Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Necessity of Last Rites and the Duty of Priests


The New Theological Movement June 19, 2012:

St. Juliana, whose feast is commemorated today, was the niece of St. Alexis Falconieri (one of the seven founders of the Servite Order) and foundress of the Servite Tertiaries, also called the “Mantellate”. She is the patroness of the sick and of those suffering bodily ills – on account of the circumstances of her death, she could well be called the “Patroness of Viaticum”.
When St. Juliana was in her last moments of life, and the priest was called to bring her the Blessed Sacrament as Viaticum, it was determined that she would not be able to receive on account of constant vomiting. She, however, begged the priest to spread a corporal upon her chest and to lay the Host upon it. After the priest did this, in the sight of all present, St. Juliana became radiant and the Host suddenly disappeared – having been miraculously received into her body as the “food for her journey” into eternal life.
We do well then, to consider the importance of Viaticum (Communion before death) as the last Sacrament of the Christian life.
Every baptized Christian of the age of reason is bound to receive Viaticum
Following the canonical tradition, the Church’s liturgical books still explicitly maintain that all Christians of the age of reason are bound to receive Viaticum when in danger of death:
“All baptized Christians who are able to receive communion are bound to receive viaticum by reason of the precept to receive communion when in danger of death from any cause.” (Roman Ritual: Pastoral Care of the Sick, 27)
However, the revised Code of Canon Law (1981) is not quite so explicit in mandating this as a precept:
“The Christian faithful who are in danger of death from any cause are to be nourished by holy communion in the form of Viaticum.” (Can. 921.1)
“Holy Viaticum for the sick is not to be delayed too long; those who have the care of souls are to be zealous and vigilant that the sick are nourished by Viaticum while fully conscious.” (Can. 922)
Still, the theologians have generally maintained that it is not merely a matter of Church law, but even a divine precept that the faithful receive Viaticum when in danger of death. St. Alphonsus Liguori (the Doctor of Moral Theology) maintains that the sick are most likely obligated to receive Viaticum when dying even if they have received Communion within only a few days earlier, and (in some cases) even if they had already received Communion once earlier in that same day if the person was not in danger of death at the time of that previous Communion.
Obviously, this is a major problem for the non-Catholics who do not belong to a Church with valid sacraments. While the Orthodox can certainly fulfill the divine precept of Viaticum, Protestants are in grave danger since they reject our Lord’s gift of the Eucharist and fail to take the food necessary for the journey to eternal life. However, though many fail in their duty to receive Viaticum, we must always trust in the divine Mercy which knows the hearts of all and works in most mysterious ways.
Receiving Communion when death is imminent
So strongly does the Church desire (and insist) that the faithful receive the Eucharist as Viaticum when in proximate danger of death, that she allows for the faithful to receive Viaticum even if they have already received Communion once (or even twice) earlier in the same day.
The Church demands of her priests that they be most attentive to the care of the dying, and that they ensure that all the faithful are given the opportunity to receive Communion in the last moments of life. Indeed, on a practical level, priests will have to work very hard to fulfill all that the Church desires of them. However, it is good to recall that St. Alphonsus insists that the pastoral care of the dying is the most important work in a priest’s life of ministry.
When should Viaticum be given?
The Rite of Viaticum envisions that Mass be celebrated (whenever possible; and, in fact, it is rarely possible) in the home or hospital room of the dying man, and that Communion be given as Viaticum very close to the actual time of death.
However, at the same time, Viaticum is not to be delayed or postponed. Rather, it is desired that the Rite of Viaticum be celebrated when death seems to be close. Then, if the sick person lives on for several days (or even weeks), the Church wishes that the priests return as often as possible, and even daily, to administer the Rite of Viaticum again.
Thus, the Rite of Viaticum can and should be repeated often for those who are close to death. (cf. Pastoral Care of the Sick [PCS], 175-183)
“Priests and other ministers entrusted with the spiritual care of the sick should do everything they can to ensure that those in proximate danger of death receive the body and blood of Christ as Viaticum.” (PCS 176)
“It often happens that a person who has received the Eucharist as viaticum lingers in a grave condition or at the point of death for a period of days or longer. In these circumstances he or she should be given the opportunity to receive the Eucharist as viaticum on successive days, frequently if not daily.” (PCS 183)
Confession and Anointing of the Sick
It goes without saying that those who are in proximate danger of death should make a good confession (perhaps even a general confession of their whole life, if they are able) and (if the death is caused by a sickness or some malady of the body) receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
Even if the sick man has already been anointed at some earlier point in the sickness, as the illness progress and death becomes imminent, it is fitting for him to receive the sacrament of Anointing repeatedly.
The Apostolic Pardon: A final plenary indulgence
When a person is on the point of death, the Church commands priests to offer a plenary indulgence through the Apostolic Pardon. This blessing is not to be given until death is imminent (hence, it ought to be connected more with Viaticum than with Anointing), and the indulgence does not take place immediately upon the act of blessing but rather takes effect upon the very moment of death itself – thus, the temporal punishment for every sin up to the very last moment of life is remitted.
Further, even if a dying person was not able to receive the Apostolic Pardon from a priest, the Church willingly grants the plenary indulgence at the point of death to all those who “have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime.” (Manual of Indulgences, 12.2) The Church recommends that a crucifix be used in disposing the dying person to receive this indulgence.
What is particularly interesting, in the case of a dying person who is not able to receive the Apostolic Pardon from a priest, is that the Church does not require of them the usual conditions for gaining a plenary indulgence – namely, Communion, Confession, and prayers for the Pope. Rather, the Church herself supplies these conditions for all the faithful who are properly disposed at the moment of death!
Who can administer Viaticum?
“The ordinary ministers of viaticum are the parish priest (pastor) and parochial vicars, chaplains, and, for all staying in the house, the superior in clerical religious institutes or societies of apostolic life.
“In the case of necessity or with at least the presumed permission of the competent minister, any priest or deacon may give viaticum, or if no ordained minister is available, any member of the faithful who has been duly appointed.” (PCS 29)
It is clear that the Church firmly desires that priests (and especially pastors) be the ministers of Viaticum. While it is true that this can (in the case of necessity) be delegated to deacons or even to lay people (when there are not even any deacons present), there can be no doubt that it is the duty of priests to provide this most important spiritual care for the dying.
Is this practical?
In the days of modern medicine (in the affluent world, at least), many aspects of the Church’s practical teaching on Viaticum can hardly be followed.
For example, when people die in hospitals it is quite rare for them to be capable of receiving Communion close to death – because they are often either delirious or unconscious for the days leading up to death.
However, what the Church is really asking for is that, so long as the dying man is conscious and able, the priests should regularly bring him Communion as Viaticum. Thus, priests have a grave responsibility to regularly check on the sick and elderly in their parish so as to ensure that they receive Viaticum before becoming so ill as to be unable to receive Communion (either due to delirium or to the inability to swallow).
While it will rarely be possible for Viaticum to be administered within the context of a private Mass in the hospital room or bedroom of the dying patient, and thus Viaticum will scarcely ever be given under both species; nevertheless, the Rite of Viaticum outside of Mass is to be administered by a priest (rather than a deacon or, especially, a lay person) whenever possible.
The faithful have the right and the duty to receive Viaticum from a priest whenever circumstances permit.
There is no other work more important for a priest than the spiritual care of the dying, because there is no other work so closely associated with salvation and final perseverance. If a priest is truly concerned about saving souls, then he will certainly place the care of the dying – especially through Confession, Anointing, and Viaticum (as well as the Apostolic Pardon) – at the very forefront of his life and ministry.
If the Christian faithful have any supernatural love for their dying friends and relatives (especially their parents), they will be sure to call for a priest while the dying person is still conscious and able to receive Holy Viaticum.
St. Juliana, Pray for us!

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