The Catholic Church has three sacraments for people who are dying.
The first is the Anointing of the Sick. A priest anoints the sick person on the forehead and hands with olive oil that has been blessed. As he does so he says: “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
The Church teaches that this sacrament helps the person address any anxiety they feel about death, to bear suffering bravely and also to fight against their illness. It adds: “A return to physical health may follow the reception of this sacrament if it will be beneficial to the sick person’s salvation.”
This does not mean that the person who receives the sacrament will recover though it is perfectly possible that the peace of mind they feel afterwards contributes to them living longer. The main purpose of anointing, as with all the sacraments, is to make Christ present in the situation.
Bishop Tom Williams, an auxiliary in Liverpool who was a hospital chaplain for 15 years and has attended hundreds of deathbeds, has found that because the sacrament used to be called “extreme unction”, people sometimes mistakenly think it should be give only when the sick person is close to death. He explains that “extreme unction” means only that oil is applied to the extremities of the body.
Priests will anoint Catholics when they are seriously ill or about to undergo major surgery and also if they are old and weak. The sacrament can be given more than once. In fact, many parishes anoint the sick at special Masses for them and their families.
Bishop Tom says the anointing of the sick is a beautiful sacrament: “It’s about making peace, it’s about prayers for those who are feeling lost, lonely, deserted, frightened, anxious, unknowing. You are praying with them for peace of mind. It’s about healing and being supported. It’s not about magic. You go into the most desperate situations and you pray with the person.”
Bishop Tom recalls a patient called Billy whom he was called to see late one night in hospital.
“The family are sitting round the bed and Billy is in the throes of death. They are all petrified. I introduced myself then I realised I knew one or two of them. I said ‘would you like me to say a prayer?’ and they said ‘could you say a blessing Father?’ One or two of them were making to leaving so I said ‘don’t you go, you can join in.’ So I kept them round and it all became very gentle. I stayed with them for about two hours until Billy died.”
Bishop Tom finds that anointing brings comfort to the whole family and he improvises prayers that are appropriate to the circumstances.
The second sacrament given to the dying is called Viaticum – “food for the journey” in Latin. Viaticum is Holy Communion, the bread and wine that Catholics believe become the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass. This spiritual nourishment takes on a special significance when someone is dying.
The Catholic Church’s guide, The Pastoral Care of the Sick (Veritas) used by priests and hospital chaplains says: “When in their passage from this life Christians are strengthened by the body and blood of Christ in viaticum, they have the pledge of the resurrection that the Lord promised: ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day’ (John 6:54).”
A priest, deacon or Eucharistic Minister, may bring viaticum to the dying person. But if possible, the Church teaches that viaticum should be received within Mass which the priest can celebrate at the bedside. Members of the family may do the readings and receive Holy Communion with their loved one. Bishop Tom describes these Masses as very personal and very private occasions that bring great comfort.
The Sacrament of Penance, also known as Reconciliation or Confession is usually associated with the dying. In this sacrament, the person relates their sins to a priest who then gives them absolution. This means that he forgives the person’s sins in God’s name. In Bishop Tom’s experience a dying person will often ask for the Sacrament of Penance before they receive Holy Communion.
“The request for the Sacrament of Penance has to come from them. They might say ‘I can’t have Communion because I haven’t been to church for years’ and I tell them ‘well, we’ll sort that out’. I’m not interested in laundry lists. Confession is an opportunity for people, especially when they’re ill, to review their own lives. Sometimes they ask you to help with that.”
At the end of the Sacrament of Penance, the priest may give what is called an Apostolic Pardon to the dying person using the words: “May God open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.”
Bishop Tom highlights the Church’s teaching that priests “should remember that it is their duty to care for the sick by personal visits and other acts of kindness.” The priest, he says, is the pastor but he is offering pastoral care to the dying on behalf of the whole Catholic community: “You’re not on your own, you’ve got the support of the community and the parish with you.”
“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”
Jean Vanier, Community And Growth