Ministry to the Sick
Part 2 History

Chapter s28 The Years Before Vatican II
[1900-1959 CE]

Secular History

Church History

Ministry to the Sick


Extreme Unction

SC Schema August 10, 1961

Secular History

The "human sciences" develop.  The relation of physical, mental, and spiritual healing is better understood. Pre-modernism.

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Church History

1.  The Liturgical Movement.  Discovery of liturgical manuscripts and books.  The history of the sacraments is better understood. 

2.  The Code of Canon Law is published in 1917.  This Code is in force until 1983 (over half a century).

3.  Catholic philosophical questions are unable to reconcile medieval thinking with modern ideas. The rise the historical-critical method of scripture study.  Sacramental understanding begins to focus on one's experience of Christ, not on the ritual/structure.

4.  It is during this period, especially toward the end of this period, that many great theologians begin to develop the understandings that will shape the documents of the Second Vatican Council.  For example, theologians such as Karl Rahner present "grace" not as a "thing" or "some thing received" from the sacraments but rather as a "short hand" description of what sacraments do, namely transform us into the inner life of the Trinity, theosis.   Bonaventure and the Franciscan School's understanding of grace is once again brought to the fore: grace is simply the love of God, the Holy Spirit, our love relationship with the Fathker.  Grace moves from being a noun to a verb.

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Ministry to the Sick

The popes of this period urged more leniency toward administration of this sacrament before death. Benedict XV (Sodalitatem, 1921) wrote, "as soon as a sickness become more serious, one can prudently judge there is danger of death."  The Catechism of Council of Trent censures the lack of faith in healing power of sacrament and states that it is a serious sin to defer 'Holy Unction' until all hope of recovery is lost

Richstatter Commentary:   Note that this Roman directive found in various papal documents never reached the parishes.  During my years in the seminary (1954-1966) I never heard any mention of it.   Extreme Unction was administered when death was immanent, at the point of death, and even after death.

Extreme Unction in the 1917 Code of Canon Law  

Titulus V:  De extrema unctione c 937

Caput I.  De ministro extremae unctionis c 938-939

Caput II. De subiecto extremae unctionis c 940-944

Caput III.  De ritibus et caeremoniis extremae unctionis  c 945-947
        947§2.  Unctio renum semper omittatur.

Extreme Unction in the Baltimore Catechism  

During the years immediately before the Second Vatican Council most Catholics in the United States were formed in the faith by memorizing the answers to the questions in the Baltimore Catechism. I think it is both important and useful to know what was taught (and what we not taught) in the Baltimore Catechism because for many [perhaps most]  contemporary Catholic laity, priests, and bishops that "faith configuration" continues to shape their understanding and interpretation of the current Rites and liturgical practices and theologies.

I reprint here the pertinent questions from the Revised Edition of the Baltimore Catechism No. 2, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1941. This is the text I memorized as a child and which formed my understanding of Catholicism and led me to become an ordained Priest.  The text is available at   [Note the "True Catholics" who author this website believe that "the Church never changes" and that the Catholic Church was without a pope between the death of Pius XII in 1958 and the [ = their] election of Pope Pius XIII in 1998.  Because of these beliefs they are exceptionally careful to preserve the "True Catholic Faith" as contained in the Baltimore Catechism.]

How to Take Communion to the Sick, 1952-1969 

Father Jounel describes the ritual for taking Communion to the sick as described in the Roman Ritual of Pope Paul V (1614-1972).   [See:  Pierre Jounel, "La communion des malades,"  La Maison-Dieu, #205, 1996:1, pp 107-115.]  In the "update" of this Ritual approved by Pope Pius XII in 1952, the rite for taking communion to the sick and dying has very public character.  The procession is described in this way:  The pastor wears a soutain, a surplice and stole, and a white benediction veil over his shoulders.  Before the procession begins, the church bell is rung to alert the parishioners to come and accompany the procession.  They carry lighted candles (or lanterns in bad weather) and one of them holds the liturgical umbrella over the priest with the Blessed Sacrament. The procession is lead by an acolyte ringing a bell and another server carrying the vessel of Holy Water and a third carrying the bourse, corporal, and a purificator. The pastor should be accompanied by other priests and clerics carrying lit candles. Ordinarily the priest will take two hosts, one to give to the sick person and one to carry back to the church with the same type of ceremonial procession.

If the distance to the home is so long that the priest must go on horseback, he is to have a small container hung around his neck so that the Blessed Sacrament can be placed in it.  [When the priest no longer went on horseback, but in his automobile, the ritual says that there should be a small flag on the fender of the car -- similar to what we see today on presidential vehicles).

In the room of the sick person there is to be a table covered with a white cloth on which the priest can place the Blessed Sacrament. There are to be lit candles on the table and a glass of water and a glass of wine. There is to be a white 'communion cloth" which will be used as a "bib around the neck" of the sick person who is to receive Communion.  When he arrives in the room of the sick person, the priest first hear the confession of the sick person if he has not done this already on a prior visit.  One could still see these processions in use in certain regions of Italy as recently as the last century. 

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Revised Edition of the Baltimore Catechism No. 2, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1941

Lesson 33. Temporal Punishment and Indulgences

Richstatter Commentary:    Note that the treatment of Extreme Unction follows the chapter on temporal punishment and indulgences.  It is within the context of temporal punishment and indulgences that Extreme Unction is to be understood. 

435. What is an indulgence? An indulgence is the remission granted by the Church of the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.  

436. How many kinds of indulgences are there? There are two kinds of indulgences, plenary and partial. 

437. What is a plenary indulgence? A plenary indulgence is the remission of all the temporal punishment due to our sins.  
Richstatter Commentary:   If you receive a plenary indulgence at the moment of death, you go straight to heaven without any purgatory. 

438. What is a partial indulgence? A partial indulgence is the remission of part of the temporal punishment due to our sins.  Richstatter Commentary:   They were "measured in terms" of "days" and "quarantines"  [the amount of remission gained by observing Lent - a "40" - a quarantine]

439. How does the Church by means of indulgences remit the temporal punishment due to sin? The Church by means of indulgences remits the temporal punishment due to sin by applying to us from her spiritual treasury part of the infinite satisfaction of Jesus Christ and of the superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints.  
Richstatter Commentary:    This theology presupposes the reification of grace and merit.  It is more difficult to explain when "grace" is understood in terms of love, relationships, and the Holy Spirit.

440. What is the superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints? The superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints is that which they gained during their lifetime but did not need, and which the Church applies to their fellow members of the communion of saints.

441. What must we do to gain an indulgence for ourselves? To gain an indulgence for ourselves we must be in the state of grace, have at least a general intention of gaining the indulgence, and perform the works required by the Church.

442. Can we gain indulgences for others? We cannot gain indulgences for other living persons, but we can gain them for the souls in purgatory, since the Church makes most indulgences applicable to them.

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Extreme Unction

Lesson 34. Extreme Unction and Holy Orders

Introduction to Lesson 34  Extreme (last) Unction (rubbing with blessed oil) is the sacrament which, through the anointing and prayer by the priest, gives health and strength to the soul, and sometimes to the body, when we are in danger of death from sickness, accident, or old age.  We should prepare ourselves to receive this sacrament:  1) by making a good confession, 2) by acts of faith, hope, and charity, and 3) by resignation (being agreeable) to God's will.  Priests are most happy to attend their people who are sick at home or in the hospital. 

Richstatter Commentary:   1) Note that extreme unction is grouped with Holy Orders.  It was not important enough to have its own chapter.  2) Sometimes to the body.  The human person is understood in terms of body and soul; not body mind and spirit.  The Sacrament is concerned primarily with the soul; only sometimes with body.  3) Danger of death from sickness, accident, or old age.    4) Note we are to prepare ourselves for the sacrament by first going to confession.  Because the sacrament of extreme unction is a sacrament of the "living".  That is it can only be received when one is in the state of grace.  5) Notice again the reification of "grace".   6) Note the person is to be resigned to God's will.  7) Note the chapter presumes the sacrament will be celebrated at "home" or in the "hospital".

443. What is Extreme Unction? Extreme Unction is the sacrament which, through the anointing with blessed oil by the priest, and through his prayer, gives health and strength to the soul and sometimes to the body when we are in danger of death from sickness, accident, or old age. 

Richstatter Commentary:    body / soul.  Danger of death. 

444. Who should receive Extreme Unction? All Catholics who have reached the use of reason and are in danger of death from sickness, accident, or old age should receive Extreme Unction. 

Richstatter Commentary:     age of reason / danger of death

445. What are the effects of the sacrament of Extreme Unction? The effects of the sacrament of Extreme Unction are: 1) an increase of sanctifying grace; 2) comfort in sickness and strength against temptation; 3) preparation for entrance into heaven by the remission of our venial sins and the cleansing of our souls from the remains of sin; and 4) health of body when it is good for the soul. 

Richstatter Commentary:   spiritual effects

446. When does Extreme Unction take away mortal sin? Extreme Unction takes away mortal sin when the sick person is unconscious or otherwise unaware that he is not properly disposed, but has made an act of imperfect contrition. Richstatter Commentary:    Note the advantages of being unconscious.

447. How should we prepare ourselves to receive Extreme Unction worthily? We should prepare ourselves to receive Extreme Unction worthily by a good confession, by acts of faith, hope, charity, and, especially, by resignation to the will of God. Richstatter Commentary:   confession first

448. Who can administer Extreme Unction? Only a priest can administer Extreme Unction. 
Richstatter Commentary:     "administer" / "celebrate"

449. When is it advisable to call the priest to visit the sick? It is advisable to call the priest to visit the sick in any serious illness, even though there be no apparent danger of death, as it is the duty of the priest to visit the sick and to administer to them the sacraments they need. 
Richstatter Commentary:    When the priest gets there, the priest can decide if the person is sick enough for the sacrament.

450. In case of sudden or unexpected death, should a priest be called? In case of sudden or unexpected death a priest should be called always, because absolution and Extreme Unction can be given conditionally for some time after apparent death.  
Richstatter Commentary:    There were many abuses connected with "conditional" sacraments after "apparent" death.  Today one would say the prayers for the dead and the bereaved.   The text of the prayers must make sense. 

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SC Schema August 10, 1961

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Schema of August 10, 1961  The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy went through various drafts and revisions before it was presented to the council Fathers.  My thesis moderator, Fr. Gy, OP was one of the theologians preparing the document and he loaned me the various drafts and their discussion notes so that I could use them for my thesis on Obedience to Liturgical Law:  A Historical Study of the Theological Context of Roman Catholic Liturgical Law before and after the Second Vatican Council.   In the draft of August 10, 1961 there are four notations regarding the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

#76 The name and nature of the sacrament.  The sacrament, which in the future will be called, "the Anointing of the Sick" is not a sacrament for the dying, but for those who are seriously ill.  Therefore the proper time to receive the sacrament has already arrived when the person begins to be in danger of death.  Explanation:  Recently the sacrament has been called extreme unction, but this name appeared only late in the 12th and 13th century.  The traditional name of the sacrament is "the Blessed Oil" or the "Oil of the Sick".  Many of the fathers of the Council of Trent requested that the original name "Anointing of the Sick" be restored.  However, their request went unheard... We think that the title "Anointing of the Sick" is the better name because it names the action and not the thing.  [Sacraments are verbs, not nouns.]

#77  The order of the sacraments.  The anointing of the sick has its proper place after Confession but before the reception of the Eucharist.   The last sacrament is Viaticum, not Extreme Unction. 

#78  The Ritual.  The prayers will be revised to fit  the actual condition of the sick person (e.g. old, young, operation, dying, etc). 

#79  Repeating the Sacrament.  The sacrament may be repeated during the same illness   This was the custom in the Church up to the 13th century.  The Scholastics thought that the repetition of the sacrament would be an indication that the sacrament was not effective.  However the sick, especially if their illness is of long duration, are in frequent need of the spiritual consolation given by the sacrament. 

Compare numbers 76, 77, 78, and 79 of this draft of August 10, 1961 with numbers 73, 74, 75 of the final text of December 4, 1963

73. "Extreme unction," which may also and more fittingly be called "anointing of the sick," is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.

74. In addition to the separate rites for anointing of the sick and for viaticum, a continuous rite shall be prepared according to which the sick man is anointed after he has made his confession and before he receives viaticum.

75. The number of the anointings is to be adapted to the occasion, and the prayers which belong to the rite of anointing are to be revised so as to correspond with the varying conditions of the sick who receive the sacrament.

Richstatter Commentary:   At the opening of the Council there were two conflicting theologies regarding the sacrament.  Some held to the Scholastic tradition and saw Extreme Unction as the sacrament which effected the cancellation of the total debt of punishment due to sin and prepared the soul for the beatific vision.  Others held that the unction was a sacrament of healing (Unction is the sacrament for the sick; Viaticum is the sacrament for the dying).  This conflict influences the discussion of the sacrament during (and after) the Council.  

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 01/22/17.  Your comments on this site are welcome at