Last but not Least: A Liturgical Look at Holy Communion as The Sacrament of the Dying
Nov 21, 2018

Last but not Least: A Liturgical Look at Holy Communion as The Sacrament of the Dying

It is not an uncommon experience for a priest to be summoned to a dying person’s bedside for the administration of the sacraments. The Church’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, is unapologetic in relating the sacraments to man’s sanctification, and the sacraments of the dying are no exception: “The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify people, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to worship God. Because they are signs they also belong in the realm of instruction.”[1]

“The celebration of the eucharist as Viaticum, food for the passage through death to eternal life, is the sacrament proper to the dying Christian. It is the completion and crown of the Christian life on this earth, signifying that the Christian follows the Lord to eternal glory and the banquet of the heavenly kingdom.”

Even at death’s door, the sacraments fulfill these ends in that they bring not only emotional comfort, but spiritual and catechetical benefit to those who witness them. We must, however, define what is meant by the “last sacrament of the Christian life.” It is probable that many reading this article will associate the “last sacrament” with the Anointing of the Sick. This might be in keeping with the tales and experience of priests and faithful who work in the Church’s ministry to the dying. The Pastoral Care of the Sick, however, is unapologetic in correcting this common misconception:

“The celebration of the eucharist as Viaticum, food for the passage through death to eternal life, is the sacrament proper to the dying Christian. It is the completion and crown of the Christian life on this earth, signifying that the Christian follows the Lord to eternal glory and the banquet of the heavenly kingdom. The sacrament of the anointing of the sick should be celebrated at the beginning of a serious illness. Viaticum, celebrated when death is close, will then be better understood as the last sacrament of the Christian life.”[2]


Holy Housecalls

Viaticum (also commonly called a person’s last communion) is the sacrament that should be associated with the faithful on their deathbed. How many times, however, has even the most seasoned priest given Viaticum to the faithful? It could be contended that the great majority of priests—even those who are most zealous for the Lord—do not associate sick calls with the Eucharist, but opt for the Anointing of the Sick as the spiritual alternative. The practical, on-the-ground situation that priests encounter might explain this discrepancy (unconscious people, for example), but countless souls have been deprived of this spiritual food because of unfortunate misunderstandings.

To the chagrin of many, the Anointing of the Sick is not ordinarily associated with those who are quickly approaching death. It is only in the last of the four chapters of the Pastoral Care of the Sick that anointing is found in the rites for exceptional circumstances, namely the Continuous Rite of Penance, Anointing, and Viaticum. This rite is specified as being proper to those extraordinary situations such as a sudden illness or accident.[3] This ritual envisions, however, a more “developed celebration of these rites,” but the Church makes an exception for particular circumstances.[4] The exception, however, has become the rule. To remedy this misconception, it is advantageous to first consider the form of the ritual that accompanies Viaticum. What are those signs and symbols, so essential to rituals of Catholics, that accompany the last sacrament? A fuller understand of the ritual might assist priests in discerning those circumstances that warrant Viaticum.

Water of Life in Death

The ritual of Viaticum Outside of Mass begins with a usual greeting. This may be followed by the sprinkling of holy water, which is accompanied by the words, “Let this water call to mind our baptism into Christ, who by his death and resurrection has redeemed us.”[5] This formula, alongside the use of Holy Water, relates the reality of dying to the mystery of Baptism. St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Through baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that, just as Christ was raised from dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life” (Romans 6:3-5).

The waters of Baptism are a sign of our newness in Christ. The experience of death, however, has the potential to bring forward another dimension of the baptismal mystery: resurrection. In the first moments of Viaticum, the faithful are reminded of Jesus’ own resurrection, and the resurrection of our Lord foreshadows the hope of our own resurrection on the last day. Viaticum is the beginning of a new stage in life which will find its completion in the promise of the Creed, “I believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life of the World to Come. Amen.” Jesus’ salvific work has initiated this process, and children of the new age look forward to their own fulfillment in resurrection.


Pardon and Reprieve

The apostolic pardon is oftentimes another misunderstood dimension of the ritual for Viaticum. The apostolic pardon is a formula of plenary indulgence. Indulgences themselves are “the remission in the eyes of God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose culpable element has already been taken away.”[6] The sins of the faithful, alongside the culpable quality, are ordinarily remedied by Sacramental Penance (or Confession). Even after sacramental absolution, however, a disordered attachment to sin and its consequences, what is called “temporal punishment,” may remain. This “temporal punishment” can be remitted after death in Purgatory, or it can be satisfied by indulgences in this life.

Indulgences are, therefore, acts of mercy that aid the facilitation of our reclaiming holiness. The Church makes a further distinction in its understanding of indulgences: partial and plenary. Partial indulgences free a person form some of the temporal punishment due to sin, while plenary indulgences free a person from all punishment due to sin.[7] The administration of indulgences, and by extension the apostolic pardon, are governed by the norms and laws surrounding the Church’s ordinary dispensation of indulgences. The Code of Canon law reminds the faithful that the efficacy of an indulgence hinges on that person being in a state of grace.[8]

In the ritual of Viaticum, the apostolic pardon follows a penitential rite that can take the form of individual, sacramental Confession.[9] In this context, the apostolic pardon avoids any semblance of being a one-way ticket to heaven. Many well-intentioned priests have admitted to using the apostolic pardon in their administration of the Anointing of the Sick, not Viaticum. It should be seen, rather, in its proper context: a gift of mercy from God that remits the temporal punishment due to sin. If a priest cannot be present, the Church grants the indulgence, in artuculo mortis, as individuals approach death, provided that they regularly prayed in some way.[10]


Baptism Revisited

A distinctive feature of the ritual for Viaticum is the renewal of the baptismal profession of faith by the dying person. The introductory chapters to Viaticum read, “Through the baptismal profession at the end of earthly life, the one who is dying uses the language of his or her initial commitment, which is renewed each Easter and on other occasions in the Christian life. In the context of Viaticum, it is a renewal and fulfillment of initiation into the Christian mysteries, baptism leading into Eucharist.”[11]

The Eucharist is the culmination of a person’s initiation into the Church. In a similar way, Viaticum is the culmination of a person’s life into the heavenly mysteries. In the world to come, the hope of the sacraments will find their fulfillment in the presence of the lamb who was slain (Revelation 5:12). In the baptismal profession of faith, the dying profess with their lips what they hope to experience in the immediate future. The genius of the profession, however, is related intimately to the last stanza of the text: “Do you believe in…the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?” The use of holy water, along with the profession of faith, focuses not only on the individual’s particular judgement, but on his ultimate end: resurrection.[12]


Last Supper

The reception of Viaticum is the culmination of the ritual. The invitation to receive communion takes on a particular and unique form that communicates the Church’s understanding of the last sacrament: “Jesus Christ is the food for our journey; he calls us to the heavenly table.”[13] In this consoling call, the Church affirms Viaticum as the last Sacrament, but she also directs the spiritual gaze of the recipient to the heavenly banquet. The ritual instructs the minister to add, following the reception of communion to the sick, “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life.”[14] A variation of the private prayer of the priest in Mass (at one time part of the ordinary formula for receiving Holy Communion), the line readies the soul for its spiritual journey initiated by death.


Steps Toward Recovery

The ritual that accompanies Viaticum is rich in symbolism, but its infrequency should leave us flabbergasted. As mentioned before, the on-the-ground reality oftentimes makes Viaticum an impossibility for those who are called to the bedside of the faithful. What are, therefore, the possibilities for this venerable sacrament in the future practice of the Church?


Potential for the Precious Blood

The Church’s doctrine of concomitance assures us that the fullness of Christ is contained in both the consecrated host and wine.[15] The common circumstance cited for forgoing Viaticum is that the faithful are oftentimes incapacitated and unable to receive the consecrated host. Could the dying, however, conceivably receive the Blood of Christ as Viaticum?

The Church ordinarily forbids the reservation of the Precious Blood in the Tabernacle.[16] In an ideal world with optimal conditions, a priest could celebrate Mass in the home or hospital of the sick persons while bringing the Precious Blood immediately for their consumption. Even the smallest perceptible drop of our Lord’s blood could suffice as food for the spiritual journey. Experience shows, however, that this scenario is oftentimes impractical. The Pastoral Care of the Sick mentions an exception to the Church’s prohibition of reserving the Blessed Sacrament:

“The minister should choose the manner of giving communion under both kinds which is suitable in the particular case. If the wine is consecrated at a Mass not celebrated in the presence of the sick person, the blood of the Lord is kept in a properly covered vessel and is placed in the tabernacle after communion. The precious blood should be carried to the sick person in a vessel which is closed in such a way as to eliminate all danger of spilling. If some of the precious blood remains after communion, it should be consumed by the minister, who should also see to it that the vessel is properly purified.” [17]

The introduction to the celebration of Viaticum assures that a person can indeed receive under the form of wine alone. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal lends itself to the practical possibilities of distributing the precious blood: “The Blood of the Lord may be received either by drinking from the chalice directly, or by intinction, or by means of a tube or a spoon.”[18] It seems, therefore, that the possibility of Viaticum in the form of the precious blood is simply impeded by the lack of appropriate vessels that can be sealed. Is there perhaps, therefore, an invitation for the Church to commission such instruments to aid with the distribution of the precious blood? These are certainly outside the experience of most priests serving in their parishes.


The Minister

The Pastoral Care of the Sick reminds the Church that all have a responsibility in ministering to the sick and dying amongst our ranks. The ritual affirms that “parish priests (pastor) and parochial vicars, chaplains, and, for all staying in the house, the superior in clerical religious institutes or societies of apostolic life”[19] are the ordinary ministers of Viaticum. Circumstances might necessitate, however, that deacons and duly appointed lay-ministers preside at the rite. How many of our deacons, alongside with our Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, are conscious of the ritual for Viaticum?

As demonstrated above, the ritual is filled with signs and symbols that aid the dying in their pursuit of heaven. The Church must equip all ministers with the tools to discern particular situations that might warrant the distribution of communion as Viaticum.


Alpha to Omega

The Church’s sacramental depository has been a source of consolation of countless souls throughout the history of the Church’s life. The reception of Holy Communion as Viaticum, moreover, is no exception. The signs and symbols employed by the Church in its ritual for Viaticum, themselves vehicles for grace, contribute to the consolation willed by our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church must, therefore, explore possibilities for making Viaticum an ordinary experience in the minds of the faithful. This desire on the part of the faithful will only foster in their hearts a deeper love and appreciation for our Lord’s Body and Blood. May the Church be brave in her reflection, and may she keep her obligations to sanctifying the masses in the forefront of her mind: in both life and death.

[1] Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy], in The Basic Sixteen Documents: Vatican Council II: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations. Flannery, Austin, ed. Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 1996.

[2] The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, trans., Pastoral Care of the Sick, (Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, 2004), 175. Emphasis mine.

[3] Ibid., 232. See Huels, John M., Ministers and Rites for the Sick and Dying, in “Recovering the Riches of Anointing.” Ed. Genevieve Glen. (Collegeville MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 83—112.

[4] ICEL, Pastoral Care, 314.

[5] Ibid., 198.

[6] The International Commission on English in the Liturgy, tans., Handbook of Indulgences, (New York, NY: Catholic Book Publishing, 1973, 19.

[7] Handbook of Indulgences, 19.

[8] Code of Canon Law, c. 996, sec. 1, in Code of Canon Law: Latin English Edition (Washington D.C.: Canon Law Society of America, 1999), 318.

[9] ICEL, Pastoral Care, 199.

[10].Handbook of Indulgences, 57.

[11] ICEL, Pastoral Care, 179.

[12] See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 989.

[13] ICEL, Pastoral Care, 207.

[14] Ibid.

[15] See: Council of Trent, Decree on the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In. “Denzinger, Heinrich. Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus Fidei et morum: Compendium of Creeds, Definitions and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals,” Ed. by Peter Huenermann. 43rd edition, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 1653.

[16] See: Pope John Paul II, Inestimabile Donum, 14.

[17] ICEL, Pastoral Care, 181.

[18] General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Washington D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2010), 245.

[19] ICEL, Pastoral Care, 29.

Fr. Ryan Rojo

Fr. Ryan Rojo, S.T.L., was ordained a priest for the Diocese of San Angelo, Texas on May 30, 2015. He currently serves as the Parochial Vicar of St. Ann’s Church in Midland, TX, and he is an active member of both the Southwest Liturgical Conference and the Society for Catholic Liturgy.