When I mentioned in my last ti morceau how the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick isn’t just for dying people, someone asked me a very good question. “But isn’t the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick also known as Last Rites?” she asked.
I love being asked that question, for I get to give the surprising answer: “No, that’s not quite true.” A couple of generations ago the very name of the Sacrament was changed from “extreme unction” in part to de-emphasize the mistaken notion that anointing should be the last sacrament received.
The Church actually teaches that the final sacrament for a believer is the Eucharist, given as a “food for the journey” from this life to the next (check out your Catechism, at nos. 1524-1525 if you’re skeptical!). There’s a special name for Holy Communion given in this way: viaticum. Remember, it was Jesus Christ Himself who connected the Eucharist with eternal life: “The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life, raised up by me on the last day!” (Jn 6:54).
Yes the Anointing of the Sick has a place in the Christian’s final hours, but it’s only a part of a larger whole. It is best that a dying person receive the three Sacraments of Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, and Eucharist as viaticum at the end of their life on this earth. These are the special moments of prayer which complete our earthly pilgrimage, begun long before at birth and baptism and nurtured through the years by prayer, Scripture, worship, and charity.
While it hasn’t happened very often in my almost-35 years of priesthood, on a few occasions I’ve had the privilege of saying Mass in a family’s sickroom, sharing these holy Sacraments and especially a last Holy Communion with someone who was about to meet the Lord in eternal life. It has always been a profoundly spiritual moment. Part of my prayer has always been that we could all be so fortunate as to die in such a consoling manner.