I wrote this today, originally to be a bulletin item, but it grew too long. I may still insert it in the bulletin at some point. Help me edit it--let me know what you think. If something isn't clear, let me know.
I get many emergency calls as you can imagine, and I witness both inspiring and heartbreaking situations, let me tell you some stories.
Too often the priest is called at the last minute, or even too late. At such times, we come quick as we can and do all we can. Things can chaotic; when the patient isn’t responding, I often wonder, would this patient have had a question, or gone to confession, had I come earlier? Many times the patient receives Last Rites alone. Or, I’m called after the patient has died. Of course I come and pray—but I can’t give sacraments after death.
Sometimes it can’t be avoided. But if it can, why delay?
Calling the priest doesn’t mean giving up hope. Anointing is for healing—and I’ve seen folks at death’s door recover after the anointing. When things are calmer, the family can be present, and the patient can speak privately with the priest if desired.
I cannot stress enough that you must be very sure the hospital has put you or your family member on the list of Catholic patients, even if you’re in “for just a day.” Things happen. Some “too late” calls are for patients who were in the hospital days, even weeks.
Many priests and volunteers from several parishes visit weekly, so not only call your parish, but also tell the hospital. Be insistent; I cannot explain it, but some names do get left off.
Waiting too long sometimes means it’s too late to receive communion, the most important last sacrament. I realize some patients have trouble swallowing; I can give a patient a tiny portion of the host, or even bring the Precious Blood, with a day’s notice.
A hard lesson: don’t assume your family knows—or will carry out—your wishes.
A man called me once to see his dad after he died. He actually told me his father wanted a priest before he died, yet didn’t call me till too late! I was flabbergasted. Don’t assume. Pick someone you trust the most and tell him or her—in detail—what your wishes are, when you can’t act for yourself. If I can help, let me know.
Only some stories are so sad; others are faith-inspiring.
One of the most awe-inspiring things I see is when I visit and the family is present and praying. I recently visited a parishioner who was very ill, yet hopeful. Her family was present as I anointed her and gave her holy communion.
The next day it turned bad and I was called back.
I anointed her again, gave her “the Apostolic Pardon,” a special blessing and plenary indulgence from the Holy Father, reserved for “Last Rites.” And with her family around her, we prayed beautiful prayers of “commendation,” invoking the saints to watch over her and to be with her as Christ called her to Himself. I told her she was “well fortified with the sacraments” and remained as her family kept praying, with her leading, until her last breath.
But that experience didn’t just happen. It was the well-earned fruit of a lifetime of practicing the Faith and teaching her family to do the same. My grandmother used to say, “being a Catholic can be a hard life—but it’s an easy death.”
Last Rites are more than the anointing, which, by the way, is not just for our final hours. It also includes confession, communion, and prayers entrusting our loved one to God. Many times I come into a hospital room, and I suspect things are really close to the end—but I don’t know for sure and it’s risky to assume! Sometimes the patient, or the family, may not be ready to face that reality.
When the priest comes, we may be hesitant to suggest Last Rites, but if you ask, we’ll eagerly give you every consolation we can.
Finally, Last Rites can be repeated—I gave my own father Last Rites three times. It can be great consolation for everyone involved.
These situations are rough, emotional roller coasters for everyone involved. Your priests want to do all we can to make things a little more bearable and hopeful.