For centuries November has been known as the month of the dead. In some countries special celebrations are held in cemeteries, and weddings are not celebrated, as that is considered a sign of bad luck for that marriage.This month makes it opportune to recall how the church celebrates with those who are dying. As Rev. Frank Morrisey notes in his column this week, the sacrament of Extreme Unction was considered the sacrament of the dying for many centuries. The Second Vatican Council restored its proper meaning as the sacrament for the sick.
However, popular custom and practice still prevail, in that when someone is dying the priest is called to anoint them.
The Roman Ritual, however, is quite clear that the sacrament of the dying is the eucharist (viaticum). In fact, it is a "duty" for the faithful to receive it and for the pastor to offer it. This is based on the Gospel which quotes Jesus as saying: "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day" (Jn 6:54). The introduction to the Canadian ritual Pastoral Care says: "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. Priests with pastoral responsibility must see that the celebration of this sacrament is not delayed, but that the faithful are nourished by it while still in full possession of their faculties" (No. 27).
The ritual notes that if a priest is not available to give viaticum, a deacon or lay person should bring it to the dying person.
The ritual also notes that if death is imminent, the dying person should be offered the sacraments of penance, anointing and the eucharist as viaticum Ñ in that order. But if there is not enough time, "the person should be given viaticum, since all the faithful are bound to receive this sacrament if they are in danger of death." Only if there is enough time after this should the sick person be anointed. But, the priority for the dying is communion, known as viaticum. If they cannot receive communion, then they should at least be anointed.
These instructions give more latitude to care for the dying than is commonly thought. While anointing of the sick is restricted to a priest, bringing communion (viaticum) to the dying is not. Depending on circumstances, the church may also begin the practice of having the blessed sacrament in the room of someone dying when someone is sitting with them. This may not only be a comfort for them, but it would also facilitate the giving of communion when death is imminent.
Given the growing interest in palliative care, volunteers could be entrusted with this as a ministry, given the proper training. If it is the "duty" of the faithful to receive viaticum, the pastor is not always available. But those who care for the dying could be entrusted with this ministry.