A sermon on Extreme Unction by St. Jean-Marie Vianney for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.
“And prayed him to come down and heal his son.” — St John iv. 47.
My dear Christians: St. Luke, the Evangelist, tells us of the Saviour, that as He walked about, every one of His footsteps was marked by an act of benefaction. Not a sick person came to Him, but was healed, not one in trouble, but received consolation, not one in need, but was assisted, not a sinner to whom He did not say the consoling words, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” The Gospel of today speaks of such an act of healing, which He practiced on the son of a certain ruler. The troubled father said with great faith: “Lord, come down before that my son die.” And Jesus said to him: “Go thy way, thy son liveth.” And the man believed in the word of Jesus, and the son recovered at the same moment that Jesus had said: “Thy son liveth.”
What the Saviour was to the sick and needy while He was on this earth, He is still to them today, for, as the Apostle says, Jesus Christ is always the same, yesterday and today, and for all eternity. Though He no longer wanders in our midst, yet He still manifests Himself to all those who approach Him with a believing heart and steadfast confidence; He is our consoler, helper, Saviour and dispenser of grace in good as well as in evil days. As He once with His own hands healed the sick, so does He now allow them to partake of His grace and His aid, in a Sacrament, which He has specially instituted for the consolation of the sick, the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. It is of this Sacrament that I wish to speak to you today to show you that it is really a Sacrament of the Church of Jesus Christ, and what its effects are upon the sick.
My dear Christians: There is no time in our life when we are more in need of consolation, assistance and ease of mind than in the days of sickness. When the body, tortured by pain, lies upon the bed of sickness and the increasing affliction reminds us of the nearness of death, then the deceptions of this life vanish, the awe-inspiring thought of eternity fills our heart, our sins and transgressions burden our conscience with their full weight and fill our mind with disquietude and anxiety. Soon the thought about the coming judgment arises, and the patient, in the anguish of his heart, seeks for a consoler and helper to give rest to his suffering soul. Where should he seek it and find it? Where, indeed, but with our Saviour, who has said: “Come to me, all ye that are heavily laden and weary and I will refresh you.” Jesus Christ who cares for all would not in His unbounded charity leave His faithful without help and consolation in that most momentous and critical hour of their lives, and has, therefore, instituted a special Sacrament for the sick and dying. Through this Sacrament they are to receive consolation and material and spiritual help. St. James assures us of the institution of this Sacrament when he writes: “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.” These are the words which Holy Writ contains in regard to the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. Would St. James have instructed the faithful to turn to the priests of the Church so that they might partake of divine grace through this Sacrament, if it had not been so ordained by Jesus Christ? And would the holy Apostles and the priests of the Church have made use of the anointing of the sick for the purpose of gaining for them forgiveness of sin if Christ had not commanded and empowered them to do so? It is, therefore, certain that Christ has instituted Extreme Unction as a special Sacrament; otherwise the Apostles would not have practised it, nor would they have admonished the faithful to make use of this Sacrament; nor could the Apostles and their successors have remitted sins through anointing. The remission of sins is one of the chief effects of anointing according to the words of St. James. No man could order or establish a means, wherewith to remit sins, not even the Apostles could do that. Christ alone, the Son of God, to whom all power was given in heaven and earth, could do this. And he has ordered for his faithful, who were stricken with sickness, a remedy, whereby the still remaining sins could be remitted, and grace, consolation and relief could be given them in their sickness, and this remedy is the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. According to tradition in the Church, Extreme Unction has always been considered a Sacrament or means of grace, and was as such received by the faithful. For fifteen centuries this Sacrament had not met with any opposition, until the time of the so-called Reformation. It would lead me too far, if I were to mention all the places where the fathers of the early Church, who received the doctrines of the faith direct from the Apostles, speak of Extreme Unction. We believe in the judgment of the infallible Church of Jesus Christ; and she has declared as follows in the Council of Trent: “If any one asserts that Holy Anointing is not truly and really a Sacrament, instituted by Christ our Lord and as proclaimed by St. James, but merely a practice adopted by the fathers, or human invention, let him be excommunicated.”
This Sacrament is administered by the anointment of the organs of the five senses with a holy oil that is blessed for this purpose by the Bishop on Holy Thursday. While the priest anoints the eyes, ears, mouth, nose, hands and feet he says the words: “Through this holy unction and through His most tender mercy, may the Lord pardon thee, whatever sins thou hast committed by taste, speech, hearing,” and so forth.
What then is the effect of this Sacrament? St. James demonstrates in the above-mentioned words that the first effect of holy unction is to increase the sanctifying grace in such manner that the sick person, after having already been cleansed in the eyes of the Lord through the Sacrament of Penance, is drawn now closer to God. According to the words of the Apostle the patient obtains, besides this, relief from his sins and alleviation of his suffering.
One effect of holy Unction, therefore, consists in the fact that it will assist the patient in regaining health. Though sicknesses are visitations from God, it is the will of God that we should use the ordinary means which He has created for healing the ills of human flesh. Holy Scripture says: “Honour the physician and obey him, for he is sent by God.” When people in sickness, as is so often the case, say: “What is the use of sending for the doctor? If I am to die, I shall die anyway,” they act as one who having fallen into the water would not make the least effort to save himself, saying to himself, “What is the good of it? If it is not to be I shall not drown.” The patient must do everything necessary to bring about his recovery, one of the means of which is, besides the ordinary remedies prescribed by the physician, the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, which, as St. James says, will aid a sick person. As sure as Christ is the Son of God, so surely will He help a sick person in this Sacrament, if it is received in true faith, with a lively confidence and a contrite heart. Of course there are many who have received Extreme Unction and have not recovered, but that is not the fault of the Sacrament. They have either not received it in the proper spirit, or, it was not best for the salvation of their souls that they should be restored to health. Many, who in the days of their youth never thought of God and who led a vicious life, are thrown upon a bed of sickness, so that they should reform and return to God. And they generally do it, too; they arrive at a knowledge of their sins and do penance; but God does not return to them their health, for He may know that, recovered, they will fall back into their old sins and forfeit their salvation. Therefore even if holy Unction does not always restore health, that fact has nothing to do with the power of that Sacrament; it is a well-known fact, even among physicians, that many people are restored to health by this great Sacrament.
This Sacrament causes – as one of its principal effects – an improvement in the patient’s condition. St. James says: “The Lord will help the sick;” that is, through His grace He will give them consolation and courage to bear sickness in patience and overcome all temptations. Everyone, who has been sick himself, or has had much to do with sick people, knows that what we need most in days of sickness is consolation and relief. How terrible sickness often is. Tortured with pains, the patient throws himself about on his bed, his whole body burning with fever; he finds no rest day or night; he has a disgust for everything and in despair he longs for death. But to these tortures there is often added the suffering of the soul. The thought of separation from his possessions, from his friends and pleasures, from his loved ones, whom he may have to leave without anybody to care for them, fills his heart with great sorrow. And then there appear to his mind’s eye the days of his former life; the sins and iniquities of which he has been guilty worry him; the thought of death and of judgment fill him with terror and anguish. Who then is there to ease his pains, give consolation to his anguished heart, forgive his sins and take the terror away from death and judgment? Who else, but Jesus Christ, who has said: “Come to me, all ye who are heavily laden and weary, and I will refresh you.” Everyone who receives the Sacrament of Extreme Unction with a living faith, full confidence and a contrite heart, to him will be imparted consolation and relief in those dark hours, alleviation of pain, strength against despair, peace of mind about his former life and fortification in the agonies of death.
Another principal effect of this Sacrament is a pardon of sins. If the sick person is in sins they will be forgiven him. Of course there is another Sacrament instituted for the forgiveness of sin, the Sacrament of Penance, but also holy Unction has its sin-remitting power. A sick person who is incapable of confessing, or unconscious of his sins, but who has true repentance in his heart, will be forgiven his sins, even the most grievous, by this Sacrament of Extreme Unction. Does not St. James say, that if the sick man be in sins, they shall be forgiven him? And though we may have purified our soul in the Sacrament of Penance, yet there are still a great many lesser sins, weaknesses and imperfections remaining. See then how Christ in His love for us has seen to it that we can be freed from these faults, defects and imperfections and become worthy of being received into heaven, into which there shall enter nothing impure. He lets His holy Church administer to us this Sacrament of Extreme Unction, so that we may obtain thereby the necessary purification and be prepared for our journey into eternity. “If the sick man be in sins they shall be forgiven him.” We have learned then, my dear Christians, that holy Unction is a Sacrament instituted by Christ for His faithful in sickness and that it brings us aid, consolation and relief, forgiveness of sin, supernatural strength in the agonies of death, and eternal life. How thankful we ought to be for this to our Redeemer! Let us join in the song of the Psalmist: “Blessed is the Lord, and His mercy is above all His works.” How much, how infinitely much of an advantage have we over those who, not belonging to our faith, reject the Sacrament of Extreme Unction! They have nothing to aid them, console them and strengthen them in that awful moment, when they are mostly in need of consolation and relief. No priest, endowed with a high authority and power, approaches their bed of sickness and administers to them in the name of Jesus Christ forgiveness of sin in the Sacrament of Penance, the pledge of eternal life in the Sacrament of the Altar, and purification from the last imperfections, heavenly consolation, and material relief in the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. They have to rely upon themselves and upon the consolation which they may find in their past lives – a poor consolation which offers little confidence at the approach of death.
Let us thank the Lord, then, that He has instituted this holy Sacrament for our relief in the days of sickness. Sooner or later we shall all be thrown upon the bed of sickness and be hurried on towards death. Let us then call in good time for a priest, so that he may, with the other Sacraments, also give us the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. Let us receive them with a firm faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Redeemer of the world, with a living confidence in the mercy of God and the merits of Jesus Christ, with a heart free of sin, with repentance for our faults and shortcomings, with humility and piety, and the Lord will let us partake of all His graces and mercies, which He has connected with a worthy reception of this Sacrament, will give us aid and consolation, relief and ease of mind, purification from sin and courage to combat victoriously the terrors of death. Amen.