Old Customs for Anointing of the Sick

I’ve been reading an old Catholic novel that’s set sometime in the mid-1800’s in a small mill town in England. It’s called Won by Conviction, by Fr. Denis O’Shea. It’s an interesting book, and includes a lot of slice of parish life details.

Anyway, at one point, an Irish Catholic character is dying, so the priest comes to the house to give Extreme Unction (aka Anointing of the Sick). Apparently, it was also called “the Sacrament of the Sick” back then, so our name isn’t so far off.

The priest asks ahead of time for a table with a white tablecloth to be set up with two blessed candles on it and a little glass of water for the priest to clean his hands from the oil of the sick. The priest offers to bring the blessed candles; but the woman of the house already has two, because she got them blessed at Candlemas. (And that’s part of why we should get candles blessed then.) The priest doesn’t ask for lemon slices to clean off the oil, because it’s factoryworkers in England before modern shipping.

However, the other thing that the woman of the house does, without being asked, is to clean the whole house in order to welcome Jesus’ coming in the Blessed Sacrament (because the dying person will receive Communion as his Viaticum). This includes cleaning the doorsteps over which the Blessed Sacrament will come in, and even whitening the steps with chalk. (This definitely sounds Irish.)

The priest carries the pyx with his eyes lowered and all his attention on Jesus. (And that’s the way that laypeople bringing Communion to the sick are also supposed to act, btw.) The people in the house do not greet Father; they greet Jesus by falling on their knees, as one does at any kind of Eucharistic procession. Since the dying person will be making his Confession, the family then wait outside the sickroom, far enough away to give privacy, until Father gives them the word to come in. Then they watch the dying person receive Communion and the Anointing of the Sick and the Apostolic Pardon (which it turns out was also called “the Last Blessing” or “the Blessing of the Pope”).

There are some really, really beautiful prayers involved in the old Anointing of the Sick.

Here’s the Viaticum preparation prayer in the book:

O my God,
I believe in Thee,
I hope in Thee,
I adore Thee,
Here present in the Blessed Sacrament.
Come to me, O my God.
Stay with me,
Help me do Thy holy will.

Here’s the prayer before the Anointing, which anoints all the senses:

May God forgive me the sins I have committed
by my eyes,
by my ears,
by my tongue,
and by my hands.

Here’s the prayer before the Apostolic Blessing that’s in the book:

Jesus, help me.
Jesus, have mercy on me.
I offer You my sickness for my sins.
I add it to Your own sufferings,
to those of Your Blessed Mother,
and of all the saints.
Amen.

You’ll notice that these prayers are in English. Even though most of the Sacrament was prayed in Latin by the priest, the prayers done by the people were always done in the vernacular, just like wedding vows, baptismal promises, etc. The only exception were prayers that everybody learned by heart and already understood, like the Paternoster, Ave Maria, and Gloria Patri.

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