Last Rites: How, Why and When They’re Given

Priest giving sermon in Catholic church

Each religion has different traditions when it comes to death and dying. In the Roman Catholic Church, the specific way to handle the final moments of life involves a series of rituals known as the Last Rites.

Sacraments and Catholic Last Rites

In the Roman Catholic Church, seven sacraments of the church are recognized. The seven sacraments are Baptism, The Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Anointing the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. When people talk about the Last Rites, they are referring to a combination of three of the sacraments that are administered to a Catholic before their death. The three sacraments which compose the Last Rites are Anointing of the Sick, Reconciliation (penance), and the Eucharist (communion or "Viaticum").

Reconciliation

The Catholic Church recommends that a person should attend a sacramental confession if their health permits. When a patient is confined to a medical facility or is bed-ridden, representatives of the church often make visits. The confession allows the soul to be ready to celebrate and receive the final Communion.

Priest seeing a patient in a hospital

Anointing of the Sick

The preference of the Catholic Church seeks to perform the ritual with the sick person when death is not near. The tradition refers to a Scripture where a person is anointed with oil as a prayerful request for healing (James 5:14). This tradition has been performed for individuals or for groups of people. While the origins of the practice focused on individuals who were in extreme danger of dying, the Vatican encourages this sacrament for all who are sick or in old age.

The Eucharist

The Catholic faith places high value on The Eucharist, the receiving of the body and blood of Christ. Participating in a final Eucharist is called the Viaticum. The term comes from a Latin word meaning final journey.

  • The ancient Greeks had a custom of giving a supper or meal to those who were setting out on a journey. The meal also included a provision for all things necessary for the journey. Clothes, food, utensils, and expense money were often provided.
  • The Viaticum figuratively meant the provision for things needed for the journey which would take place from this life to the next.
  • Early in church history, any sacrament administered to someone at the point of death was considered a part of the Viaticum. This would even include prayers or good works performed by others on behalf of the dying. Considering the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, prayers and good works offered for the dying were to help hasten the loved one's journey to heaven.
  • Today, the Viaticum, in theological terms, refers to the Eucharist specifically. It is spiritual food that prepares the believer for the journey into eternal glory and happiness.
  • Only a priest or bishop can administer certain sacraments. In dire circumstances, however, anyone can give communion if a priest is not available and the loved one is close to death.
Eucharistic celebration

Apostolic Pardon

If someone is in immediate danger of dying and cannot participate in the confession, anointing, and Eucharist, the priest has the authority to offer an Apostolic Pardon to the dying person. While it is not a sacrament, it is an indulgence given just before death to remove any punishment and guilt that would be required because of sin.

What Are Last Rites?

The Last Rites in the Catholic Church provides a dying Catholic a final chance to purify their soul as they prepare to reach their eternal destiny. In an ideal setting, the sacraments are given when the recipient is aware and able to benefit spiritually from the process.

  • The rite begins with the confession. The confession of sins is followed by an act of contrition.
  • The dying person repeats their baptismal promises. An alternative is to recite the Apostles' Creed.
  • The priest recites the Our Father prayer.
  • Communion is administered with the priest saying, "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper."
  • The dying person responds, "Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."
  • The priest offers the words, "The Body of Christ."
  • The dying person responds, "Amen."
  • After communion is administered, the priest proclaims, "May the Lord Jesus protect you and lead you to eternal life."
  • The rite concludes with prayer and a blessing.
Priest giving out communion

Last Rites Prayer

During the administering of the Last Rites, several prayers are offered. These prayers should not be considered as funeral prayers. Sometimes the content of the prayers overlap. The first prayer or group of prayers is offered for the anointing of the sick. The second prayer given is the Lord's Prayer. The priest will recite another prayer for the Eucharist.

Last Rites in Other Denominations

While other denominations of the Christian faith perform similar traditions as death approaches, the Catholic Church has specific rituals to perform leading up to the death of a believer. The last rites provide meaning and value to the faith of the dying and their families.

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Last Rites: How, Why and When They’re Given