As we prepare this Lenten season to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is an opportune time to stop and spend a minute in reflection on the sacraments and how they can assist us in our own transition from this world to the loving embrace of our Father.
We recently celebrated a “Healing Mass” in which the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick was celebrated, however, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about Anointing of the Sick, viaticum, and the term “last rites”. A great resource is “Pastoral Care of the Sick – Rites of Anointing and Viaticum” which outlines the various rites associated with the sick and dying.
Anointing of the sick is one of the seven sacraments of the Church. It has also been referred to as the “sacrament of dying”. This is typically how most Catholics think of the sacrament. Vatican II stated however that it is NOT a sacrament for just those who are dying. It is also appropriate for those who have severe illnesses or those who are about to receive a significant surgery, for example. As stated in Pastoral Care, “as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for that person to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived”. Those who are seriously ill require all the strength and grace that God can provide, and so we want the Holy Spirit to give them that spiritual strength as early in their illness or condition as possible (which often also results in a corresponding physical healing as well). Sooner is better than later when it comes to this sacrament!
What if someone has received the Anointing of the Sick and in God’s great plan continues to decline to the point of death, what is to be done? It is at this point that viaticum is to be administered. Note that I do not say “should be”. Pastoral Care states “All baptized Christians who are able to receive communion are bound to receive viaticum by reason of the precept to receive communion when in danger of death from any cause”. What is Viaticum? Viaticum is a form of communion with the purpose of strengthening the dying person as they pass from this life and includes confession (if a priest is administering viaticum), the renewal of baptismal promises, and communion. It is to be properly understood as the last sacrament before death and it is all of our responsibility to ensure that those close to death receive the Body (and preferably the Blood) of Christ as viaticum. One of the reasons we always have consecrated hosts in the tabernacle is so that viaticum can be administered around the clock. It is also the only form of communion which can be taken between Holy Thursday and Easter Vigil (other than at the Celebration of the Passion of the Lord).
What then is meant when we hear the term “last rites”. Last rites is not a sacrament, but is a historical term used to reference the three sacraments given to those near death, including the sacraments of Penance, Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist (as viaticum). While all three sacraments may be administered as “last rites”, one should not delay in receiving the Anointing of the Sick upon the initial onset of a serious condition and the last sacrament that should be administered is the Eucharist as viaticum.