What are the Last Rites?

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Death isn't typically an event we can schedule on a calendar and organize liturgically, like other sacramental occasions.

Just as the church welcomes us at the start of life in the sacrament of Baptism, the church prepares us with sacramental rites and prayers to strengthen us for the final journey. These rites are known by various names: extreme unction, last rites, viaticum. Last rites aren't a discreet eighth sacrament, but incorporate aspects of three familiar ones: Reconciliation, Anointing, and Holy Communion (called in this hour viaticum, Latin for "on the way with you"). Included in these rites are prayers commending the dying person to the protection of God.

Death isn't typically an event we can schedule on a calendar and organize liturgically, like other sacramental occasions. The moment of death is far from uniform, and may not be predicted much in advance. This makes what happens in the Last Rites highly flexible to the nearness of death as well as the coherence and ability of the dying person. 

When the person receiving the sacraments is capable, the Last Rites are celebrated in their fullness. The priest is the typical minister of these rites, but it's appropriate that family is present whether in a home or hospital setting. The private sacrament of Reconciliation is followed by the communal Anointing of the Sick. This sacrament may take place even if there's been a previous anointing earlier in the illness. Silence, the laying on of hands, prayer, and the blessing with oils are signs that remind us of the healing authority of Christ. (The term extreme unction was formerly used to express the urgency of this final "unction," or anointing.)

The Anointing of the Sick imparts many graces. Gifts of the Spirit—peace, strength, and courage—are made available to the dying. We're united with the passion of Christ in our suffering. The faith of the dying person strengthens the church as it "contributes to the good of the People of God" in this powerful witness. (Lumen Gentium 11:2) Lastly, the anointing prepares the traveler for the final journey into life everlasting.

The Catechism notes: "As the sacrament of Christ's Passover the Eucharist should always be the last sacrament of the earthly journey, the 'viaticum' for 'passing over' to eternal life." (CCC 1517) Jesus says, "The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise you up on the last day." When time is short, viaticum, along with the prayer of commendation, is sufficient for the entire rite.

Scriptures: Mark 2:17; Matthew 10:37-39; John 6:54; Romans 8:16-17; Colossians 1:24; 2 Timothy 2:11-12; James 5:14-16; 1 Peter 4:13

Books: The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, by Lizette Larson-Miller (Liturgical Press, 2005)

A Ritual for Laypersons: Rites for Holy Communion and the Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying (Liturgical Press, 2019)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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