Virtually everyone has heard about something called the “Last Rites” and I don’t mean just Catholics. This series of prayers and blessings for the seriously ill has entered into popular culture through music, movies and literature. However, beyond their name and that they are often given to the very ill, generally little is known about them. Today, I would like to address two questions regarding these last rites: 1) What are they? 2) Do we want them?
First, what are the Last Rites? The Last Rites primarily refer to the last opportunity for an individual to receive the Sacraments of the Church. These include Confession, Holy Communion, and Anointing of the Sick. What should jump out immediately is that two of these Sacraments, Confession and Holy Communion, can and should be received regularly throughout one’s life. The third, the Anointing of the Sick, is a sacrament to give consolation, healing, and strength to those who, through advanced age or serious illness, face the real possibility of death. None of these three require that someone be on his or her deathbed. The Last Rites are not for the last minute.
In fact, if we were to wait until the last minutes or hours of someone’s life, it may already be impossible for the individual to fully receive the Last Rites. Often, by then, one has already lost the ability to eat or speak and, therefore, is not able to make a confession or receive our Lord in the Eucharist. If we wait too long, he or she may not be able to receive any of the Sacraments – death may come more quickly than we expected and the Sacraments are for the living, not the dead. A priest will surely come and pray with the family and for the one who has died, but it will no longer be possible to give the gifts of absolution, anointing and Holy Communion.
So, when should you call a priest for your loved one? If you or anyone in your family is asking the question, it is already time to call. It need not be an emergency, just serious. Even a fairly routine surgery, if they are using general anesthesia, is a reason to receive these Sacraments. I myself have done so. Serious illness and surgery are trying times; when better to receive the grace of God? Indeed, all three Sacraments are powerful and life-giving, many who were seriously ill, once having received the Sacraments, have experienced a restoration of health. Though they can certainly give comfort and solace as we die, they can just as truly restore us to the fullness of life.
Considering the consoling and healing effects of these Sacraments, it might seem absurd to ask that second question: do we want them? Of course we want them! But does our family know that? And do they know not to wait until the last minute? Maybe those who would be making this decision for us are not currently practicing the faith and wouldn’t know what to do.
No matter what the situation may be, I encourage everyone who reads this to tell those you know, family and friends, that you want to receive the Last Rites. Let them know that you don’t want them to wait until the last minute. Talk to your loved one’s today; encourage them to call a priest right away should you ever become ill and unable to speak for yourself. That way you can be assured of receiving the gift of his mercy and consolation at the time when you are most in need of it.