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The First Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers

New Haven, Connecticut, November 3-5, 1925

Philadelphia: Published by the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests, 1926.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

The Sacrament of Holy Unction
of Grace Church, Newark, N. J.

THERE is to-day in the Anglican branch of the Catholic Church, an increasing interest in the  Sacrament of Holy Unction, and also an increasing use of the Sacrament. One reason for this increase is to be found in the widespread attention given to the healing of the body and mind by religious means.

"Faith healing," "spiritual healing," have become familiar terms, describing a great variety of endeavours to restore the diseased in body and mind to health. Many cures, by such means, have been reported, some of them apparently well authenticated. In other cases, there has been failure, with consequent disappointment, and something with a very marked reaction against religion on the part of those who have been so disappointed.

The question has been raised and widely discussed whether healing of the sick is not a true and proper function of the Ministry of the Church to-day as in Apostolic times. Without attempting to examine this question, or to state any opinion regarding it at this time, it is significant that many clergy and laymen of our Church have in practise answered the question for themselves affirmatively, and have proceeded to act on the assumption that it is the Church's legitimate business to heal the sick.

[153] Men have appeared, both clerical and lay, who consider themselves, and are considered, to possess spiritual gifts of healing, and we have seen in recent years numerous "healing missions" conducted in parish churches. Such "missions" have excited immense interest and have called forth extraordinary hopes. There appears to be room for considerable divergence of opinion, however, in the estimation of their results. But we are not now concerned to consider the legitimacy, the wisdom or the results, of such undertakings, but rather to point out the practical bearing of the faith healing movement on the use of the Sacrament of Holy Unction. For it is to be observed, that this movement, in its various forms and manifestations, has undoubtedly stimulated many Catholic-minded clergy and laymen, to resort to the Sacrament of Holy Unction in order to obtain by means of it results desired, and apparently in certain cases, secured, by "faith healing."

Many Catholics claim that the Church provides in Holy Unction a better means for obtaining the desired results; and it appears to them that it is more loyal to the Catholic religion for the sick to ask a priest of the Church to administer Holy Unction, than it is to resort to faith healers, lay or clerical. In short the interest in such matters which is widely current today makes it expedient that Christian people generally and the Catholic clergy in particular, should examine this subject of Holy Unction, both from the point of view of the healing movements of the day, and also in the light of the teaching of the Church in regard to it.

What, then is Holy Unction? It is one of the sacraments of the Catholic Church, used as the other [153/154] sacraments have been used, from the beginning of the Church's life to the present time, for a definite purpose.

Before considering what that purpose is, let us refresh our minds on the general subject of what we mean by a sacrament. The Church teaches that a sacrament is a means, conveying divine grace to men through an outward, material channel, and ordained by our Lord for some specific purpose. The whole Christian religion is profoundly sacramental in character; and it is essentially sacramental in method. For the Incarnation of God the Son in human nature, and His historic birth, life, death and resurrection, constitute the great fundamental sacrament of the Christian religion; our common human nature, the outward, visible means whereby God communicates to man salvation and eternal life.

This kind of religion is, indeed, in accord with God's apparent plan and method in creation, namely, that God created man to be neither a mere animal nor a mere spirit, but a being, possessed of an animal body, a rational soul, and an immortal spirit. And these three parts, closely and mysteriously inter-related, form an integral whole, in which the spirit, (the part of man closest akin to God,) expresses itself through the body and mind, while the body and mind are informed, directed, moulded by the spirit.

That is to say, human life itself is essentially sacramental. So it is not surprising, but, on the contrary, quite consistent with God's method in creation, that our Blessed Lord in providing for the continuation of His ministry among men, and for the application of His divine powers to men's needs, should have instituted sacramental means of grace in His Church.

This is what we should expect, and what we actually find [154/155] in the Catholic religion. The Catholic religion neither denies, disregards, nor belittles, other means of grace and other methods whereby God deals with man, but it does say to the world: Here in the sacramental system is the method, above all others, which Christ our Lord has provided for our needs; here are the means of grace which under ordinary circumstances, and generally speaking, are the best means, because they are of Christ's ordaining, whereby we may obtain the benefits of the Incarnation.

Holy Unction has its place in this sacramental system of the religion of the Incarnation. Its precise history is less clear than that of most of the other sacraments, in that we have no record extant of its institution by our Lord. To be sure we have its indication or foreshadowing in the Gospel narrative, when in the account of our Lord's sending out the twelve in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Mark, we read in the 12th and 13th verses: "And they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them."

In addition to this we have a clear indication, within the limits of the New Testament and of Apostolic times, of the existence of this Sacrament as one already ordained, and in use among the presbyters of the Church: in the fifth chapter of the Epistle of St. James, we read in the 14th and 15th verses: "Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders 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, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him."

[156] On the basis of this passage it is sometimes said that Holy Unction is a sacrament of Apostolic origin, (as opposed to divine origin, coming from our Lord Himself.) This assumption would seem to be unwarranted; for while the Apostles were empowered by our Lord with the Holy Spirit to do Christ's work, it is exceedingly unlikely that they should have devised new sacraments.

Indeed the passage quoted above from St. Mark shows that such could not have been the case in regard to anointing the sick. We must always remember that the New Testament record is not a complete record of our Lord's teaching and acts. Undoubtedly our Lord gave the Apostles definite instruction regarding many things of importance for the work of the ministry, of which we have no record in the New Testament. During the great forty days following the Resurrection before our Lord was taken from the disciples, He taught them many things, and laid upon them many commandments, explaining to them much that before they had not understood.

The Gospel narrative contains plain references to such instruction, as when at the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, our Lord bids the disciples go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, He adds: "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." Similarly at the end of the Gospel according to St. John, the Evangelist concludes with the statement, "And there are many other things which Jesus did, the which if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written."

[157] And we must not lose sight of the fact that according to our Lord's promise, the Apostles were endued with the power from on high by the sending of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost, whereby their minds were divinely enlightened to do and teach all things that their Master had commanded.

So we may properly assume that it was a reminder to the ordained elders (presbyters) of the Church, to fulfill the Lord's instruction in this particular matter of anointing the sick, that St. James gave the exhortation which we have quote above.

Moreover, there is the further fact of Catholic usage, from the earliest period open to investigation up to the present time. The Church, divinely guided, according to our Lord's promise, has apparently used the sacrament of anointing the sick throughout its history. On the theory of the divine character of the Church, this argument has peculiar and very great weight.

What is the purpose and scope of the Sacrament of Holy Unction? As seen in St. James' reference to it, and also in the use of the Church down through the ages, this Sacrament appears to have a threefold purpose: by imparting sanctifying grace to the afflicted it is, first, a means of restoring bodily health, (if it be in accord with God's will); it is, secondly, a means of fortifying the inner man with ghostly strength to bear his sickness, to overcome all assaults of the adversary, and to have victory over the devil, sin and death; and, finally, it is a means of forgiveness of sins.

That such is the Church's understanding and teaching regarding the benefits of Holy Unction is plainly seen in the various prayers for anointing the sick in [157/158] use in different parts of the Church. The prayer appointed in our own first Prayer Book of 1549 is a typical example: "As with this visible oil thy body outwardly is anointed: so our Heavenly Father, Almighty God, grant of His infinite goodness, that thy soul inwardly may be anointed with the Holy Ghost, who is the Spirit of all strength, comfort, relief, and gladness: and vouchsafe for His great mercy (if it be His blessed will) to restore unto thee thy bodily health and strength, to serve Him; and send thee release of all thy pains, troubles, and diseases, both in body and mind. And howsoever His goodness (by His Divine and unsearchable Providence) shall dispose of thee: we, His unworthy ministers and servants, humbly beseech the Eternal Majesty to do with thee according to the multitude of His innumerable mercies, and to pardon thee all thy sins and offences, committed by all thy bodily senses, passions, and carnal affections: Who also vouchsafe mercifully to grant unto thee ghostly strength, by His Holy Spirit, to withstand and overcome all temptations and assaults of thine adversary, that in no wise he prevail against thee, but that thou mayest have perfect victory and triumph against the devil, sin, and death, through Christ our Lord: Who by His death hath overcome the prince of death, and with the Father and the Holy Ghost evermore liveth and reigneth God, world without end. Amen."

This prayer, said as the priest anoints the sick on the forehead with olive oil that has been blessed by a Bishop, is the form ordinarily used by Anglican clergy; and although it does not appear in our present Book of Common Prayer, it has the authority of the [158/159] Book of 1549, and is in accord with Catholic usage and tradition.

According to accepted Catholic usage, a priest alone may administer Holy Unction, and he may administer it only to a baptized person who is suffering from severe sickness. It is thought by some that the title "Extreme Unction," commonly used in the West since the twelfth century, indicates that it is properly administered only "in extremis." But this is not the case. The word "extreme" refers not to the condition of the sick person, but to the fact that the anointing of the sick is the last of the Church's various anointings, as in Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Orders. It is also erroneous to suppose that Holy Unction should not be administered until death is imminent, or that it cannot be repeated. According to Catholic usage, it may be had in any serious sickness. It may not be repeated in the same physical crisis, but if the danger passes and later returns, Unction may be repeated as often as need be.

Let us now return to the consideration of the use of this sacrament by our parochial clergy, and especially its relation to the "healing missions" at present so common. To the writer, it seems that the Church's business is not with bodily "healing missions" of any kind, as such. To be sure our Lord healed the sick, but were not such healings incidental to other and more important things: repentance, redemption, the establishment of His Kingdom of love and life?

It is true that the Apostles were charged with casting out devils and healing the sick, and actually did so. But was it not incidental to other and more important work,—preaching the Gospel and baptizing those who believed?

[160] Whatever be the relationship of physical sickness to the will of God, is it not true that from the point of view of the values which our Lord stressed as supreme, sickness of the soul is indefinitely more significant than physical sickness? And is it not the Church's chief business to heal through the power of her risen Lord the sickness of men's souls?

Is it not further true that because of the immediacy and urgency of physical pain, it is very easy for most men when suffering it to become exclusively pre-occupied with it? And in actual experience has it not worked out that holding of "healing missions" has inevitably accentuated such pre-occupation, and focussed men's thoughts on the physical and its healing, to the very large exclusion of the spiritual? And is it not further true that "healing missions" rouse fervid hopes of restored bodily health on the part of many who, when the hopes are not realized, turn bitterly against the Christian religion?

One has nothing but respect for the high motive of the "faith healers," but from the point of view of what is plainly our Lord's chief concern for men, namely, their spiritual welfare here and in the world to come, it seems to the writer extremely doubtful whether these "healing missions" have any substantial contribution to make to the cause of the Christian religion, or should be exploited by the clergy.

Now as regards the use of Holy Unction, is it a substitute for "healing missions?" Decidedly, no. Indeed, it would seem highly undesirable, either that by propaganda for the use of Holy Unction the clergy should go into competition with faith healers, or that they should unduly, i. e., exclusively, stress the possibilities of restoration to physical health from sickness [160/161] resulting from the use of Holy Unction. This were to misuse the Sacrament by a one-sided emphasis.

What then is its proper use? Precisely that of any of the other sacraments. That is to say, it should have its normal place in the life of a Christian. A devout Christian finding himself grievously sick, turns to the Church for the Church's help just as naturally as he turns to the physician for the physicians' help. He does so in humble faith, asking God's merciful blessing. The Church's help is in the power of prayer and sacrament, in this case specially the sacrament of Unction.

The Sacraments are not magical charms to be resorted to on extraordinary occasions; they are means of Divine grace for ordinary occasions,—ordinary that is, in the sense not of being unimportant, (they are vastly important), but of being in the usual, common course of human experience.

A word as to the relations between priest and physician in sickness. Holy Unction is neither a substitute for the physician's art nor a rival to it. No one can doubt the legitimacy, value and great importance from the Christian point of view, of medical science. But the priest and the physician approach the sick person from different angles and with a different technique.

The physician's interest is, of course, chiefly in the physical amelioration or restoration of the patient; the physician's technique is based on the application of medical science, including in recent years applied psychology and psychiatry.

The priest's interest is in the salvation of the man, —the whole man, body, soul and spirit; his technique is based on the sacramental powers and functions of [161/162] the Catholic religion, derived from our Lord through the Apostolic ministry. The priest recognizes the close and intimate relationship between the body, the mind, and the spirit.

From this point of view his attitude toward sickness is very much like that of the physician, in that he gives due weight to the immense though often extremely subtle influence of the body on the mind, and of both on the spirit, and vice versa, in sickness, as indeed in health.

The priest recognizes the religious significance of this close inter-relationship of the physical and the spiritual, and if he be wise he will utilize this knowledge in his ministry, and it can be used, as every experienced pastor knows, with results, which sometimes are very remarkable.

The physician and the priest, so far from being opponents or rivals, are rather workers together for the good of mankind,—the physician in a specialized field which has its quiet, definite limits and limitations; the priest in a larger field, namely that of the whole man, including the vast realm of the spiritual, but without the specialized attention to the purely physical which only a trained physician can or should attempt to give.

In this scheme of things the Sacrament of Holy Unction takes its place quite simply and naturally. Like all the sacraments it confers on the faithful the divine gift of sanctifying grace for a specific purpose; in the case of the sick that purpose, in Holy Unction, is healing. It can hardly be denied that the kind of healing purposed in the first instance through this Sacrament was ostensibly bodily healing; for this purpose the Sacrament plainly appears to have been given, [162/163] (conditional always upon the will of God for the faithful in question).

And Catholic priests of wide pastoral experience have seen or known of many cases of grave illness in which the administration of Holy Unction has been followed by the restoration of bodily health. But because Holy Unction is a sacrament and not a medicine, it conveys the divine power in a spiritual manner, (although employing a material medium); and hence there must be a spiritual content in its benefits, as is true with all the sacraments. This spiritual content is to be found in the operation of sanctifying grace on the spirit,—cleansing, refreshing, strengthening it.

In the history of the actual use of this sacrament two conflicting tendencies have been evolved, conflicting, because each is a one-sided emphasis, exaggerating one aspect of the sacrament to the detriment, and even sometimes of the practical exclusion, of the other. There is nothing new in this conflict of opinion and use; but we see it to-day very closely in the contrast between the common Western habit of practically restricting Holy Unction to cases in extremis as a preparation for death, with the practical, (though not doctrinal,) disregard of its physically curative purpose, and the theory and practice of certain Anglicans who hold that the chief and significant purpose of anointing the sick is to restore them to health, and that Unction of the sick should be used for that specific purpose, (ignoring practically its spiritual side).

The first of these views is unfortunate in that it deprives the sick except in extremis of the comfort and help of a gracious sacramental ministration manifestly instituted for them; and further it nullifies, (in practice if not in theory), [163/164] the biblical and ostensible purpose for which this Sacrament was given, that God may raise up the sick, which plainly means healing.

The second view is also unfortunate in that it unduly stresses the element of healing, almost if not wholly, to the exclusion of the spiritual benefits of the Sacrament, both in life and as a preparation for death.

It would seem to the writer proper to avoid the errors contained in each of these one-sided views and to stress the truth contained in each, emphasizing especially the distinctive and great value of the sanctifying grace which is the unfailing benefit of the sacrament to the faithful, and leaving the particular results in God's hands in a spirit of childlike trust and obedience to the will of God.

In normal use Holy Unction takes the place of neither Penance nor Holy Communion. It is sometimes used in cases where neither one of these sacraments can be administered, but its normal and ideal use in such cases would follow the habitual use of the other two.

There should be nothing in its use obscure or terrifying to the sick, on the one hand, nor, on the other hand, should it have been so taught and stressed as to raise undue hopes of physical recovery either on the part of the sick person or of his family and friends.

It should be what our Lord surely intends it to be: a gracious and mighty aid to the devout soul at the time of critical sickness and possibly imminent death. Then in times of sickness through the Sacrament of Holy Unction, as in other experiences in the soul's earthly pilgrimage, through the other sacraments, our Lord sustains, strengthens, blesses His children, [164/165] restoring them to health, if it be His gracious will; and in any case fortifying them with ghostly strength, enabling them to bear their sickness with its accompanying temptations and dangers in a Christian manner, and cleansing them from sin; and when death is imminent preparing the soul for its last solemn journey.

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