Earlier this month I went in for surgery. I had undergone several operations during childhood, but it had been almost thirty years since the last one and this would be my first as a Catholic. So, in addition to making preparations for my convalescence, I decided to request the anointing of the sick, a sacrament I had never received before.
Anointing of the sick sometimes is confused with the “last rites.” But that phrase refers to the three sacraments—confession, anointing of the sick, and final Holy Communion—ordinarily given to a Catholic who is seriously ill or beginning to be in danger of death. (There’s also the Apostolic Pardon, which isn’t a sacrament or rite, but an indulgence offered to the dying. It can be given directly by a priest, or received through desire by the dying person who meets the requirements for the indulgence.)
Let’s dispel any confusion by taking a look at each of the final sacraments the Church offers to souls preparing for their journey from this life to the next.
If possible, a seriously ill person should do all he can to go to sacramental confession first. Reception of the other sacraments doesn’t necessarily depend on sacramental confession, but a valid confession ensures the soul is properly disposed to receive anointing of the sick and final Communion. It also prepares the soul to receive the indulgence of the Apostolic Pardon, especially if a priest isn’t present at the point of the person’s death.
There are many ways in which a sick person can request sacramental confession. If he’s well enough to travel, he can go to confession during one of the scheduled times at his parish. If he wants to receive anointing of the sick at the same time, he can make an appointment with a priest to receive the final sacraments. If he is homebound, he or someone acting on his behalf can ask a priest to visit for confession.
Sometimes there can be challenges in convincing a busy priest to visit a sick patient, especially when the priest doesn’t ordinarily have chaplain duties at a hospital. I recommend that the sick person or his caregivers keep petitioning a hospital chaplain’s office or local parishes to send out a priest. Don’t lose heart, don’t accept “no” for an answer, and do not accept non-priestly delegates—such as deacons or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion—when sacraments are needed that only a priest can offer (confession, anointing of the sick).
Anointing of the sick
Not having received anointing of the sick before, I was surprised to discover that the celebration of this sacrament in its full form, which is preferred when a sick person is not in immediate danger of death, is a liturgy and not just an anointing with oil. In addition to the anointing, it includes a penitential rite (unless it was preceded by sacramental confession), reading from Scripture, a brief homily, a litany, and a laying-on of hands. This liturgy can be celebrated for just one sick person or for a group of sick persons, and can be celebrated within a Mass (CCC 1517). This sacrament is one “of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, [especially] the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death” (CCC 1520).
For centuries, anointing of the sick ordinarily was given to those in immediate danger of death, which is why it was called extreme unction (“final anointing”). After the Second Vatican Council, the Church encouraged reception of the sacrament “as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age,” and, when this is the case, “the appropriate time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived” (Sacram Unctionem Infirmorum).
Ideally, the final sacrament a Catholic receives should be the Eucharist, which acts as viaticum (Latin, “provision for a journey”).
Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of “passing over” to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father (CCC 1524).
Communion can be given to a sick person by the priest after celebration of confession and anointing of the sick. It can also be brought to the sick person on subsequent occasions by a deacon or extraordinary minister. If caregivers are properly disposed to receive it, Communion can also be brought to them to strengthen them in their tasks for the sick person.
Who can receive the last rites?
The Code of Canon Law provides that the last rites may be given to any Catholic disposed to receive them. They may also be given to baptized non-Catholics “who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who spontaneously ask for them, provided that they demonstrate the Catholic faith in respect of these sacraments and are properly disposed” (canon 844). If a sick person isn’t baptized, he can request baptism, which acts as “the gateway to the sacraments” (849). Canon law also adds, “The anointing of the sick is not to be conferred upon those who obstinately persist in a manifestly grave sin” (1007).
All of the final sacraments are repeatable. A sick person may request confession whenever he reasonably believes he is in need of it. He may request that Communion be brought to him either daily or weekly; if he is homebound, he ordinarily should respect the resources of the parish in distributing Communion to those who cannot attend Mass. Anointing of the sick may be given again if an illness worsens, or if a patient relapses after regaining his health.
The evangelical value of the last rites
You never know when being a Catholic in a public space will offer an opportunity to witness to your faith. When I was about to be wheeled away for surgery, I turned to a Catholic friend who accompanied me to the hospital and asked her to pray a Divine Mercy Chaplet for me during the operation. She readily agreed.
Suddenly, one of the nurses who had been prepping me for surgery asked, “Are you Catholic?” I responded, “Yes. If anything should happen to me, please call a priest.” The nurse responded, “Would you like to pray a Hail Mary before we go?” I agreed, and we all prayed a Hail Mary together.
It occurred to me later that the prayer was undoubtedly heard throughout the ward by other patients who were being prepared for surgery that day and by their caregivers. Perhaps they too were comforted to hear that invocation to the Blessed Mother, asking her to pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.