The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 14)
The Dying Christian
Confusion About “Last Rites” . .
The phone call is an urgent one. It sometimes comes in the middle of the night. The caller is often a hospice worker or social worker in a nursing home, sometimes a family member whose loved one is dying. The request is for “last rites” or for anointing. The priest asks about the condition of the dying person, especially whether he or she is conscious. Given the urgency of the call, and because he has learned that there is a lot of confusion about “last rites”, he is not surprised to hear that the patient lost consciousness some time ago, or even has already passed away. The priest hurries to the bedside. He kneels at the bedside and makes the sign of the cross upon the head of the dying or dead Christian. He reads from the Scriptures; he says prayers for the commendation of the dying, or the prayers for the dead. Those present join in the Our Father. He lingers a while in conversation with family members. This is right and good.
What he cannot do in such cases is administer last rites. “Last rites” describes the administration of the sacrament of Holy Communion, often preceded by the sacraments of Penance and the Anointing of the sick. By the nature of a sacrament, it cannot be received passively. The one who receives must be aware and in some way responsive, able to request the sacrament and participate in its celebration.
Viaticum: Bread for the Journey . . .
In fact, the term “last rites” is no longer used by the Church in her teaching documents. You won't find it in the index of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It has been replaced by the Latin word, Viaticum. This is not the name of a separate sacrament, it is rather the receiving of Holy Communion as Viaticum, as the bread from heaven that sustains one in the hour of death and in “passing over” with Christ. As the Christian once made a “first communion”, now he or she makes a final communal. As it often happens that a dying person lingers for many days as death draws near, the Church encourages the receiving of Viaticum more than once, even daily, during the time of vigil.
“A distinctive feature of viaticum . . . is the renewal of the baptismal profession of faith by the dying person. . . . Through the baptismal profession at the end of earthly life, the one who is dying uses the language of his or her initial commitment, which has been renewed every Easter (Pastoral Care of the Sick, no. 181). There was once a first profession; now there is a final one. In Viaticum, as the dying Christian receives the sacrament, the words are spoken: “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life.” It is only natural that this final communion be preceded by a final confession, by the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This may take place sometime before receiving Viaticum. Often the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick follows Penance, for the Church anoints in Christ's name, not only for the healing of temporal illness, but as a prayer for that final healing of body and soul in the resurrection of the dead.
When to Call for the Priest . . .
When the life-threatening illness is diagnosed, when one enters hospice care, when a particularly dangerous surgery is required: in such moments we are free to request the final sacraments. Better early than late. In this way, the dying Christian makes of his or her death a witness of faith to loved ones and an act of worship to God, Creator and Redeemer, claiming the grace promised to us in the hour of death.
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