An inescapable part of Catholic family life — of any kind of life, for that matter — is sickness and death. There are times in a family when a member is more or less seriously ill but recovers, and there will also be the time of a member’s last illness and death. In either case it is imperative to call the priest, so that he may bring the comfort and strength of the sacraments to the ailing person. Cardinal Vaughn of England beautifully noted some hundred years ago that the essence of the priesthood consists in bringing people to Our Lord (through the sacraments) and bringing Our Lord to them when they are unable to come themselves.
When a priest is called to a person in danger of death, he will give “the Last Rites,” which consist of the sacraments of Penance, Holy Eucharist (which will be administered as Holy Viaticum), and Extreme Unction. The Last Rites also include the Apostolic Blessing, which, if received with the proper dispositions, will gain for the dying person a plenary indulgence at the hour of death — a speedy flight to Heaven, in other words, without a stop in Purgatory. As death becomes imminent, the priest will also lead the prayers for the dying which are contained in the Roman Ritual.
If the person is seriously ill, but not in danger of death, the priest will administer the sacraments of Penance and Holy Eucharist, and give the Blessing for Sick People from the Roman Ritual. Although it is much more important to call the priest when someone is in danger of death, be sure to notify the priest when you or a family member is seriously ill and confined to bed. It is the priest's pastoral duty to visit when this happens. Besides the opportunity to receive the sacraments, the sick call also strengthens the priest-parishioner relationship, and in some cases even restores it (e.g. in the case where a sick person has been away from the sacraments or from the church altogether).
Another reason to call the priest in any serious illness is that it may easily turn into a danger of death. What a tragedy it would be if someone died without the sacraments and the blessings of the Church simply because the family members mistakenly thought it premature to call the priest! It is in the hour of death that the devil typically wages his fiercest battle to drag the soul into further sin, discouragement, or even despair. It is his chance to try to snatch the soul. No need to gamble in this matter, then, by neglecting to call the priest. Moreover, calling the priest in a timely manner will assure the sick person of being able to receive the sacraments with better presence of mind and with conscious preparation. A manual for Catholic pupils notes:
“When anyone is very sick, we should not wait until he is dying to send for a priest. The sick person cannot go to confession and receive Holy Communion after he is unconscious. Often persons are afraid that the priest will frighten the sick person. On the contrary, the sacraments are a source of comfort and consolation to the sick. They are usually much happier after they have seen the priest” (The Sacraments and the Mass, by Joseph P. Vacek and Josephine Littel, The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine of the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Inc., St. Paul, MN 1939, p. 41).
In imminent danger of death, the priest should be called immediately, of course, at any hours of the day or night (many a traditional Catholic priest has a cellular phone, pager, or message phone for this very purpose). If the danger is not imminent, however, some preparations for the priest’s sick call are in order. Unfortunately, even many traditional Catholics are ignorant of how to prepare the home for a sick call. It is to remedy this problem that this article is being written.
First of all, bathe the patient, if possible, and make sure that the sickroom is neat and clean. Have a small table near the sick person’s bed and cover it with a clean white cloth. Place the following items on it:
The priest should be met at the door by someone with a lighted candle, who will lead the priest to the sick room. All present should kneel out of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.
The first three named articles should be easy to procure, since every Catholic family should have a crucifix, blessed candles, and holy water in the home. However, if few or none of these items are available, don’t worry; the priest typically carries miniature versions of these items in his sick call kit.
If the priest is coming only to give Holy Communion, then skip items 6-8, as they will not be needed.
The manual for Catholic pupils mentioned above has this beautiful exhortation (p. 41):
“Pray for the Grace of a Happy Death. The grace to die in the friendship of Almighty God is the greatest blessing that can ever come to us. Like Saint Joseph, we hope to die with Jesus and Mary beside us. We should pray for the blessed privilege of receiving Our Lord at the last, so that He will be our Food to strengthen us for our journey into eternity, and also that Mary, our Mother, will be praying for us. Let us often say the following prayer:
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last agony.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul in peace with you. Amen.”
Extreme Unction is the sacrament which, through the anointing with blessed oil by the priest and through his prayers, gives health and strength to the soul, and sometimes to the body, when we are in danger of death from sickness, accident, or old age. We do not know exactly when Jesus instituted this sacrament, but it is clearly explained in Scripture: “Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man; and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15).
We usually commit sin through our senses. Hence, the priest anoints the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, hands and feet of the sick person with the Oil of the Sick, praying that God forgive the sins committed through these bodily members. If the sick man is sorry for his sins, but cannot go to confession, Extreme Unction will forgive even mortal sin. This sacrament always gives comfort and strengthens the soul against temptation, and if it be God’s Will, also gives physical healing! If the sick person is not meant to recover, the stains of sin will have been purified from the soul, thereby preparing the sick person for Heaven.
The Baltimore Catechism lists the effects of Extreme Unction as: first, an increase of sanctifying grace; second, comfort in sickness and strength against temptation; third, preparation for entrance into heaven by the remission of our venial sins and the cleansing of our souls from the remains of sin; fourth, health of body when it is good for the soul.
The Catechism also declares that we should prepare ourselves to receive Extreme Unction by a good confession, by acts of faith, hope, charity, and especially by resignation to the will of God.
In the case of sudden death, always call the priest anyway, since absolution and Extreme Unction can be given conditionally for some time after apparent death.