Catholic Last Rites

by Marie Baptiste

The term Catholic last rites refers to the Catholic sacraments of Eucharist as viaticum and the two sacraments of healing: anointing the sick and penance. ("Viaticum" in this context refers to the Eucharist when given to a person who is dying or is in danger of death.) The sacraments of healing provide spiritual assistance to Catholics confronting illness or preparing for their final journey toward eternal life. Although Catholics who are extremely ill or on deathbeds frequently receive sacraments of healing, the Catholic Church urges followers to request the sacraments of anointing and penance when they first receive concerning medical diagnoses.

The Basis for the Sacraments of Healing

The Catholic Church bases its teachings about the sacraments of healing on the Gospel account in which Jesus forgives and heals the paralytic. In this tradition, the church continues Jesus' works of salvation and healing with the sacrament of penance, reconciling Catholics with God and the church. The sacrament of anointing the sick unites the ill and dying with Christ by anointing with the "oil of the sick." The Eucharist in Viaticum recalls Christ's Passover by giving the dying a final opportunity to prepare for "passing over."

Sacrament of Penance

The Catholic sacrament of penance is based on the Gospel of John account of Jesus breathing on the Apostles and giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and thus the power to forgive sins in others. When a priest gives the sick or dying the sacrament of penance, he is similarly empowered to forgive sins. During this sacrament, the person searches his or her conscience, repents, confesses sins and admits an intention to make amends. The priest provides ways for the penitent to repair any harm caused by sinful actions and to re-establish spiritual habits, such as prayer and attending Mass. The effects of the sacrament include reconciliation with God and the church, and remission of punishment in eternity.

Sacrament of Anointing the Sick

The Catholic Church recommends that people with serious illnesses, the elderly and those facing serious surgery receive the sacrament of anointing the sick. A priest or bishop conducts the ceremony in a church, home or hospital. It can be for one person or a group of ill persons, and members of the worship community may attend. During the celebration, a priests silently lays hands on the sick, prays over the person and anoints him or her with blessed oil. According to Catholic teaching, these actions carry God's grace, which includes uniting the sick person to Christ and the church, restoring health in some cases, and forgiving sins if the person cannot take part in the sacrament of penance. But, if possible, the sacrament of anointing the sick should follow the sacrament of penance and be followed by the Eucharist.

Sacrament of Eucharist as Viaticum

The sacrament of Eucharist gives the dying their final opportunity to receive the Eucharist (wine and wafer blessed by a priest), which for Catholics embodies the actual body and blood of Christ. After the sacraments of healing, the Eucharist is supposed to provide the dying with the seed of eternal life and the hope of resurrection at the end of time.

About the Author

With a Master of Arts in systematic theology, concentrating in world religions, and additional graduate hours in Middle Eastern studies, Marie Baptiste possesses extensive experience writing religion and theological articles, essays and research papers. Her work appears in such respected print publications as "TIFERET" and "High Country News."

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