Catholics who are seriously ill can find hope and comfort through prayer and special rituals known as sacraments that can give meaning to sickness and death. The Church will always welcome anyone who wants to know more or is simply seeking spiritual support.
If you are very sick or dying, you may have feelings of helplessness, confusion, anger, regret or fear. For the Christian, the love of Jesus Christ can help to make sense of your suffering, and give you hope and spiritual strength and support even if you are feeling very weak. The Bible describes Jesus reaching out to the sick with compassion and tenderness: holding them, comforting them, offering them forgiveness and healing.
No one is forgotten by God. For Catholics, the support of the Church is given in a special way through the priest and the sacraments. Sacraments are rituals that can help you to find new meaning in your suffering. As you learn to accept sickness and pain with a deeper trust, and offer to it to God as a prayer for others.
Many Catholics know the Sacrament of Penance as Confession, since it involves the disclosure or confession of sins to a priest, or as the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The Sacrament of Penance is the most important way that a Catholic can make peace with God and receive his or her forgiveness and inner healing. It also helps you to come to terms with the past and to heal your relationships with others.
If you are near to death, the priest can also give you an Apostolic Pardon. This is a special blessing that includes the prayer: “May God open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.”
This sacrament is offered to people who are dying, and to those who are seriously ill, facing a serious operation, or who are simply very frail due to old age.
The priest prays over you and anoints your forehead and hands with holy oil. It brings a special gift of the Holy Spirit that gives spiritual strength, helping you to bear the trials of sickness with more confidence and trust.
It unites the person with Jesus Christ in his suffering and helps them to pray with and for the whole Church. It brings forgiveness and prepares them for their final journey towards God. In some cases, if it is God’s will, it can bring health and healing.
Catholics believe that at Mass bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. This gift is known as Holy Communion. If you are unable to get to Mass, a priest or Extraordinary Minister can bring you Communion at home.
But when you are dying, the spiritual food of Holy Communion takes on a special significance. It becomes “food for the journey” (Viaticum in Latin) – a seed of eternal life and a foretaste of the Resurrection. As Jesus said: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Even after all the sacraments have been celebrated, there are still important prayers that can be said to support those who are dying. And after death, even in their shock and grief, the family will want to pray for the person who has died and for each other. And, if possible call the priest to pray with them at home or in hospital.
If you are Catholic and you are sick or dying, or if you are supporting a Catholic who is very ill, it’s important to contact your local parish, sooner rather than later, and ask if a priest can visit you at home.
Don’t be shy or embarrassed or worry if you have been distant from the Church. The parish wants to support you. And don’t leave it until the last minute, because the priest may not always be available in an emergency.
If you are not Catholic but would appreciate the support of the Church, or if you would like to know more about how the sacraments can help you in your situation, please contact your local Catholic parish. The priest will always be happy to talk and pray with you, and think about what spiritual support would be helpful for you.
Priests see it as a privilege to visit the sick and to bring them the sacraments. They will welcome your approach at any stage in your illness.
One priest says: “I once got a call to visit a young woman in a hospice who had terminal cancer. She hadn’t seen a priest in many years. We had a beautiful conversation. She unburdened herself, made a good confession, and received the Apostolic Pardon.
“I anointed her and gave her Holy Communion as Viaticum. She died three days later. I am absolutely sure she is at peace with the Lord now, because she gave her life to him even at the last moment, and he gave her his forgiveness and the gift of hope.”
Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).