The “last rites” is the very common term for the rituals that the Catholic Church has provided during the final moments of earthly existence. Extreme Unction, Viaticum and the Final Blessing and Apostolic Pardon are the traditional terms that many older folks are familiar with. These are still the main rituals that we hope to provide for our loved ones, fulfilling our desire as we pray so often in the Hail Mary: “now and at the hour of our death.”
Here’s a further explanation of these rites as they are celebrated today.
First, the prayers and forms of the rituals differ depending on the health of the sick person. All persons whose illness or age indicates a danger of death are offered the Sacrament of the Sick. Death may not be imminent, but one’s health is critically compromised by an acute or chronic illness or condition. The normal form of this rite entails some form of a penitential rite that may include the Sacrament of Reconciliation, especially if the sick person is aware of a grave sin. Then the person is given the Anointing of the Sick. Lastly Holy Communion is offered to the sick person either since the rites are celebrated within the Mass or as Communion to the Sick outside of Mass. The prayers and readings of this these rites are filled with hope and confidence that the Lord bestows a blessing of health, a swift recovery and protection from all sin and evil.
Only a priest can celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. A properly trained and commissioned lay person may bring Holy Communion to those who are sick, but is not able to offer Confession or the Sacraments of the Sick.
The second form of the prayers and rituals are more fitting for those for whom death is imminent. In keeping with our faith that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Church, reception of Holy Communion is urged for all those who are facing death and are physically and mentally able to receive as celebrated as the Rite of Viaticum. In this way, the Eucharist is the last sacrament received. The Church encourages this final communion to take place during the Mass so that both the Body and Blood of Christ is received as the fuller sign of the Heavenly banquet that awaits the faithful. There are also provisions to allow the reception of the Precious Blood outside of the Mass. The Rite includes a renewal of one’s baptismal promises, if possible, and concludes with the Final Blessing and Apostolic Pardon that celebrates the Paschal Mystery as the true and only remedy for sin and death. If possible and fitting, Viaticum is preceded by the Sacrament of Penance and the Anointing of the Sick.
A duly trained and commissioned lay person may administer Viaticum, but that rite will not include confession and the anointing of the sick and the apostolic pardon. Viaticum also may be given more than once, even daily until the person dies.
Next, one of the most moving of all rituals takes place. The Church to gathers around those who are close to leaving this life and through prayer accompanies the children of God returning to their Father in Heaven. A powerful litany of supplication is offered. Many times the family prays the rosary together. The Scripture is read, especially the 23rd Psalm. At the moment of death a prayer of commendation of the soul to God is prayed. Finally is prayed, or even sung, this prayer: “Saints of God, come to his aid, come to meet him, Angels of the Lord.”
In recent times, these pastoral practices have been challenged by the complicated medical processes that involve someone close to death. The sick person is in a hospital away from home. How does the family recognize that the special rituals of Viaticum are called for? Is a priest available? In wondering about these issues, it is good to remember that we are all called to attend the Eucharist on Sundays and days of obligation and to celebrate the Sacrament of Penance frequently and whenever one is aware of having committed a grave sin. In this way, we can be assured of the grace that Christ offers us freely through the sacraments of the Church and how they fortify us for eternal life.
Most parishes celebrate the sacrament of the sick several times a year for those who are of advanced age. One should not wait until the final moments of illness before contacting the parish. When the priest or parish ministers know when someone is gravely ill or is in the hospital, it is much easier to provide the sacraments and work with the hospital chaplains or hospice workers to provide spiritually for those close to death. Msgr. Marion Makarewicz