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Understanding the “Last Rites”


Every so often, questions arise about what the Church offers pastorally for those who are seriously ill and perhaps approaching death. This column is a “rerun” from a past bulletin but

I hope it will be of value as we pray for those who are nearing the end of life in this world. Along with the many technical developments of contemporary health care, there is a growing understanding of sickness as a human reality that affects the whole human person. Sickness touches not only in our physical being, but also our emotions, our relationships, and our spiritual lives.

In this way, sickness becomes a privileged place for a sacramental encounter with the saving love of God. For those Catholics who are dangerously ill, weakened due to sickness or age, or having a significant surgery or other procedure, the Anointing of the Sick commends them to the suffering and glorified Lord so that Jesus may relieve and save them. Linked to the healing power of the Sacrament of Penance, the Anointing is done by priests or bishops and offered to those who have reached the age of reason. It can be repeated as often as necessary, and is to be freely offered even if there some doubt about the gravity of the illness or the condition of the person. It may be celebrated even if the person is not conscious or cannot participate with awareness. In some limited cases, it can be offered to non-Catholic Christians if they are in danger of death, have no access to a minister of their own tradition, ask on their own initiative, and express a Catholic faith in this sacrament. The appropriateness of celebrating this Sacrament is left to the prudential judgment of the priest.

The Anointing is normally done on the forehead and the hands, with the powerful words: “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.”

This sacrament always brings healing to the person, forgiving actual sins and strengthening them to unite their sufferings to those of the crucified Lord. When necessary in divine wisdom for the good of the person, this sacrament also brings physical healing by God’s grace.

The rite for the Anointing of the Sick was revised in 1972; among other changes from the previous form was an emphasis on administering this sacrament as soon as serious illness develops. To bring this healing gift more broadly, Saint Paul VI stressed that the faithful may benefit from it at the beginning, rather than the end, of serious health conditions, and that the final sacrament where possible is the reception of the Eucharist as “viaticum” (literally, that Jesus “goes with you” through the mystery of death).

For those who are in fact near the conclusion of their earthly life, “last rites” are offered. “Last rites” are not something separate from the Anointing, but rather a collective celebration of the sacraments of Penance where possible, the Anointing of the Sick, the reception of the Eucharist as viaticum, and the “Apostolic Pardon” and Commendation of the Dying. These elements are all found in the Pastoral Care of the Sick ritual book and can be used in various combinations depending on the condition of the sick person.

The Apostolic Pardon is a plenary indulgence granted to the faithful at the end of life that remits the temporal punishment due to the sins of their lives. It is a beautiful gesture of mercy that every priest can offer when death is expected. At the same time, the Handbook of Indulgences has provision even when a priest cannot be present to offer this Pardon: “If a priest cannot be present, holy mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained at the approach of death, provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime.” This indulgence at the time of death is granted by the Church itself to those who are properly disposed (that is, open to receiving it by their general life of faith) and does not require a priest’s presence.

I suspect every priest can tell you inspiring stories of encountering the healing power of God in these ituations where grace is so evident and the mercy of Jesus calms spirits and brings hope in the midst of pain, fear, and confusion. When the boundary between life and death is so narrow, the experience of being in the presence of the risen One cannot be put into words: “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" (I Corinthians 2:9).

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