The Catholic Church has three sacraments for people who are dying. Also, we have new information for those with loved ones admitted to hospital during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
At all times and no less in this crisis, it is important that, on admission to hospital, people of faith ask for their religion to be recorded and request that their details be passed on to the chaplaincy team.
For Catholic patients who are critically ill, relatives are encouraged to ask staff to request a visit from the Catholic chaplain. A Priest or Chaplain may be able to visit with the Sacrament of the Sick or offer prayers over the internet or phone.
Guidance from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales explains, “A principle in COVID-19 is to provide as much pastoral care by telephone as possible, or other non face-to-face means, as a means of reducing the spread of the virus.”
For infection control reasons, there are necessary changes to the celebration of the Sacrament of the Sick – the anointing with oil is administered via a cotton bud, there is no physical contact in the laying on of hands and Holy Communion, given as Viaticum, is in the form of spiritual communion – but, the Bishops reassure us, “that ministry from a distance is no less effective, the mercy and love of God is present and effective and the prayers of the Church uphold the person who is ill and their families”.
For relatives, visiting in hospitals and care homes will be limited or even prohibited during the COVID-19 crisis. It may not be possible to be by the bedside of your loved one, but you can still find ways to feel close to them from home. Set regular times when they know that you will be praying for, and with, them and choose prayers and devotions that you know are close to their heart. Some people have found it helpful to light a candle, to sit with a special picture or to spend time calling to mind the sick person and the things that are important to them.
Virtual communication may be an option. You may be able to send a phone or tablet to hospital with your relative, but be prepared that this may not always work or they may be too sleepy to communicate in this way.
Ask the ward staff to pass messages and to do the things you would like to do yourself. They will be pleased to help.
Ask if the hospital chaplain has resources that your relative can use. They may be able to provide prayer cards or a rosary.
If your relative dies it will be difficult to facilitate family viewings. Where viewing is possible family members will be asked to wear PPE (personal protective equipment).
The Government has put limits on numbers of people attending a funeral, usually only close family, no more than 10 people, and social distancing must be maintained. People who are symptomatic or self-isolating must stay at home. You may be able to watch the funeral via livestream technology. If in doubt, seek advice from your Parish Priest.
Ask your Priest about planning a memorial service when lock-down is over.
Mass is still celebrated in most churches and on most days, and in some it is livestreamed. Ask your Priest to celebrate a Mass for the repose of the soul of your loved one.
Draw on the strength of the local and universal Church. There are many services and resources online and your parish community may be able to offer friendship and support.
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