Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The necessity of Viaticum and the duty of priests

June 19th, St. Juliana Falconieri
St. Juliana, whose feast is commemorated today, was the niece of St. Alexis Falconieri (one of the seven founders of the Servite Order) and foundress of the Servite Tertiaries, also called the “Mantellate”. She is the patroness of the sick and of those suffering bodily ills – on account of the circumstances of her death, she could well be called the “Patroness of Viaticum”.
When St. Juliana was in her last moments of life, and the priest was called to bring her the Blessed Sacrament as Viaticum, it was determined that she would not be able to receive on account of constant vomiting. She, however, begged the priest to spread a corporal upon her chest and to lay the Host upon it. After the priest did this, in the sight of all present, St. Juliana became radiant and the Host suddenly disappeared – having been miraculously received into her body as the “food for her journey” into eternal life.
We do well then, to consider the importance of Viaticum (Communion before death) as the last Sacrament of the Christian life.
Those interested in the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, may consider our earlier articles: When should I receive Anointing of the Sick? [here]Anointing is only for those in danger of death [here], and On surgery and Anointing [here].

Every baptized Christian of the age of reason is bound to receive Viaticum
Following the canonical tradition, the Church’s liturgical books still explicitly maintain that all Christians of the age of reason are bound to receive Viaticum when in danger of death:
“All baptized Christians who are able to receive communion are bound to receive viaticum by reason of the precept to receive communion when in danger of death from any cause.” (Roman Ritual: Pastoral Care of the Sick, 27)
However, the revised Code of Canon Law (1981) is not quite so explicit in mandating this as a precept:
“The Christian faithful who are in danger of death from any cause are to be nourished by holy communion in the form of Viaticum.” (Can. 921.1)
“Holy Viaticum for the sick is not to be delayed too long; those who have the care of souls are to be zealous and vigilant that the sick are nourished by Viaticum while fully conscious.” (Can. 922)
Still, the theologians have generally maintained that it is not merely a matter of Church law, but even a divine precept that the faithful receive Viaticum when in danger of death. St. Alphonsus Liguori (the Doctor of Moral Theology) maintains that the sick are most likely obligated to receive Viaticum when dying even if they have received Communion within only a few days earlier, and (in some cases) even if they had already received Communion once earlier in that same day if the person was not in danger of death at the time of that previous Communion.
Obviously, this is a major problem for the non-Catholics who do not belong to a Church with valid sacraments. While the Orthodox can certainly fulfill the divine precept of Viaticum, Protestants are in grave danger since they reject our Lord’s gift of the Eucharist and fail to take the food necessary for the journey to eternal life. However, though many fail in their duty to receive Viaticum, we must always trust in the divine Mercy which knows the hearts of all and works in most mysterious ways.
Receiving Communion when death is imminent
So strongly does the Church desire (and insist) that the faithful receive the Eucharist as Viaticum when in proximate danger of death, that she allows for the faithful to receive Viaticum even if they have already received Communion once (or even twice) earlier in the same day.
The Church demands of her priests that they be most attentive to the care of the dying, and that they ensure that all the faithful are given the opportunity to receive Communion in the last moments of life. Indeed, on a practical level, priests will have to work very hard to fulfill all that the Church desires of them. However, it is good to recall that St. Alphonsus insists that the pastoral care of the dying is the most important work in a priest’s life of ministry.
When should Viaticum be given?
The Rite of Viaticum envisions that Mass be celebrated (whenever possible; and, in fact, it is rarely possible) in the home or hospital room of the dying man, and that Communion be given as Viaticum very close to the actual time of death.
However, at the same time, Viaticum is not to be delayed or postponed. Rather, it is desired that the Rite of Viaticum be celebrated when death seems to be close. Then, if the sick person lives on for several days (or even weeks), the Church wishes that the priests return as often as possible, and even daily, to administer the Rite of Viaticum again.
Thus, the Rite of Viaticum can and should be repeated often for those who are close to death. (cf. Pastoral Care of the Sick [PCS], 175-183)
“Priests and other ministers entrusted with the spiritual care of the sick should do everything they can to ensure that those in proximate danger of death receive the body and blood of Christ as Viaticum.” (PCS 176)
“It often happens that a person who has received the eucharist as viaticum lingers in a grave condition or at the point of death for a period of days or longer. In these circumstances he or she should be given the opportunity to receive the eucharist as viaticum on successive days, frequently if not daily.” (PCS 183)
Confession and Anointing of the Sick
It goes without saying that those who are in proximate danger of death should make a good confession (perhaps even a general confession of their whole life, if they are able) and (if the death is caused by a sickness or some malady of the body) receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.
Even if the sick man has already been anointed at some earlier point in the sickness, as the illness progress and death becomes imminent, it is fitting for him to receive the sacrament of Anointing repeatedly.
The Apostolic Pardon: A final plenary indulgence
When a person is on the point of death, the Church commands priests to offer a plenary indulgence through the Apostolic Pardon. This blessing is not to be given until death is imminent (hence, it ought to be connected more with Viaticum than with Anointing), and the indulgence does not take place immediately upon the act of blessing but rather takes effect upon the very moment of death itself – thus, the temporal punishment for every sin up to the very last moment of life is remitted.
Further, even if a dying person was not able to receive the Apostolic Pardon from a priest, the Church willingly grants the plenary indulgence at the point of death to all those who “have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime.” (Manual of Indulgences, 12.2) The Church recommends that a crucifix be used in disposing the dying person to receive this indulgence.
What is particularly interesting, in the case of a dying person who is not able to receive the Apostolic Pardon from a priest, is that the Church does not require of them the usual conditions for gaining a plenary indulgence – namely, Communion, Confession, and prayers for the Pope. Rather, the Church herself supplies these conditions for all the faithful who are properly disposed at the moment of death!
Who can administer Viaticum?
“The ordinary ministers of viaticum are the parish priest (pastor) and parochial vicars, chaplains, and, for all staying in the house, the superior in clerical religious institutes or societies of apostolic life.
“In the case of necessity or with at least the presumed permission of the competent minister, any priest or deacon may give viaticum, or if no ordained minister is available, any member of the faithful who has been duly appointed.” (PCS 29)
It is clear that the Church firmly desires that priests (and especially pastors) be the ministers of Viaticum. While it is true that this can (in the case of necessity) be delegated to deacons or even to lay people (when there are not even any deacons present), there can be no doubt that it is the duty of priests to provide this most important spiritual care for the dying.
Is this practical?
In the days of modern medicine (in the affluent world, at least), many aspects of the Church’s practical teaching on Viaticum can hardly be followed.
For example, when people die in hospitals it is quite rare for them to be capable of receiving Communion close to death – because they are often either delirious or unconscious for the days leading up to death.
However, what the Church is really asking for is that, so long as the dying man is conscious and able, the priests should regularly bring him Communion as Viaticum. Thus, priests have a grave responsibility to regularly check on the sick and elderly in their parish so as to ensure that they receive Viaticum before becoming so ill as to be unable to receive Communion (either due to delirium or to the inability to swallow).
While it will rarely be possible for Viaticum to be administered within the context of a private Mass in the hospital room or bedroom of the dying patient, and thus Viaticum will scarcely ever be given under both species; nevertheless, the Rite of Viaticum outside of Mass is to be administered by a priest (rather than a deacon or, especially, a lay person) whenever possible.
The faithful have the right and the duty to receive Viaticum from a priest whenever circumstances permit.
There is no other work more important for a priest than the spiritual care of the dying, because there is no other work so closely associated with salvation and final perseverance. If a priest is truly concerned about saving souls, then he will certainly place the care of the dying – especially through Confession, Anointing, and Viaticum (as well as the Apostolic Pardon) – at the very forefront of his life and ministry.
If the Christian faithful have any supernatural love for their dying friends and relatives (especially their parents), they will be sure to call for a priest while the dying person is still conscious and able to receive Holy Viaticum.

St. Juliana, Pray for us!


Paddy said...

Wonderful post - invaluable information for all, lay & ordained.

Konstantin said...

Very good post, thanks a lot!

Richard Prins said...

I was wondering exactly why the viaticum is so important for a person dying in the state of grace?

Anonymous said...

"When a person is on the point of death, the Church commands priests to offer a plenary indulgence through the Apostolic Pardon. This blessing is not to be given until death is imminent (hence, it ought to be connected more with Viaticum than with Anointing), and the indulgence does not take place immediately upon the act of blessing but rather takes effect upon the very moment of death itself – thus, the temporal punishment for every sin up to the very last moment of life is remitted."

Father, does this mean that you can go straight to Heaven when you die?


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The reason Viaticum is so important is that, even when in the state of grace, a man still needs actual graces to do good and to remain in grace.
In other words, even when in grace, we cannot do good without the continual assistance of grace.

How much more do we need grace, then, as we come to the moment of death!
And this teaching, that the Eucharist is this means of grace for the moment of death, is taught by Christ in John 6.

Great question! I hope that it is a bit clearer now! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

This seems to me to be a difficult point ... while, if we die with a plenary indulgence, it is clear that we will not suffer any temporal punishment in purgatory -- I am not sure that this means we skip purgatory all together.

St. John of the Cross, in "Dark Night of the Soul", sees purgatory primarily as a place of purification to bring the soul to perfection (and not merely as a place of punishment to satisfy justice) ... hence, I would be inclined to think that a soul might still go to purgatory under this aspect of purification.
This I know: No soul which is less than perfect can attain to heaven.

Well, that is my initial thought, at least! Peace! +

Anonymous said...

What happens at the moment of death that puts us in so much danger if we have led a faithful life.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

1st, Please use a pseudonym (as per the request above the comment box).

2nd, "Wherefore he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall." (1 Cor 10:12)

3rd, "If any one saith, that the justified, either is able to persevere, without the special help of God, in the justice received; or that, with that help, he is not able; let him be anathema." (Trent, Session 6, Can 22)
[in other words, it is a heresy to say that one can persevere at the moment of death without a special grace from God]

4th, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Hebrews 10:31)

5th, The devil often attacks the soul most vehemently in the last moments.

6th, The moment before death is the most important moment of our whole life ... it is then, if we persevere in grace, that we persevere unto eternal life.

Hope that helps. +

MCD said...

Father, I have a few questions about this post and related points:
1. Recently, someone I knew died suddenly and they didnt even make it to the hospital. I was wondering if I were around at the time, what should I have done for the man spiritually?
2. What should one do if someone around them is seriously hurt (e.g. car accident) but you don't know if they are Catholic? What should you do if you know they are Catholic but you don't know if the priest should go to the hospital or the seen of the accident?
3. If someone is dying and might die without the priest making it, what would you suggest doing? just pray? What if the person in danger of death is me?
4. Do most Catholics who receive the last rites receive the Indulgence as well? It seems like this Indulgence is so easily gained yet so rarely discussed
and lastly:
5. If someone is baptized and dies soon after yet without being perfectly holy, does he undergo purgatory even with his temporal punishment gone?

I know these are a lot, but any answer is greatly appreciated, thank you for your time and for the blog!

Mary said...

This truly makes me say: Thank You, my Lord. You gave me the presence of mind and supplied your Ordained Priest to administer these two Sacraments of my dying husband 18 years ago. And thank You, Lord, that You so mercifully blessed us that it is this Viaticum that was the "last meal" we shared with my husband. May his soul rest in peace. Amen.

Though I was not able to do the same for my beloved son, three years later, I ensured he received the Sacrament of the Anointing before his death. May You, our Merciful God take Jame's Soul Onto Yourself. May I, one day meet them both in your Heavenly abode.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

1) It is always good to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet when we know someone is near death ... our Savior himself instructed St Faustina to do this.

2) If you have a good reason to think someone is Catholic, and there is an emergency, it is good to call a priest ... then let him decide what is the best course of action.

3) Again, the Divine Mercy Chaplet. In some circumstances, a person can make a "confession" to another layman ... this is not a sacrament, nor is there absolution ... but it is simply an act of true sorrow for sin ... St. Thomas talks about this ... but I would say that this would be quite out of the ordinary today ... however, if I were dying and there was no priest, I would want to make a "confession" of sorts ... and ask the person to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet with/for me afterwards.
Of course, the person would be morally bound to keep whatever was said in that "confession" totally secret.

4) I think that priests are pretty good about giving the indulgence. Certainly, it is something that every priest OUGHT to know about and do!

5) Yes, I think such a person would go to purgatory ... not so much for temporal punishment, but rather for purification ... because we must be perfect to go to heaven ... HOWEVER, if a little baby dies right after baptism (or any time after baptism and before the age of reason) he goes directly to heaven.

Hope that helps! +


Anonymous said...

Can Catholics in danger of death receive Extreme Unction/ Viaticum from an excommunicated rite such as the Eastern Orthodox if no Catholic priest is available? If so, where does the church teach this, where did it originate? Thanks.

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