestige of earthly attachment that could delay the soul seeing its God immediately. Through the effects of this sacrament the soul, though still in the body, has already begun to breathe the life of eternity.
It cannot be sufficiently emphasized—so important is it—that the Christian should receive extreme unction while yet in full possession of his senses, so that he can approach it with all the living ardor of his faith, surrendering himself with full consciousness to the will of God through an act of perfect love. Extreme unction is primarily directed, not to the forgiveness of sin, but to the eradication and complete destruction of every vestige thereof.
It is to be remembered that man suffers not only from the wounds of original sin; he suffers also from the effects of his personal sins. Through sin the cloud of ignorance lies over his understanding, shrouding the mystery of God, and the taint of malice infects his will. His sense appetite, moreover, has become unruly, tempting him repeatedly to turn his back on duty and danger.
The purpose of extreme unction is precisely to restore the faculties of man to the state of original strength and integrity they had before the Fall. It seeks to move the will to turn to God with the spontaneous love that is the hallmark of His children, and it strengthens the soul to face with undaunted courage this last hour of combat and struggle to gain Christ. The fullness of grace imparted by this sacrament is such that all the maladies of the dying Christian’s soul are healed, supplying him with the strength to bear, unfailingly, the sufferings of his last agony, however excruciating.
To the Father’s House
As baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the divine life of grace, so extreme unction marks the departure from this life to the Father’s house in heaven. Between the first and the last sacrament, the other sacraments promote the continuous growth and union of the soul in the life of Christ. Like the other sacraments, extreme unction fosters the filial relationship which is the basis of the Christian life, being the concluding phase of this work. It prepares us, not simply to die, but to die as children of God. Like the Eucharist, it summons us to arouse the full fervor of our love for Christ, this time as a means to gain, without delay in the hereafter, eternal life in Him.
In these last moments of life on earth, what is at stake is nothing less than our eternal allotment in the future life. That is why this last hour of suffering and affliction should be converted into an hour of supreme triumph. The death of saints is the crowning glory of their life. But they do not achieve it without a struggle. Only one who has stood at the bedside of the dying, witnessing their anxieties and agonies, can appreciate how much in need of God’s helping grace is man’s weak and sinful nature at that hour. The devil now redoubles his efforts to wrest an immortal soul from God for keeps. His prey is a poor human being, a sinner by any standard, brought low by sickness, faced with imminent death, and burdened with the remembrance of all his past sins and misdeeds.
It is then that the sacrament of extreme unction brings timely assistance. It revives the Christian’s trust and confidence, turning his thoughts to the mercy of God, and helping him to meet death with the same courage as Christ on the Cross. The Christ of baptism is again present at the end of life, comforting and supporting His elect for the hour of death. During these last terrible minutes heaven and hell are at war over the eternal lot of the redeemed. The outcome, however, need not be in doubt. The whole Church is praying for the dying. The redeeming grace of Christ abides in us.
In some the sacrament may strengthen and enlighten their faith, giving them great peace and tranquility. To others it may give the grace of unfailing hope in God and perfect surrender to His will. Many at this hour may need to be delivered from various temptations of the flesh, from the temptation to revile and blaspheme God or to succumb to discouragement. The grace of the sacrament adapts itself, in a remarkable manner, to the individual exigencies of all. Indeed, one cannot but wonder at the manifold benefits that may result from the sacrament of the dying, including the restoration of bodily health if this be beneficial to the soul’s salvation.
Ordinarily, the condition of one’s faith has a great bearing on these last moments. If this virtue of faith be found wavering, then the very foundation of one’s supernatural life, as well as one’s fate in eternity, hangs in the balance. To souls wracked by doubt, the grace of extreme unction brings a willingness to embrace the word of God and the teachings of the Church. Sometimes, as in the case of certain saints, the whole reality of the supernatural is made vividly present. The world has become but a shadow to their bodily eyes, blinded as it were by the spiritual light. For these souls, one only reality abides: God. Such appears to have been the experience of St. Therese of Lisieux. “The world,” she softly murmured, “it has vanished, a fleeting shadow… Heaven! It’s heaven for me!”
Many a man or woman can remember similar words from dying lips after the priest had been there and when the whole family was gathered around, kneeling in prayer. Their life ended, and they were gone like a shadow; but through faith, not to say reason, the survivors were convinced beyond all doubt of the reality, as well as the mystery, of the everlasting beyond.
Thus, a mother on her deathbed confirms her children in their conviction that the family shall be reunited in heaven. For when the spirit of deep faith motivates the Christian life, the feeling of tragedy and despair that sometimes surrounds death is conspicuously absent. In fact, these final scenes assume a dignity as impressive as it is sacred. The sense of sorrow is relieved by the certainty that death is only the culmination in God of a life that is all His. Hence, death in God does not provoke the cry of desperation or the irremediable anguish that marks the death of the godless, haunted as they may be by the thought of utter extinction or consumed by remorse at the prospect of hell. The Christian attitude toward death is expressed by such words as: “My God, I give You my body, my soul, my life!” Extreme unction is the grace of final and supreme configuration to Christ dying on the Cross for the glory of the Father and the redemption of the world. Ever since the day that Jesus died for us, death is but the voyage to life eternal.