The phone rang one evening. The caller was the relative of a parishioner who was near death. They said something to the effect of, “Father, I’m really sorry to bother you so late. The time is coming. Could you, if it’s not too much of an inconvenience, stop by for a minute?”
Of course, I would come! Attending to the dying is one of a priest’s most important duties. By virtue of ordination, we priests happily celebrate the sacraments, often called the “last rites,” which bring so much grace in trying times.
Before I answer the question of when to call a priest, though, let me discuss what’s meant by “last rites.” People seem to know a priest should be called for “last rites” when someone is dying, but they’re not sure that that means. Remember that Jesus gave us seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, confession, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony. Each of these sacraments gives us grace, God’s help, for a particular situation in life.
When one goes to confession, for example, and the priest says, “I absolve you from your sins…,” sins are forgiven. Anointing of the sick also has its effects. It “imparts consolation, peace, and strength and unites the sick person, in his precarious situation and his sufferings, with Christ in a profound way. For many people, the anointing of the sick brings about physical healing. But, if God should decide to call someone home to Himself, He gives him the strength for all the physical and spiritual battles on his final journey. In any case, the anointing of the sick has the effect of forgiving sins” (
245). Likewise with Holy Communion, when the priest says the words, “This is my Body” and “This is the chalice of my Blood” at Mass, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ truly become present and can be received as
“food for the journey,” for the dying.
Confession, anointing of the sick, and Holy Communion, when celebrated together during someone’s last days, used to be called, the “last rites.” While that title isn’t as common among clergy as it once was, there is still no better way for a baptized and confirmed Catholic to prepare for death than to receive as many of these three sacraments as possible. When someone is very near death, however, they typically can’t speak for confession or swallow Communion, and that leads me to the question of when a priest should be called.
There is a proper time for each sacrament. People should receive confession as often as needed and Holy Communion whenever they can, even daily. Anointing of the sick, however, is not for every stage of life. This sacrament “is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive the sacrament has certainly already arrived” (
1514). This sacrament is not for those who have minor illnesses. But, for those in danger of death, it should be received. In fact, it can even be received multiple times. If a sick person is anointed and recovers, they may receive the sacrament again if illness returns. Likewise, if an illness worsens over time, the sacrament may be received again. One may also receive this sacrament prior to a surgery.
So, when should a priest be called? My advice is to make that call when a loved one is “beginning to be in danger,” but don’t wait until the person can no longer speak, think clearly or swallow. It’s best to receive the graces of all the so-called “last rites,” including confession, anointing and Holy Communion, before death. If that’s not possible, such as when death seems to be coming very quickly, don’t hesitate to call a priest immediately and he will do what he can.
Going through a serious illness or the dying process is difficult. The end of life is the devil’s last chance to tempt us before we face Jesus Christ as our judge. We need all the help we can get! Don’t hesitate to call a priest when things get serious, but call sooner rather than later.
Signalness is pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul in Strasburg, St. Michael in rural Linton and St. Mary in Hague.
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