We still get calls from families and care givers who want us to give “the last rites” to their dying family members, or patients, who are close to death. I know that you hear that terminology in the community, and even on TV, but strictly speaking we do not use it anymore, officially, in the church. When someone is sick we have the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, when someone is close to death we have Prayers for the Dying and Viaticum.
Our experience is that even if people have been sick for a long time we do not get a call until the sick person is at “death’s door”. Family members call us, at the last minute, because they were catechized that a dying person should receive forgiveness for their sins before dying and so be prepared to meet the Lord after death. If the person died without the ministry of the priest and the church’s sacrament, and if that person were in mortal sin, they believed that the person’s soul would be in mortal danger. They wanted their loved one to die “in the state of grace” and if they waited until the last minute their loved one would die, at peace with God, would be ready to go to meet the Lord and be happy forever in heaven.
The Second Vatican Council (Vat. II), fifty years ago, refined the sacrament of anointing and brought back its original meaning as a help for those who are sick to bring the Lord’s healing, peace and comfort to them. In other words, the people that I mention above, should call us when their loved ones are sick as distinct from when they are about to die. If they call us when their loved ones are sick they, the sick, will then receive the comfort and support of the sacrament of anointing which will bring them peace and healing and, in some cases, even a cure! For those who are at the point of dying we have beautiful prayers for the dying and Viaticum, Holy Communion, food for the journey that they are about to take across the Jordan to the Promised Land of Heaven.
(to be continued in next weekends bulletin…)