“Question: My aunt is nearing the end of her life but is still conscious and enjoying the company of her family. Unfortunately, some of her relatives think that it would frighten her to call the priest for the last rites, though she has been a devout Catholic all her life.
Answer by Fr Tim: The inaccurate term ‘last rites’ causes unnecessary worries. Priests regularly visit people in hospital to give Holy Communion and to minister the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. When a person begins to approach the end of life through illness, the time has come to receive the sacrament of anointing.
The Church insists that it is not necessary to leave this to the last minute because the sick person may receive great consolation and strength from the sacrament as their death approaches, even if this is gradually over a period of time. As a devout Catholic, your aunt would certainly want to receive the sacraments of anointing and would greatly benefit from the opportunity to receive the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion while she is still conscious and before she has to spend more of the time under sedation or powerful pain-relieving drugs.
Relatives who have little or no faith often mistakenly think that a sick person will be frightened by the attendance of a priest. It is often their own fear that is in play, since the priest reminds them of the eternal truths which they have tried to ignore, and prefer not to talk about.
The visit of a priest can help to create a greater honesty in communication as death approaches, so that there is not a conspiracy of silence in which your dying aunt cannot speak of her own mortality because of the frailty of her relatives in discussing such things. The visit of a priest can gently help her relatives to overcome such a barrier.
The prayers of the sacrament of anointing are entirely suitable for the time when death is approaching, but not immediately imminent. When death is near, the Apostolic Blessing, with the plenary indulgence and the Commendation of the Dying, are among the most beautiful prayers in the treasury of the Church.”
– This article by Fr Tim Finigan was published in the Catholic Herald newspaper, issue November 28 2014. For subscriptions please visit http://www.catholicherald.co.uk (external link)