Q. Someone told me that he recently called a priest to give “the last rites” to a dying parent. What does this phrase mean? I thought that the Anointing of the Sick could be conferred considerably prior to danger of death. Are “the last rites” different from the Sacrament of Anointing?
A. The question here points to the need for regular catechesis on ministry to the seriously ill, especially in Sunday homilies, when the text or the context of the Bible readings provides an opportunity to do so.
The phrase “the last rites” could mean several things. For example, it could mean the three Sacraments of Penance (Confession), Viaticum (Holy Communion) and Anointing. Or it could simply refer to Viaticum and special prayers for the dying as provided for in the Ritual.
“Viaticum” is a Latin word that derives from ancient Roman military usage, signifying “provisions for a journey.” The Glossary in the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Holy Viaticum as “The Last Sacrament of the Christian.” As such it constitutes “the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection” as revealed by the Lord Jesus in the words: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (Jn 6:54). For this reason, it is important for a Catholic who is about to leave this world to receive the Eucharist as Viaticum.
(The rite of Viaticum directs the priest to add, immediately after giving Communion, the prayer: “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life.” Ritual, No. 112)
The Anointing of the Sick may also be conferred, of course, as death approaches. But it should preferably be administered as soon as one begins to experience serious illness. In the words of Canon 1004 of the Code of Canon Law, this Sacrament can be given “to a member of the faithful who, after having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.”
Moreover, this sacrament “can be repeated whenever the sick person again falls into a serious sickness after convalescence or whenever a more serious crisis develops during the same illness.” (ibid.)
Anointing can take away sins, if any sins remain to be pardoned, and also can erase the remnants of sin. Moreover, it supports the seriously ill “with the grace of the Holy Spirit by which the whole person is brought to health, trust in God is encouraged, and strength is given to resist the temptation of the Evil One and anxiety about death.” (Ritual, Intro., No. 7)
The Church also teaches that a return to physical health may result from reception of this sacrament, if it is beneficial to the sick person’s salvation. And if necessary, Anointing can effect the remission even of grave sins and can be of assistance in the completion of Christian Penance. (ibid.)
Because Anointing is a “Sacrament of the Living” (i.e., it confers “secondary grace” and hence ordinarily should be received while in the state of grace), it is important to receive sacramental absolution beforehand. This is why a priest who attends a ser-ously ill person will offer the patient the opportunity to go to confession, if possible. Yet Anointing is so powerful and mysterious a sacrament that if a seriously ill person cannot confess, Anointing can remit serious sins.
Anointing, in the words of The Teaching of Christ, “is not intended to replace the Sacrament of Penance. The Sacrament of Penance should precede the Anointing, and it would be gravely wrong to receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick while one is knowingly guilty of grave sin. Still, in certain circumstances the Anointing of the Sick can replace Penance. If the person to be anointed is unconscious and in grave sin, but is prepared by prior acts of faith and hope and right fear of God so that he is properly disposed to receive the gifts of a Sacrament, the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick brings forgiveness of even serious sin.” (ed. Bishop Donald Wuerl, Father Ronald Lawler, et al. OSV, 1995)