The last days of August. It is time to let be. Time to lie in a hammock and take bribes. Read. Doze. Plan the rest of my life. Anything except trawl for words at a computer. 


Girl on a Swing in Central Park. New York Historical Society.


But first, let me post the last of the comments that came in on the declension of Extreme Unction into an all-purpose Anointing of the Sick. A thread that runs through them is recognition of what one respondent refers to as a lack of discernment—or faithful discharge—on the part of either priest or parishioner. Sometimes both. Let me leave you until September with someone else’s words. (Mine have packed a bag and are waiting at the station.) Each of these speaks for itself.

An Orthodox deacon treats the historicity of the Anointing of the Sick with a care that makes his letter valuable:

It seems to me that the post VCII rite, if discharged faithfully, might be more like it’s Orthodox counterpart, at least theologically. Orthodox unction has always been “healing unto salvation,” so has not had the “last rites” component, although it is nonetheless a common feature of end-of-life ministrations. Significantly, it can be done in conjunction with confession; it isn’t required nor expected, necessarily.

But it’s that “discharged faithfully” business that is the real tragedy for Catholics. I’m only a deacon and would not think of going to a hospital or nursing home in anything but a collar, and would also always have a cassock and an orarion in the trunk in case someone wants to commune.

Also, we have done our best to insulate ourselves from the solemn reality of death. We are just now, in Orthodoxy, starting to have families want cremations (nyet!), closed caskets (except due to extreme disfigurement, NYET!), and to avoid seeing the lowering of the coffin into the grave (only recently become optional). Avoiding that last one gives us, or so we think, a temporary reprieve from having to consider death in it’s entirety-but it’s only a hall pass, not an “excused.”

A priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross writes to confirm distinctions between the rite itself and way it is conducted:

A distinction certainly exists [between the sick and the dying] but it does not exist within rubrics or the rites. The distinction is in the actual praying/celebrating of the sacrament . . . as well as a detrimental lack in discernment.

Catholics have forgotten how to discern the sacraments. For example, am I properly disposed to receive the Eucharist? This question is complicated by the lamentable assumption that one’s Sunday obligation entails receiving the Eucharist rather than the truth of the matter that one’s obligation is merely in attending the Mass.

Is my illness dangerous and/or serious? From the very start, James 5:13-15 says, “He should summon the presbyters of the Church.” Implicit in that “should summon” is the discernment that a person is sick. So sick that s/he can’t go TO the presbyters but must summon them.

This lack of discernment—[thinking that] anyone goes up for communion and that a hangnail warrants anointing—is more lamentable than any sort of systematic liturgical destruction of the sacrament of anointing. There is a problem indeed. It’s not with the rite but with wise discernment and reverential prayer.

There was common agreement that the sacrament, while deservedly offered to someone facing surgery or risky treatments, has been diminished in practice. This respondent adds a rueful note that raises a question less about the rite itself than about the culture of priestly training:

It [the sacrament of Anointing] is made not so important because one can just go the sacristy after Mass and be anointed. And it is true that instead of a dignified sacrament which may also include confession and holy communion, I personally know of priests refusing to hear a confession saying it is not needed as the anointing covers everything.

Fr. E. writes to remind that the Anglican tradition recognized the gravity of the rites designed for death. He quotes the rubrics from “Communion of the Sick” in the Book of Common Prayer. Reading the passage, it is impossible not to note the gulf between the older ceremonial seriousness and today’s demotic expectations shaped, as they are, not by religious sensibility but by popular culture. As you read, notice the emphasis on the communal aspect of the sacrament (“two at the least”) and the implicit assumption that the home visited is familiar with the protocols of the rite (“all things necessary so prepared”):

Forasmuch as all mortal men be subject to many sudden perils, diseases, and sicknesses, and ever uncertain what time they shall depart out of this life; therefore, to the intent they may always be in a readiness to die, whensoever it shall please Almighty God to call them, the Curates shall diligently from time to tim . . . exhort their Parishioners to the often receiving of the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, when it shall be publickly ministered in the Church . . . . But if the sick person be not able to come to the Church, and yet is desirous to receive the Communion in his house; then he must give timely notice to the Curate, signifying also how many there are to communicate with him, (which shall be three, or two at the least,) and having a convenient place in the sick man’s house, with all things necessary so prepared, that the Curate may reverently minister, he shall there celebrate the holy Communion, beginning with the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, here following.

Lastly, a spirited letter from the pseudonymous Clay Potts. He has no patience with priests who permit themselves to be buffaloed out of their cassocks:

A soldier, especially during times of war, is required to always appear in his uniform, even in non-combat situations, primarily as to deter the soldier from desertion, from abandoning his post, from blending into the crowd; And, as to remain ever battle ready.

A soldier’s uniform also serves to instill in a military force, self-confidence and popular confidence, as well as to diminish the enemy’s popular and self-confidence. Even a soldier operating a military drone seated in at a desk a thousands of miles away from the battlefield wears the uniform. How much confidence would a soldier dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and sandals and seated at the command center with his finger on the nuclear button, instill in the public? . . . Or, a surgeon entering the operating theatre dressed in a bright gold Steeler’s sweatshirt and sweatpants? . . .

Even an off-duty cop will spring into action when he or she sees a crime being committed! They know they have a moral and ethical duty to take charge of the situation regardless of the danger to themselves. They don’t even think about it, they just react, it’s second nature. And, yet a priest is prepared to walk onto the eternal battle field of the deathbed dressed in street clothes?! Or fail to take charge of the deathbed?

All gratitude to each of you who took time and thought to respond. Enjoy this summer’s end. We will meet again in September. 

mmletters.ft@gmail.com

Articles by Maureen Mullarkey

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