That’s a stark question, one that sounds especially harsh to ears accustomed, instead, to our society’s message of relentless pursuit of immortality and eternal youth. And yet, as the old saying goes, death is one of the few certainties in this life. There’s absolutely no avoiding it.
St. John Vianney said “……..man dies once only, and upon this death depends his eternity. Where the tree falls, there it shall lie. If, at the hour of death, someone is living in bad habit, the poor soul will fall on the side of hell. If, on the other hand, he is in the state of grace, it will take the road for heaven. Oh, happy road!”
Aspects of death controlled by others
People struggle to find meaning in suffering and death. In a culture that does not consider religious insights into suffering, to address the deeper questions (e.g., Why me?), all kinds of interventions, even euthanasia and assisted suicide, may seem inevitable. Our first reaction to suffering and dying is to resist it. We direct all our skills, medications, and treatments against illness and against premature death. All our turning to technology to keep death at bay, cannot calm our anxiety over death. With medical interventions seeking to prolong life needlessly, or hurry an end not ready to happen, the elderly are without their defences. Machines are seen as more perfect than the human being and so, in this system, the error can be seen as man, as technology cannot be at fault. In hospital, healing follows the same logic.
No one chooses his end. And yet, God allows doctors to shorten lives. When an abbot of a Cistercian monastery was asked about the deaths of monks, he noted “Today, the problem of sedation is serious. We have to fight against intolerable suffering, but if we do not feel pain anymore, life goes away. Now with the progress in analgesics, we no longer feel anything. We no longer feel life. We no longer feel God approaching.” Doctors induce artificial comas to be certain that the patient does not suffer anymore. Fear is a bad counsellor. It is the antithesis of faith. Our materialistic societies have an irrepressible obsession with pain. Why has the world forgotten that life does not exist without suffering? In the west, we are well off and we have trouble imagining the daily lives of the vast majority of mankind and their suffering.
A different approach
In opposition to the idea of the dying person being at the mercy of the medical world, filled with procedures, technologies, and a language that can be confusing and oppressive, faithful Catholics/ Christians need to consider and ensure, as far as possible, that the patient’s spiritual wellbeing, is given priority. Everyone can easily recognize the distressing prospect that death is the termination of earthly life, but it takes a different perspective to see that death completes life. “Gaudium et Spes,” a document issued by the Second Vatican Council, underscored the Catholic conviction that God has called us to an endless sharing of divine life beyond death.
But even for believers, letting go of earthly existence is difficult. We rightly fear death because we lose so much in dying: people we love, our work, and all those things, which have given us gladness in life as we have known it. Further, we may be bothered by the prospect that our lives will be forgotten. We also fear death because it opens a door to the unknown. Given the ambiguity and threat death poses, it is not surprising that people avoid thinking and talking about death, deny its imminence in the face of medical diagnosis, take heroic measures to prevent death at all costs, and postpone facing it for as long as possible.
A person’s departure from this life is a critical time and if you are the only one concerned for his soul, you must be firm in your determination to do what you can to assist. Ideally, unless the patient has a specific objection, let them know that you are there to comfort, reassure and assist them.
- a priest should be called. Most large hospitals have a chaplain who will be able to attend and administer the Anointing of the Sick; if not, check with the local parish church. Do not wait until the last minute when the patient may no longer be conscious.
- Tell the patient you are going to pray for him; hearing is the last faculty to go in a dying person, so proceed on the understanding that the person may hear you.
The Divine Mercy Chaplet said in the presence of the dying, brings wonderful grace to the patient; Jesus told St Faustina, “I will stand between My Father and the dying person, not as the just Judge, but as the merciful Saviour”
- Pray the Rosary for the patient, either silently or aloud.
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.)
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.
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).
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).
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
Finally, there is also an evangelical value of praying for the dying and the administration of the last rites, as you never know, when being a Catholic in a public space, will offer an opportunity to witness to your faith. Prayer heard in a ward by other patients, who perhaps are also facing surgery or in danger of death , may be comforted or given pause to think of God or our Blessed Mother, asking her to pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.