Here’s a question you can fool almost any Catholic with: What’s the proper sacrament for a Catholic to receive when he or she is near death, one that a Catholic is required to receive if at all possible as death approaches?
Too many deathbed scenes in movies with bad theology have convinced most Catholics that the answer is simple: “Last rites” (Latin Extreme Unction or final anointing). But if that’s what you answered, you got it wrong. The true answer to the question above is – Holy Communion. It is given to the dying “as viaticum” (Latin for “a companion on the way”) by a priest, deacon, or Special Minister of Holy Communion. So it’s important, when a person is dying, to call the parish when the person is still conscious and able to swallow. Unless they can do that, they can’t receive the proper “last Sacrament.”
But what about “anointing”? The proper name of that Sacrament is the Anointing of the Sick. It is to be received by anyone whose ability to participate in normal life in society is seriously impaired by illness, accident, or weakness due to age. (It is also appropriate to receive it before surgery.) The goal of the Sacrament is the strengthening of faith, forgiveness of sin, and restoration to health. Thus people can receive this Sacrament a second time if an illness worsens or, in chronic illness, after a lapse of time (usually six months is considered appropriate). People whose ability to participate in normal social life is not impaired should not be anointed.
Why does this matter? An old motto in the church says (in translation), “The way we pray demonstrates what we believe.” The celebration of the sacraments is a primary way the heritage of faith is handed on – and to do it badly is to distort the faith.
So what should ordinary Catholics do? First, if you have care of a seriously ill person, or are seriously ill yourself, let the parish know if you’ve not already done so. Prepare to receive the Sacraments – Penance (if appropriate), Anointing, and Holy Communion. If someone in your household is nearing death, don’t delay a call until the last minute. The person should be conscious when taking part in the prayer if at all possible. (Besides, the declining number of priests means that we can’t always respond immediately even to an emergency call.) Remember that Anointing, once given, need not be repeated as death nears. And remember that the key Sacrament for the dying is not the Anointing, which should have been done well in advance, but Holy Communion.
Our parish offers the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick every Saturday at the 8am Mass for those who are in need of it (as described above). On next Saturday and Sunday, February 28 / March 1, at all Masses we will offer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick within the Sunday Mass. If you suffer illness or disability that impairs your ability to take part in normal activities, and you have not received the sacrament within the past six months, you are encouraged to receive the sacrament. Anyone facing upcoming surgery is likewise invited. After the homily the presiding priest will invite those to be anointed to come forward. (Ushers will bring a priest to the place of those who find it too difficult to move.) After the anointings are completed, Mass will continue as we pray for all the sick and receive together the Sacrament of the Holy Communion.
If you know someone who could benefit from the Sacrament of Anointing, why not invite him or her to join you at Mass next weekend? Until then, peace.