Are Anointing of the Sick and last rites the same?
by Fr. Hugh Vincent Dyer, OP
Dear Father: When my elderly father was hospitalized for a knee replacement, my wife and I wanted to have a priest administer the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to him. I remember my sister telling me that he wasn’t dying and therefore didn’t need the sacrament. Can you help me explain to her the difference between Anointing of the Sick and last rites? — Anonymous in Colorado
Dear Anonymous in Colorado: I have great memories of your state; I was there as a young adult for World Youth Day with St. John Paul II in 1993. Magistra Greenwood, my Latin teacher from high school, would love this question, as we have to do some sleuthing to determine word derivation. Most older Catholics remember anointing of a sick person as taking place before someone died. The sacrament was most often called Extreme Unction rather than Anointing of the Sick.
I remember an older woman to whom I delivered newspapers when I was a kid telling me about the death of one of her relatives. She said: “The priest came and administered Extra Munction.” She had probably heard people pronounce the name of the sacrament over the years in a quick fashion such that it all ran together.
Let us look at the words extreme and unction. Extreme describes a far point. A person near to death is said to be in extremis — that is, in an extreme state getting further from the biological continuation of life.
Unction is not a word we use much anymore, though you may find a tube of Unguentine in your medicine cabinet, or perhaps you have heard someone who is ingratiating himself by being overly
flattering described by another as unctuous. These words derive from the Latin word unguere, which means to anoint or smear with ointment or oil.
In times past, therefore, it made sense to call the sacrament Extreme Unction because it was reserved for those in danger of death, even though some would survive and be anointed again later. Now, Anointing of the Sick is administered to people who might be in danger of dying soon and also to those who face serious surgeries or long and chronic illnesses and medical treatments.
The Church has multiple rites of prayer; some of these apply the graces that come from the sacraments. Last rites can, in a sense, mean more than one thing. In general, under normal circumstances, last rites might fully include Penance and Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Communion.
Some priests have been in settings of emergency in which they have no access to the oil of anointing, but someone is dying and so the priest enjoins the person to be sorry for his sins and then the priest gives absolution. That act on the part of the priest was the last rites for that person while that person was still living. Notice here that the last rites are not necessarily the final rites. The Church offers numerous ritual actions and prayers for burial and remembrance.
When Holy Communion is administered to the dying, it is called by a beautiful name: viaticum. Some Catholics might remember looking up at the wall and seeing a thick crucifix that could be slid open, revealing an inner compartment with candles. The façade with the image of Christ crucified would be standing up in the base with the candles set in the same base. This now-standing crucifix was set on a table at the side of the bed in expectation of the priest arriving with anointing oil and the Blessed Sacrament to anoint and feed the dying person. In his short story The Sisters, James Joyce alludes to such candles: “I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse.”
The Latin word viaticum refers to the last Holy Communion. We generally refer to it as food for the final journey, Christ accompanying us with the hope of resurrection with the food of resurrection. In ancient times viaticum referred to money or provisions to take along the way, on the via, literally “on the road.”
In the early Church of the Roman Empire and after, converts to the faith, who came to accept the Eucharist as the Body of the Lord, may have thought also of an ancient practice whereby a coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased to be given to the mythological ferrymen of the dead, Charon. In all of this we see humanity expressing hope for life after death and for protection for the soul in its state of separation from the body and community.
St. Paulinus of Nola recorded for us St. Ambrose’s reception of viaticum and death in these words:
The situation suddenly became dramatic. Honoratus, bishop of Vercelli, who was assisting Ambrose and was sleeping on the upper floor, was awoken by a voice saying again and again, “Get up quickly! Ambrose is dying.” … Honoratus hurried downstairs and offered the saint the Body of the Lord. As soon as he had received and swallowed it, Ambrose gave up his spirit, taking the good viaticum with him. His soul, thus refreshed by the virtue of that food, now enjoys the company of angels.
In and through the sacraments, Christ accompanies us with his life, in life, and through death. Dad’s knee surgery needs the accompaniment of Christ. After all, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The sacraments are the mercy of Christ’s life shared with us for our transformation. Every day of our lives we move toward sacramental preparedness in some way for whatever is next, whether by making plans for Baptism, confession, marriage preparation (or seminary for some), faith formation or Rite of Christian Initiation of Adult classes, and receiving the Eucharist for strength to live our lives of loving offering.
Sometimes the Lord even grants a sign of the fullness of the kingdom to come through a miracle of healing. I have seen one, and I know other priests who have had the same experience. In all, let us give glory to God who works to glorify us!