Q&A with Thomas Izbicki

Excerpt from Ministry to the Sick and Dying in the Late Medieval Church Included

We were pleased to have Thomas Izbicki on our blog to chat about his new book Ministry to the Sick and Dying in the Late Medieval Church. Thomas Izbicki is Librarian emeritus at Rutgers University.

Q: What interested you in this specific topic within the broad field of medieval studies?

A: This book falls within a larger interest of mine: the relationship of theory to practice. I pursue that interest when looking at the discipline of the sacraments. The book derives from the fourth chapter of my book on the Eucharist in canon law (Cambridge 2015). The fourth chapter of that book dealt with taking viaticum to the sick and dying. That opened the question of how three sacraments, confession, communion and extreme unction, were administered to such persons. Priests were expected to administer all of them, but I found evidence of failures to do so.

Q: What was the most interesting or unexpected discovery you made in your research in writing this book?

A: The most interesting discovery was that theologians, building on biblical texts, regarded illness as a consequence of sin. That dictated, in turn, a focus on relieving the sick of their sins and preparing them to face mortality. This included not just confession but extreme unction, which removed venial sins. Salvation was the primary end of these rites, but the clergy thought a grievously ill sinner might still recover good health by repenting.

Q: What would you hope a reader will walk away from after reading your book?

A: The reader should come to understand why ministry to the sick was done. How could sin cause illness? How were sins removed, especially the sins of the dying, through reception of the sacraments?

Q: The book draws from a wide-range of disciplines, canon law, liturgy, Scripture. How did you synthesize all of this diverse research into a cohesive narrative?

The book focuses on how theology, based on Scripture, was reflected in teachings about each sacrament. Canon law, in turn, reflected that theology in instructions to priests for their ministries. Note that the structures of these rites were similar, even though practice differed from one diocese to another.

Excerpt from Thomas Izbicki’s Book

Ministry to the Sick and Dying in the Late Medieval Church

Medieval churchmen inevitably had to deal with sickness and mortality, including attendance at sickbed and death-bed. The priest was expected to focus on the health of the soul, but this could not be divorced entirely from care of the body. The body was believed to have become vulnerable to sickness and death through original sin. This opened the possibility that cures might be effected for the devout through the rejection of sins and vices. Death was inevitable, however long it might be delayed through religion and medicine. In addition, bodily ailments could be treated as occasions for spiritual progress, the sick person regarding them as chastisements for sin.

As Antoninus of Florence, among many others, wrote, there were three possibilities for the souls of the deceased. They might attain beatitude in Heaven. More commonly, they might be cleansed of their sins in the purifying flames of Purgatory. The worst possibility was eternal torment in Hell. To attain eternal life and avoid postmortem pains, confession was requisite, especially the last confession of a dying Christian. The dying believer was expected to leave this world not just confessed and anointed but comforted for the last journey by devout reception of the Eucharist, viaticum. Extreme unction might purge away remnants of past sins or remove venial sins. In addition, the priest might see physical cures effected by anointing. The teachings of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) show how spiritual health was prioritized for pastoral care without giving up attention to the suffering body.

For more information on Thomas Izbicki and his book Ministry to the Sick and Dying in the Late Medieval church, click here

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