A Time to Speak – Call the priest? Catholic rituals for the end of life

Dr. Karen Shadle

Dr. Karen Shadle

One of our most important responsibilities as a Christian community is caring for and praying with those who are dying. Toward the end of life, the dying person and their loved ones often instinctively reach out to the church.

Like the best possible medical care, we want the best spiritual care the church can provide. This desire for God’s love and mercy at the end is cause for great rejoicing.

But what to do? In this article, we explore the options and offer some guidance for those approaching the end of life.

What are “last rites”?
The term is a bit of a misnomer. There is not one single sacramental event at the end of life, but a collection of several different rituals for the sick and dying.

The church differentiates between pastoral care of the sick and pastoral care of the dying. The former includes visitation, the sacrament of anointing and bringing holy Communion to the sick. The latter includes viaticum, commendation of the dying, and prayers for the dead.

They differ in purpose. “Pastoral Care of the Sick” (no. 161) explains, “Ministry to the dying places emphasis on trust in the Lord’s promise of eternal life rather than on the struggle against illness which is characteristic of the pastoral care of the sick.”

Many assume that anointing of the sick is the proper sacrament for the end of life, but in fact, a more important sacrament at the time of death is viaticum, which is Communion given to someone approaching death.

What is anointing of the sick?
The aim of this sacrament is healing. Anointing of the sick is not “extreme unction,” an older term that refers to a singular deathbed ritual. On the contrary, anointing of the sick may be repeated throughout one’s lifetime as necessary.

The elderly, the infirm, those preparing for or recovering from surgery and those who are sick and hopeful of getting better receive this sacrament.

Many priests offer anointing for the parish community at regular times throughout the year. If the sacrament has been received in this way during an illness, it is not always needed once death becomes imminent.

One other note about anointing: It is not administered after death. All sacraments, imparting the grace of Christ, are for those still living. After death, we meet Christ face to face and are therefore no longer in need of the sacraments.

What is Viaticum?
Viaticum is a special form of Communion given only to the dying. It can be administered by a priest within or outside of Mass, or if no priest is available, by a deacon or even an appointed lay person, such as a trained Communion minister.

The Latin root of this word is via, meaning road or way, and indeed viaticum is food for the traveler on his or her journey from earthly to eternal life.

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church” explains, “Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of ‘passing over’ to the Father, has a particular significance and importance.

It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father” (no. 1524).

Viaticum is also a way of uniting the dying person with the Body of Christ — to the parish community, which celebrates the Eucharist regularly, and to the broader universal church.

At a time when many feel isolated, this is a way for the Christian community to become present and to enfold the dying person in prayer.

Additional pastoral care of the dying
The church’s pastoral care of the dying includes some other non-sacramental rites.

“The Commendation of the Dying” is a set of prayers and Scripture readings from the same book the priest uses when he anoints the sick.

There are also “Prayers for the Dead” in the same book for after the loved one has passed on. Anyone at all can lead these prayers. You do not have to be a priest, a deacon or a communion minister.

What if you do not have an official ritual book handy at the time of death? Remember that any prayers are appropriate for the dying. You can read Scripture or pray the rosary.

Speak to God from your heart. As Catholics, we have formal rituals for just about everything, but this does not diminish the effectiveness of spontaneous prayer.

Some advice for the faithful and their loved ones who are facing these end-of-life concerns: Don’t wait. It is never too soon to call the parish and engage the relationship of spiritual care for the sick.

Sacraments of Healing — reconciliation and anointing — may be received repeatedly throughout an illness or convalescence and indeed well before death is imminent. Viaticum, too, can be repeated frequently, even daily, as death approaches.

These are opportunities for prayer, healing, and community-building. In addition to the parish priest, know that you can also call upon the deacons and lay leaders in your parish, who can bring holy Communion and pray with you and your loved ones. The church offers several beautiful rituals for the end of life.

In this richness, we are reminded that rituals are not an end in themselves; rather they punctuate an ongoing relationship of pastoral care that unites us all in the Body of Christ.

Dr.Karen Shadle is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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