Catholic Encyclopedia: Death, Preparation for
The basic preparation for death
When should a priest be called?
Winding up our earthly affairs
The "last blessing"
As death approaches
Cases of special need
In medieval England
The basic preparation for death
Spiritual writers are as one in declaring that ordinarily the only adequate preparation
for death is a righteous life. It is a commonplace with them that the tendency to think
of this preparation as a set exercise without much, if any, reference to one's previous
career represents a miserable error. There is no way, of course, to combat the
obviousness of this position.
Nevertheless, in what follows here we are contemplating that array of actions, mental
and moral attitudes, ministrations, etc. which are commonly rated as the proximate
making ready for the coming of the supreme moment. No matter how carefully
conformed to the law of God and the precepts of the Church one's life may have been,
no Christian will want to enter eternity without some immediate forearming against
the terrors of that last passage.
When should a priest be called?
We shall deal first with the case of those to whom the dread summons comes after an
illness which has not bereft them of consciousness. The Roman Ritual is explicit in its
injunction to the pastor to hasten to the bedside of the sick person at the first intimation
that one of his flock is ill. This he is to do without even waiting for an invitation: "Cum
primum noverit quempiam ex fidelibus curae suae commissis aegrotare, non
exspectabit ut ad eum vocetur, sed ultro ad eum accedat" (I, cap. iv). Indeed, it is
impossible to unduly accentuate the importance of this timely coming of the priest to
offer opportune spiritual succours to the one who is ill. Practically, in the actual
conditions of modern life, it must often happen that the priest can only know of this
need for his services through information furnished by the relatives or friends of the
sick person. They, therefore, have a very definite obligation in this matter.
Too often there is a mistaken interpretation of the claims of affection or, even worse, a
weakly surrender to a lamentable human respect, and so the minister of God is sent
for, if at all, only when the patient is unconscious, and death is imminent. For the
Catholic Christian, getting ready for death is not simply the being submitted passively
to the administration of certain religious rites. It is, as far as may be, the conscious,
deliberate employment of prayer; the forming or deepening of a special temper of soul
and acceptance of such sacramental help as will fit the human spirit to appear with
some confidence before its Judge.
Hence the failure to call the clergyman in time may, far from being an exhibition of
tenderness or consideration, be the most irreparable of cruelties. To be sure it is not
always necessary that the patient should be told that his case is past remedy; even
when the approach of death is fairly discernible, and even when such distressing
information must for any reason be conveyed, there is room for the exercise of a great
deal of prudence and tact. It may be that the sick person will have important affairs to
set in order, and that a hint of the probability of a fatal issue of his illness will be the
only adequate stimulus to quicken him into a discharge of his obligations. In such
instances it may be not only a kindness but a duty to impart such knowledge
straightforwardly, but gently. It is plain that a special measure of delicacy is necessary
when this office falls to the attending priest to perform.
Winding up our earthly affairs
Beyond question it is of paramount importance that all such matters as the disposition
of temporalities, payment of debts, satisfaction of burdens of restitution, etc. should
have been settled so as to leave an undivided attention for the momentous
considerations which are to engage the mind of the one who is presently to pass
through the portals of death into eternity.
So far as priestly assistance goes the first step in the process of preparation for death is
the receiving of the patient's confession and the conferring of sacramental absolution.
Indeed, inasmuch as it offers the ordinary means of reconciliation with God, it is the
most indispensable factor in helping the soul to qualify for its departure from the
body. The Roman Ritual (I, cap. iv, 8) indicates that the priest is to draw upon all the
resources of his prudence and charity in order to obtain a confession from the sick
person, even though the danger apprehended be as yet remote.
The confession need not necessarily be of the sort that is described as general, unless,
of course, the reasons exist that would make it obligatory at any other time of life as
well. It will often be useful where, with due regard to the remaining strength of the
stricken penitent, it is possible to make, at least in some sense, this general avowal of
the sins of one's life. Whether there be question of a general confession or merely the
ordinary one, the clergyman has often to remember that in this trying juncture the
Divine precept exacting entirety in the recital of offenses admits of more than usually
Where the person is incapable of sustained mental effort without serious prejudice to
his failing powers, the priest need give himself no scruple about being satisfied with
incomplete, or less specific, forms of accusation. The law of integrity is not to be
rigorously urged under such circumstances. Even when nothing but the most general
acknowledgment of one's sinful condition can be obtained, it is incontrovertible that in
the premises this is a valid substitute for a more detailed confession.
After the confession comes the reception of the Holy Eucharist as viaticum (). "Sacred writers", according to the Catechism of the Council of Trent,
"called it 'the Viaticum', as well because it is the spiritual bread by which we are
supported in our mortal pilgrimage, as also because it prepares for us a passage to
eternal glory and happiness." The concordant teaching of theologians, as well as the
inference from the uniform discipline of the Church, is that there is a Divine precept
binding one to receive the Holy Eucharist when in danger of death.
At this time the communicant is exempted from the traditional natural fast. The
Council of Constance witnesses to the custom of the Church in this matter, and the
Roman Ritual (I, cap. iv, 4) says: "potest quidem Viaticum brevi morituris dari non
jejunis". This privilege may be enjoyed repeatedly by the dying person during the
illness. Strictly speaking, it is not extended to persons whose danger of death comes
from a cause other than sickness, such as soldiers about to engage in battle or criminals
about to be executed= Still, even they, as appears from a declaration of the Sacred
Congregation of Propaganda, 21 July, 1841, may receive the Viaticum even though
they are not fasting, if they find any considerable difficulty in observing the law.
So far as is possible, nothing should be omitted which can help to confer upon the
administration of the Viaticum becoming solemnity. This is all the more desirable in
that sometimes the demeanor of those who are present on such occasions, and even of
the sick person, is not such as to betray any very alert sense of the Presence that has
come to hallow this last stage of life's journey. It is needless to add that whatever the
enlightened zeal of the priest or the careful piety of the bystanders can suggest ought
to be done to awaken in the communicant a special degree of fervour, a more than
ordinarily penetrating faith and ardent love on the occasion of what may be his final
eating of the Bread of Life.
There follows the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, or anointing, as it is popularly
Here the clergyman may find himself confronted with prejudices which in spite of
reiterated explanations seem to have an extraordinary vitality. His announcement that
he purposes to anoint the sick person is often accepted by the patient and his friends as
the reading of the death-warrant. It is necessary to point out that the Sacrament of
Extreme Unction gives health not only to the soul, but also sometimes to the body. The
basis for the teaching is of course to be found in the well-known utterance of St. James
(v, 14, 15): "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."
Anciently it was the custom to confer this sacrament before the Viaticum; the
maintenance of the existing usage has been prescribed by the Roman Ritual (V, cap. i,
2). Although the existence of a precept to receive this sacrament cannot be established,
still the failure to avail oneself of its efficacy out of sheer sloth would be a venial sin. It
cannot be administered more than once during the same illness, unless, after some
notable betterment which has either certainly or probably taken place, a new danger
should supervene. In chronic diseases, therefore, such as tuberculosis, it will often
happen that the sacrament may and ought to be repeated because of the recurrence of
what is, morally speaking, a new danger.
According to the discipline in vogue in the Latin Church, the unctions essential to the
validity of the sacrament are those of the organs of the five senses--the eyes, ears,
nostrils, mouth, and hands. There is a diversity in the custom as to the unctions to be
added to those already enumerated; in the United States, besides the parts mentioned,
only the feet are anointed.
The sick-room ought to be made ready for the visit of the priest on the occasion of his
giving the last sacrament, it can at least be cleaned and aired. On a table covered with a
white cloth there ought to be a lighted blessed candle, a crucifix, a glass of water, a
spoon, a vessel containing holy water, and a towel. According to the rubric of the
Roman Ritual the priest is to remind those who are present to pray for the sick person
during the anointing, and it suggests that the Seven Penitential Psalms with the
litanies might be employed for this purpose.
Extreme unction, like other sacraments, produces sanctifying grace in the soul. It has,
however, certain results proper to itself. Of these the principal one seems to be the
getting rid of that spiritual torpor and weakness which are the baneful output of actual
sin, and which would be such a serious handicap in this supreme moment. From the
viewpoint of the Christian, the struggle to be maintained with the devil is now more
formidable than ever, and a special endowment of heaven-sent strength is necessary
for the soul's final victory.
The "last blessing"
The anointing is ordinarily succeeded by the conferring of the Apostolic benediction,
or "last blessing", as it is commonly called. To this blessing a plenary indulgence is
attached, to be gained, however, only at the hour of death, i e. it is given . It is conferred in virtue of a special faculty granted to the bishops and by them
delegated quite generally to their priests. The conditions requisite for gaining it are the
invocation of the Holy Name of Jesus at least mentally, acts of resignation by which the
dying person professes his willingness to accept all his sufferings in reparation for his
sins and submits himself entirely to the will of God.
As death approaches
The cardinal disposition of soul at the approach of death are: a frequent eliciting of the
acts of faith, hope, love, and contrition; a striving towards a more and more perfect
conformity with the will of God and the constant maintaining of a penitential spirit.
The words of St. Augustine are in point: " However innocent your life may have been,
no Christian ought to venture to die in any other state than that of the penitent."
As the hour of the agony approaches, the clergyman, according to the Roman Ritual, is
to be called to pronounce the pathetically beautiful "Recommendation of a departing
soul". Where the presence of the priest cannot for any reason be had, these prayers
ought not to be omitted; they are nowadays easily obtainable in the vernacular and
ought to be recited by those who watch beside the deathbed. The dying person should
be invited to join in these petitions, without, however, harassing or fatiguing him.
As the person is about to expire, the Ritual directs those who are by to pray more
earnestly than ever; the Holy Name of Jesus is to be invoked, and such ejaculations as
the following whispered in his ear: "Into thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit"; "O
Lord, Jesus Christ, receive my spirit"; "Holy Mary, pray for me"; "Mary Mother of
grace, Mother of mercy, do thou protect me from the enemy and receive me at the hour
of my death".
Cases of special need
When death is apprehended as imminent after a sudden seizure even in the act of sin,
an accident, attempted suicide, and the like, and the person is meanwhile deprived of
consciousness, the method of proceeding is as follows: Conditional absolution is
imparted, Viaticum of course is omitted, as it is likewise when the person, though in
possession of his senses, is subject to an almost unintermittent vomiting. Extreme
unction and the last blessing are given as usual. In such an extremity, when the person
is unable to make a confession, extreme unction may prove to be the most effective and
necessary means of alleviation.
It is interesting to note that recent investigations have made it plain that it is no longer
possible to determine even within a considerable margin the precise moment of death.
Father Ferreres, S. J., in his work, gathers as the conclusion of his researches that the
only absolutely certain sign of death is decomposition. The practical value of this
statement is that absolution and extreme unction may be given conditionally for some
time after the person would have hitherto been reputed to be dead.
In what has been said, it is taken for granted that the person to be gotten ready for
death is baptized. If this is not so, or if there be a doubt about it, either as to fact or
validity, then of course baptism must first be administered, either absolutely or
conditionally, as the case warrants after some instruction on the principal truths of
religion. Baptism may be conferred conditionally on those who are unconscious in as
far as they can be presumed to have the desire of receiving it.
It is perhaps worth while to add here that, when there is question of the dying, it is the
mind of the Church that her minister should avail himself of any sort of probability, no
matter how slight, in order to be able to give absolution, at least conditionally. He then
applies with great amplitude the principle, . Practically,
therefore, the only case in which the priest in these circumstances may not absolve is
when the person refuses the sacraments, or is manifestly discerned to have a perverse
disposition of soul.
In medieval England
Lingard, in his "Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church", gives a description of the
discipline in force among the Anglo-Saxons of the medieval period with regard to the
preparation of the dying for the end.
He says: "At the first appearance of danger, recourse was had to the ministry of the
parish priest or of some distinguished clergyman in the neighborhood. He was bound
to obey the summons and no plea but that. of inability could justify his negligence.
Attended by his inferior clergy, arrayed in the habits of their respective orders, he
repaired to the chamber of the sick man, offered him the sacred rites of religion and
exhorted him to prepare his soul to appear before the tribunal of his Creator.
"The first duty which he was bound to require from his dying disciple was the
arrangement of his temporal concerns. Till provision had been made for the payment
of his debts and the indemnification of those whom he had injured, it was in vain to
solicit the succours of religion, but as soon as these obligations had been fulfilled the
priest was ordered to receive his confession, to teach him to form sentiments of
compunction and resignation, to exact from him a declaration that he died in peace
with all mankind, and to pronounce over him the prayer of reconciliation.
"Thus prepared he might with confidence demand the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.
With consecrated oil the principal parts of the body were successively anointed in the
form of a cross; each unction was accompanied with an appropriate prayer and the
promise of St. James was renewed, 'that the prayer of faith should save the sick man
and if he be in sins they should be forgiven'.
"The administration of the Eucharist concluded these religious rites at the termination
of which the friends of the sick man ranged themselves around his bed, received the
presents which he distributed among them as memorials of his affection, and gave him
the kiss of peace and bade him a last and melancholy farewell."
Dr. Lingard mentions a curious attitude with regard to extreme unction as prevalent
among the illiterate Anglo-Saxons of this time. He says, "It [extreme unction] appears
to have been sometimes received with reluctance by the illiterate from an idea that it
was a kind of ordination which induced the obligation of continency and abstinence
from flesh on those who afterwards recovered. The clergy were ordered to preach
against the erroneous notion."
(See also VIATICUM; EXTREME UNCTION.)
JOSEPH F. DELANY
Transcribed by H.C.C.
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