When We Are Called Home
Recently, people have been asking about the “Last Rites.” This term has not been used for the past 60 years. The Second Vatican Council, in its reform of the liturgy, restored Extreme Unction (the Last Anointing) to its more ancient practice of being not just for the dying, but for the sick. Now known as the Anointing of the Sick, this sacrament prays for healing of body and soul. It is celebrated with those who are seriously ill, anticipating surgery, or suffering from advancing age.
The Church has a special care for those who are dying. There are two prayers for the dying. The first is called Viaticum, which translates “for the journey.” It is sharing Holy Communion with the dying and focuses on the gift of Eucharist as the promise of eternal life. “Jesus said, ‘The one who eats my body and drinks my blood will live forever.’” (Jn 6:54) Viaticum often includes a renewal of one’s baptismal promises that began the journey of faith, now that the journey is reaching its conclusion.
The other prayer for the dying is called the Commendation of the Dying. It is a beautiful prayer that includes the litany of the saints and entrusts the dying into the gentle embrace of God. In one sense, it is the sending forth of the Christian soul from this life to eternity. Not only a comfort to the person dying, this prayer can have great meaning for family and friends who have gathered.
The Anointing of the Sick is led by a bishop or priest. Viaticum and the Commendation of the Dying can be led by a priest, deacon, or even a layperson. With fewer priests possibly covering larger areas, lay people may be called upon more and more to pray with the dying and accompanying them on this journey of faith. Though often difficult, it is a very holy experience.