My earlier essay on Extreme Unction generated a considerable volume of mail. All of it was thoughtful. There were simply too many to quote, or to include in a single blog post. So, herewith are two that represent the tenor of much of the correspondence. Others will appear in another post.
The first, by a Lutheran pastor, is a cry of the heart. Pastor B. opens a sad window onto the dilemmas and anxieties awaiting priests at the bedside of the dying:
Lutherans might not call it Extreme Unction, but Commendation of the Dying with confession, absolution and Eucharist was historically practiced. . . . . There are two things often going on around death beds, although we can’t call them that. The first is that the bastardizers have separated us from the ancient scripts and roles. I would love to show up in Cassock. But when you show up properly dressed you are told to leave and eventually the whispers start that “Pastor is stiff”. . . . Their life and practice has not prepared them to hear the words of comfort from the servant of the Word. So you go as a friend and say what you can. You know that isn’t good, right and salutary, but it is what they can hear. And then you go and pray.
The second point: For those further away from the church, by the time the minister is called there is usually nothing that can be said. For those closer, whom you have probably been visiting, you still have to confront the “white coats” and the [adult] children. White coats is my mental slang for the medical establishment which keeps the children on the drugs of false hope as if death were an option and keeps the dying on strong drugs. This is not an argument for no pain medication, just a recognition that a good confession requires one to be in their right mind. This would usually place you in confrontation with the white coats who are easing the way and the children who often have no belief what-so-ever. Either you confront and put the dying in the position of confrontation with their kids, or you mumble a few words about sharing a meal. And then you go and pray.
The church gets what she asks for. You will know the church has turned a corner when her people start asking for the Sacrament and the Servant.
The letter throws a sympathetic light on clerical reluctance to wear clerical garb to the bedside of the dying. And I am inclined to believe that, yes, a priest who comes dressed like the yard man or a lumber jack is likely following advice from the chancery to meet people “where they are,” in the illusory cant of the day. Nevertheless, a priest is not a technician, like the appliance repair man or meter reader. He embodies the Omega of our hopes; his presence asserts it even among those who have surrendered hope and trust. Those, most especially.
Is confrontation the sole means of bearing witness? That is not for me to answer. I can only believe that retreat in advance affirms the very loss of trust the pastor mourns. Maimonides said it well: “The beginning of all defeat is retreat.” Is not a cassock testimony in itself, a silent instrument that gives word of what we ourselves might be unable to say? It must not be put aside, mothballed for more congenial times.
Reader Jack writes in what reads like sectarian pique. Nevertheless, his point deserves note:
All of the Eastern Churches, both in union with Rome or not, have ALWAYS called it Anointing of the Sick, and it’s never been reserved for those in danger of death. Changing it to “Extreme Unction” is one of the many ways the local Roman Church fell away from the original Apostolic practices preserved by the Eastern Apostolic Churches. . .
The Roman Church has NEVER been the standard of the Church Catholic, but merely one part of it. . . . So many of the things that “traditional Catholics” complain about being innovations are standard, old, and established among Eastern Christians, Catholic or not.
Antiquarian correctness is a false issue. What Jack considers a falling away from apostolic practice could as easily be welcomed as an advance on it. It helps to remember that the sacraments were made for man, not man for the sacraments. As man’s condition changes down the centuries, the formal qualities of the sacraments—their manners, if you like—alter with it. The choreography of the Mass itself has changed in relation to the temporal facets of our existence. [Browse Joseph Jungmann’s The Mass of the Roman Rite.]
Each generation begets its own obstacles; each seeks its own way to renewing inherited trusts. Christian freedom remains open to liturgical change. Our concern is with the character and symbolic import of altered protocols, not with the crude fact of historical adjustment. What matters is whether changed decorums achieve refinement or degradation of sacramental purpose.
I can only repeat what I wrote earlier: The chasm between sickness, which seeks treatment, and the final stage of terminal illness is vast. The hour of death is a time unto itself, unlike any other. The conceptual framework of Extreme Unction bowed to the profundity of that distinction. Anointing of the Sick—most certainly in contemporary practice—erases the harrowing particularity of death.