1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Extreme Unction

6132181911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 10 — Extreme UnctionFrederick Cornwallis Conybeare

EXTREME UNCTION, a sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church. In James v. 14 it is ordained that, if any believer is sick, he shall call for the elders of the church; and they shall pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him.

Origen reprobated medical art on the ground that the prescription here cited is enough; modern faith-healers and Peculiar People have followed in his wake. The Catholic Church has more wisely left physicians in possession, and elevated the anointing of the sick into a sacrament to be used only in cases of mortal sickness, and even then not to the exclusion of the healing art.

It has been general since the 9th century. The council of Florence A.D. 1439 thus defined it:—

“The fifth sacrament is extreme unction. Its matter is olive oil, blessed by a bishop. It shall not be given except to a sick person whose death is apprehended. He shall be anointed in the following places: the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, hands, feet, reins. The form of the sacrament, is this: Through this anointing of thee and through its most pious mercy, be forgiven all thy sins of sight, &c. . . . and so in respect of the other organs. A priest can administer this sacrament. But its effect is to make whole the mind, and, so far as it is expedient, the body as well.”

This sacrament supplements that of penance (viz. remission of post-baptismal sin) in the sense that any guilt unconfessed or left over after normal penances imposed by confessors is purged thereby. It was discussed in the 12th century whether this sacrament is indelible like baptism, or whether it can be repeated; and the latter view, that of Peter Lombard, prevailed.

It was a popular opinion in the middle ages that extreme unction extinguishes all ties and links with this world, so that he who has received it must, if he recovers, renounce the eating of flesh and matrimonial relations. A few peasants of Lombardy still believe that one who has received extreme unction ought to be left to die, and that sick people may be starved to death through the withholding of food on superstitious grounds. Such opinions, combated by bishops and councils, were due to the influence of the consolamentum of the Cathars (q.v.). In both sacraments the death-bed baptism of an earlier age seems to survive, and they both fulfil a deep-seated need of the human spirit.

Some Gnostics sprinkled the heads of the dying with oil and water to render them invisible to the powers of darkness; but in the East generally, where the need to compete with the Cathar sacrament of Consolatio was less acutely felt, extreme unction is unknown. The Latinizing Armenians adopted it from Rome in the crusading epoch. At an earlier date, however, it was usual to anoint the dead.

In the Roman Church the bishop blesses the oil of the sick used in extreme unctions on Holy Thursday at the Chrismal Mass,[1] using the following prayer of the sacramentaries of Gelasius and Hadrian:—

“Send forth, we pray Thee, O Lord, Thy holy spirit, the Paraclete from Heaven, into this fatness of oil, which Thou hast deigned to produce from the green wood for refreshment of mind and body; and through Thy holy benediction may it be for all that anoint, taste, touch, a protection of mind and body, of soul and spirit, unto the easing away of all pain, all weakness, all sickness of mind and body; wherefore Thou hast anointed priest, kings and prophets and martyrs with thy chrism, perfected by Thee, O Lord, blessed and abiding in our bowels in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

See L. Duchesne, Origines du Culte Chrétien (Paris, 1898).  (F. C. C.) 

  1. The oil left over from the year before is burnt.