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Rites for the Dying

In Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI freed not only the Traditional Mass but also the other Sacraments. In this edited version of his lecture given at the LMS’s priests’ training conference at Ushaw College, Durham in April, Fr Thomas Crean OP discusses the Traditional form of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction and the Commendation of the Departing Soul and urges their pastoral efficacy.

The Motu Proprio of Pope Benedict XVI, Summorum Pontificum, is justly celebrated for its clear assertion that the Traditional Roman Rite of Mass, as contained in the Missal promulgated by Blessed John XXIII, had never been abrogated, and thus may be used by all priests of the Latin Church. What has been less often remarked upon is the equal freedom which Summorum Pontificum grants to the other liturgical books of the Roman Rite.

For the Missal is only one, though no doubt the most outstanding, among the six liturgical books of our Rite. The other five books of the Roman Rite are the Breviary, containing the prayers of the Divine Office that all clerics are bound to recite daily; the Ritual, which contains the rites for administering sacraments other than Holy Orders, and also many other important prayers and blessings; the Pontifical, which contains the rites reserved for bishops alone, such as Ordination and the Consecration of Churches; the Martyrology, with its brief accounts of the principal saints for every day in the year; and the Ceremonial of Bishops, the very detailed rubrical instruction for the performance of the Church’s ceremonies.

These six liturgical books were all re-written in more or less radical ways during the pontificates of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. But Pope Benedict XVI, by his Motu Proprio, has assured us that the traditional forms of these six books nevertheless remain both valid and licit. Summorum Pontificum mentions four of these books by name, while the two which it does not explicitly mention, the Martyrology and the Ceremonial of Bishops, are surely included by implication.

I should like to make some remarks about just one of these liturgical books, namely the Rituale Romanum, or Roman Ritual. After the Missal, in fact, the Ritual is the liturgical book likely to concern most directly all Catholics, both clergy and laity. And since my current posting, in Leicester, includes the duties of a hospital chaplain, I should like to look in particular at the liturgical rites used with the sick and the dying, and to compare the Traditional form of these rites with the newer forms.

A word first of all about the traditional Rituale Romanum, the Roman Ritual. This was the last of our six liturgical books to be codified by the Holy See. The first standard edition was produced in 1614 by Pope Paul V, hence, some forty years after St Pius V’s Bull Quo Primum standardising the form of the Mass. Needless to say, this Ritual, like the Pian Missal, was not a new creation ex nihilo. It was, as the Pope explains in his Apostolic Constitution Apostolicæ Sedi, compiled from the Rituals then in use, in particular the most ancient ones.

Some minor differences in certain ceremonies, for example the visitation of the sick, did in fact remain between different dioceses in the Latin Church, right up until the time of the Second Vatican Council. For the most part, however, such differences simply consisted in the insertion of some customary local prayers in addition to the standard text promulgated by Paul V.

Article 9, section 1 of Summorum Pontificum states: “The parish priest, duly considering all things, can grant the freedom to use the older ritual in administering the sacraments of baptism, marriage, penance and anointing of the sick, for the sake of the good of souls”. In other words, he can use it himself, and his assistant clergy may do so with his permission. Using the principle that “he who gives permission for the greater gives permission for the less”, we can safely assume from the text of the Motu Proprio that pastors of souls also have the right to use the other, non-sacramental rites contained within the traditional Ritual, for example, the Traditional Rite of Commendation of the Dying. So in this article I shall deal mainly with the Sacrament of Extreme Unction or Anointing of the Sick in the strict sense, but I shall also mention the Commendation of the Departing Soul: these are two rites which are ideally kept apart but which in practice a priest is often obliged to perform together.

Difference in Forms

First of all, then, how do the Traditional rite of anointing and that promulgated by Pope Paul VI in November 1972 differ? Well, quite considerably. One could even argue that of all the seven sacramental rites, it is the Rite of Extreme Unction which has been most affected by the post-Conciliar revision. For here alone among the seven sacraments do we find a change not only in the prayers surrounding the essence of the sacramental act, but also both in the sacramental form itself and in the proximate matter. But before coming to that, let us consider the general structure of each rite.

The newer form of anointing is clearly conceived as being a communal celebration, as the following features show. After the opening greeting, the priest is supposed to give an instruction “to those present” on the nature of the sacrament. This is followed by a communal penitential rite, very similar to that found in the Missal of Paul VI, then a reading which may be read either by the priest or by someone else. After this comes a so-called “litany of anointing”, which is a series of short bidding prayers that the priest is allowed to adapt to the condition of the sick person. Those present are supposed to respond to each petition with the words, Te rogamus audi nos, or, in the English version, Lord, have mercy. Then comes a laying-on of hands by the priest alone, followed by a thanksgiving over the holy oil, containing the response Benedictus Deus, which is meant to be said by those present three times at different points during the thanksgiving. In the ICEL translation, this response is rendered as “Blessed be God who heals us in Christ”.

After this comes the actual anointing itself, then a final prayer, the communal recitation of the Our Father and finally the blessing of all present.

The compilers of this new rite of anointing, then, clearly wished to make it as communal as possible, integrating all present into the liturgical action; the same motivation, of course, which was at work in the elaboration of the Novus Ordo Missae. How successful they have been in practice is another question: the chances that even a daily Mass-going Catholic will know the correct response to the ‘prayer of thanksgiving over the oil’ are very slight; and often those present at the sick-bed will unfortunately be lapsed Catholics, or perhaps not Catholics at all, and hence may not even be able to join in the Confiteor.

Another feature of the new rite of anointing is the provision of various options. Not only are different Scriptural readings provided, but different prayers may be used after the anointing depending on whether the sick person is infirm through old age, or through sickness, or already in articulo mortis. One of all these various prayers is drawn from the Traditional rite of unction; the others, however, appear to be fresh compositions. Again, various forms of greeting and of the penitential rite are offered, just as in the Novus Ordo Missae, and also various final blessings.

So these are the two structural features of the modern rite: first, the sacrament as a communal celebration, and secondly, the provision of options, or even, during the litany of anointing, the possibility of improvisation.

All this contrasts rather strikingly with the Traditional Rite of Extreme Unction. First of all, the Traditional rite of the sacrament has what we might call a vertical rather than a horizontal feel to it: that is, the emphasis throughout is on the sick man and on the mercy of heaven, and on the relation between the two. So in this form of the sacrament, the priest does not address himself to those present, but always either to the sick person or to God.

Secondly, the rite does not allow of variations, still less of improvisations. The same prayers are used whether the sick person is clearly at the very end of his life or still in a critical state.

Structure of the Traditional Form

Let me now summarise the structure of the traditional form of the sacrament, and make some further comparisons to the newer form. After the customary greeting when visiting the sick, Pax huic domui, “Peace to this house and to those who dwell therein”, and the sprinkling with holy water, the Traditional rite begins with three fixed prayers which in different ways ask almighty God to send his angels from heaven to defend the sick man from harm. For example, in the first prayer we find the plea, “May the approach of the demons flee away from this place; may the angels of peace be here”. This notion of the end of life as a time of combat is in fact a marked feature of the Traditional rites for the sick and dying. The prayers of the Traditional Ritual vividly evoke the idea of death as a time when the Christian is liable to be tempted by the evil one, and therefore has great need of the countervailing prayers of the whole Church.

By contrast, while some of the optional prayers of the Pauline rite do speak in general of a combat against evil, none explicitly mentions the angels, whether the holy angels or the fallen ones.

After this triple prayer for protection comes the same Confiteor as in the classical Roman Mass, then a prayer where the priest stretches his right hand over the sick person. As I mentioned earlier, in the newer rite this gesture is performed in silence. In the Traditional rite, the following prayer is used:

In the name of the Father + and of the Son + and of the Holy Ghost + may all the power of the devil be extinguished in thee through the laying on of my hands and through the invocation of the glorious and blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God, of St Joseph her illustrious spouse, and of all the holy angels, archangels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins and all the other saints. Amen.

So it is the whole court of heaven which is called to the bedside of the sick or dying man to fight the powers of evil. This prayer is not given, even as an option, in the newer form of the sacrament.

After this minor exorcism, as it might well be called, come the anointings themselves. Here, as I have said, the two rites of anointing differ both in sacramental form and in what is called their proximate matter.

The sacramental form approved by Pope Paul VI is, in the fairly accurate ICEL translation: “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit, Amen; may the Lord who frees you from sin, save you and raise you up, Amen”. In the Traditional rite, the form of the sacrament is, in my translation, “Through this holy anointing and his most loving mercy, may our Lord pardon thee whatever thou has done ill. Amen”; and to this sacramental form each time it is used is added the name of the sense-power whose organ is being anointed: so, for example, when anointing the eyes, the priest must say, “Through this holy anointing and his most loving mercy, may our Lord pardon thee whatever thou has done ill by means of sight”.

Notice that the Traditional form expressly states that the sacrament is a remedy against sin.

The ‘matter’ of the Forms

What now of the difference in matter? What theology calls the remote matter is identical in either version of the sacrament – namely, olive oil, blessed by the bishop on Maundy Thursday. But the proximate matter, that is, the application of the holy oil, differs between the two.

In the Traditional use, all five senses are singled out for healing, as the priest anoints eyes, ears, nose, lips and hands. He also anoints the feet, unless it should be inconvenient to do so.

Saint Thomas Aquinas explains the reason for the various anointings in his Scriptum on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. He explains that whilst there was not perfect uniformity among the churches in the manner of administering the sacrament, the anointing of the five senses was always performed. He writes:

All our knowledge begins from sense. And since the medicine ought to be applied to the place where sin has its origin in us, therefore the five senses are anointed; that is, the eyes, on account of sight, the ears, for hearing, the nose because of the sense of smell, the mouth because of taste and the hands because of touch.

In contrast, the rite of Pope Paul VI specifies that only the forehead and hands are anointed sacramentally; and, as we have seen, the words of the newer sacramental form make no reference to the different powers of the body being defiled by diverse sins, and so receiving separate purifications, but only to sin and forgiveness in general. Incidentally, I say that the newer rite only allows for two sacramental anointings, since the rubrics add that parts of the body other than the forehead and hands may also be anointed, “according to the culture and traditions of the place”, but that this is to be done silently if at all.

After the anointings come the preces. The preces are a widespread occurrence in the Traditional liturgy of the Church. They are found for example in the Divine Office on ferias, in the Litany of the Saints, and in the priest’s prayers of preparation and thanksgiving before and after Mass; they consist of the Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison, then the silent Pater Noster followed by a series of versicles and responses suited to the context. As far as I know, the preces are not found in any of the modern liturgical books. Here, the verses chosen again emphasise the idea of protection from the enemy:

Save thy servant/trusting in thee, my God; Send to him, O Lord, help from the holy place/And protect him out of Sion; Be unto him, O Lord, a tower of strength/against the face of the enemy; May the enemy have no power over him/and the son of iniquity not approach to harm him.

The rite then concludes with three fixed prayers which in a sense mirror the three at the beginning; though here the request is no longer for the presence of the holy angels but rather that the sick man may be freed from suffering and return to health. It is noteworthy that the second of these three obligatory prayers speaks of suffering as a divinely administered medicine by which we can be improved.

These final, fixed prayers of the Traditional rite have been criticised on the grounds that sometimes the sacrament is administered to those who are obviously at the very end of life, and who could not be restored to health except by a miracle. This was no doubt what led the compilers of the new ritual to insert alternative prayers at this point. But this criticism overlooks the fact that this sacrament, whenever it is administered, necessarily has a strong eschatological emphasis. So St Thomas writes that it directly disposes a man to enter into glory (3a q. XXIX, a. 1). Hence even if it should sometimes result in bodily healing or improvement, its proper terminus is that perfect health of soul and body which will come only at the resurrection of the dead.

Commendation of the soul

I will finish by comparing the two forms of commendation of the soul, the rite which follows the sacrament of anointing in both the old and the new ritual. This comparison is rather easily made, inasmuch as the newer form is almost nothing other than an abridgement of the old. The Traditional commendation of the departing soul consists of a fixed litany of the saints and then six lengthy and beautiful prayers which move back and forward between anxiety for the departing soul and confidence of final salvation, with the note of confidence predominating as the prayers continue. The rite finishes by calling on the help first of our Lady and then of St Joseph, and also mentions the possibility of reading the Passion according to St John, or other passages from the Gospel, if the person still lingers.

The newer rite of commendation retains the litany of the saints, though softening some of the invocations and praying less exclusively for the dying man himself. For example, “From an evil death, deliver him, O Lord” becomes, “At the moment of death, Lord, save your people”.

It also adds some new invocations mentioning the fact that the dying person has received the sacraments and is sharing in our Lord’s suffering. The newer rite then reproduces, in whole or in part, four of the traditional six prayers of commendation, though the rubrics present these as options from which one may be selected.

The two Traditional prayers which are omitted are, interestingly, those which state most unequivocally that the dying person is a sinner: the Deus misericors and the Delicta Iuventutis. The former of these omitted prayers begins, in translation, “Merciful God, clement God, O God who according to the multitude of thy mercies dost blot out the sins of the penitent and dost take away the guilt of past crimes by pardon and remission, look kindly upon thy servant N., and answer with the remission of his sins the one who seeks this by all the confession of his heart.”

The abridgements made to the four remaining prayers likewise remove many of the references to the sins of the dying man, and to the fact that death itself is a debt that fallen man must pay. They also remove all references to the devil. Presumably the intention of the reformers was to avoid anything that might sound frightening or upsetting, whether to the sick man or to those present. There seems no other reason why in the litany of biblical figures whom God rescued from various dangers, a litany which remains largely intact in the modern ritual, the revisers nevertheless omit the invocation, “Deliver thy servant, O Lord, as thou didst deliver Isaac from the sacrifice and from the hand of Abraham his father”.

Finally, the newer rite of commendation, as well as removing references to the justice of God and to the evil spirits, also reduces the references to the saints whose company is desired for the dying man. Thus the prayer Go forth O Christian soul, perhaps the most beautiful of all the prayers of the rite, is truncated so that it no longer bids the man’s spirit to depart in the name of the angels, archangels, thrones and dominations; of the principalities, powers, virtues, cherubim and seraphim; nor of the patriarchs, prophets, holy apostles and evangelists, nor of all the holy martyrs, confessors, monks and hermits, and of all the holy virgins and saints of God. The revised version of this prayer is still beautiful, but lacks some of the awesomeness of the original.

To conclude: we have seen that the revision of this part of the Roman Ritual parallels the revision of the Order of Mass. The same principles appear: the desire to make the liturgical act into an act of the gathered community; the shortening of the rites; the creation of a separate liturgy of the word, rather than, as with the Traditional rite, weaving Scriptural phrases into the action as a whole; and finally, and very strikingly during the commendation of the soul, the removal of elements deemed less palatable to modern man, leading to what might be called a de-dramatisation of the rite.

Of course the same sacramental grace is made available in either form of the anointing; but it is permissible to wonder whether the Traditional rites for the sick and dying do not convey more powerfully the seriousness of death, and hence dispose the sick man to receive this sacramental grace more fruitfully, and those present to pray more earnestly for the salvation of his soul.

[Taken from "Mass of Ages" August 2009, The Latin Mass Society's quarterly magazine]