The Catholic Church “encourages us to prepare ourselves for the hour of our death,” (Catechism 1014), and provides ministry to the dying. Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter Father Joseph Hearty, chaplain for Divine Mercy Supportive Care hospice and assistant pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Latin Mass Church in Littleton, spoke to the Denver Catholic last week about ministry to the dying.
Q: What sacraments are given to the dying?
A: The primary sacrament is anointing of the sick—and the importance of receiving confession is encouraged. The grace they receive through those sacraments and the peace they get—especially from the forgiveness of sins to prepare themselves for eternity—and from reception of Communion, is a great gift. So, usually, anointing of the sick, confession and holy Communion [called viaticum, “food for the journey,” when received for the last time]. These three when received together are called “the last rites.”
Q: How does anointing of the sick help a person?
A: There is an increase of grace, as with every sacrament, and supernatural help from God. The Letter of St. James (5:14-15) says [paraphrased]: “If there is anyone sick among you, bring them to the elders of the church—the priests of the church—let them be anointed and prayed over; with that comes health of the body and forgiveness of sins.” That particular sacrament prepares the soul for judgment and for eternity.
Q: What prayers are typically said for the dying?
A: The most familiar ones are the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be and Act of Contrition. We ask God for grace for the person to strive—as we all should—to make an amendment of life. We ask for forgiveness of sin, to cooperate with God’s grace and to live the way God wants us to according to his commandments and our state of life.
There are also particular prayers in the Roman Ritual set aside by the Church for the dying: to the Virgin Mary, to St. Joseph the patron for a happy death, and particular psalms to help the person realize the reality of eternity. All of that is to facilitate, to dispose us, to the influences of God’s grace and to remind us of the reality of our last days and the judgment we will all face. Whether we live a long or short life, we have to give an account to God for it.
In my sermons at funerals I always mention two quotes. One is from St. Robert Bellarmine, who was a great doctor of the Church during the Council of Trent and the Protestant Reformation. He said: “If you wish to die well, then you need to live well.” And St. Augustine said: “Always remember that the God who promises to us his mercy, however, does not promise to give us another tomorrow.” So live your life well, today.
Q: How do priests approach the dying?
A: You often don’t know the person or their background. I always try not to make things fearful. Even though the Second Vatican Council changed the name of the sacrament of the sick from extreme unction (last anointing) to anointing of the sick—people still fear that if the priest approaches ready to anoint you, that means you’re going to die. That’s never been the Church’s understanding of anointing of the sick. The Church changed the name to emphasize the sacrament is not just for those last moments.
When we approach we want to assure the person of God’s love and mercy. I’ve seen many times, especially with my ministry with Divine Mercy Supportive Care, that this [sacramental moment] is God’s providence. This is how he is trying to approach this person to prepare them for eternity.
I try to get to know the person a little bit, find out who are they and what kind of faith life they have. I ease them into the idea that this is time God is granting you; let’s use it in a way that benefits you. I remind the family around them of the importance of eternity and that we will all face death. I try to be encouraging and helpful. Once the patient or parishioner realizes you’re not going to preach fire and brimstone, they often open up. That’s a moment of grace. We try to facilitate that openness as best we can with the sacraments, with visits, and with prayer time not only for the patient but also for the family.
Q: How do you comfort the person?
A: By trying to help them realize they are a child of God and by virtue of their baptism they now have an opportunity to achieve so much more, so let’s use these last days or months to be aware of eternity and how best to spend this time, not in hopelessness and despair but in hope.
We focus on what Christ has done for us and, now, what can we do for him? God respects our liberty and free choice. I help them along to make an Act of Contrition; I offer the sacraments, an apostolic blessing. I encourage them to give themselves to Our Lady by praying the rosary, or to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet. These things remind them that God loves them.
Q: What words do you say to them?
A: It depends on the individual; there’s no set formula. Some have been good Catholics who practiced their faith, so that’s easy. With others it depends on where they are in their faith life and how much struggle there’s been. I assure them God loves them and is providing for them right now. I encourage them to be positive and good and holy.
Q: How do you feel about ministering to the dying?
A: I’ve always had a devotion to the sick and dying. I remember being in high school and volunteering at the hospital. I’ve always been interested in that aspect of the priestly ministry. It’s such an important part of our vocation as priests. One saint said if we help to facilitate with the salvation of a soul it contributes to our own salvation. Much like the Scripture verse “charity covers a multitude of sins” (I Pt 4:8).
Q: St. Faustina said that even if a person is unconscious, their soul is still awake and can respond to God’s call to salvation. What is your experience in such situations?
A: I understand that the last sense to go before dying is hearing and I’m always encouraged by that. Even if the person doesn’t give a response, I’ll lean down to their ear and say who I am and why I’m there and I will encourage them to say a prayer with me. Even if they are not responsive, they can hear and they know I’m there.
Q: There are special promises related to praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet with the dying, can you address that?
A: Because the hospice (Divine Mercy Supportive Care) is under the Divine Mercy of Christ that’s one devotion we particularly emphasize. Even if the patient doesn’t know [the chaplet] and are not praying it with us, we are praying it for them. As Our Lord told St. Faustina, the promise of grace and mercy are available even to those who hear it. We also encourage them to foster that devotion on their own.
Q: Are there particular Scriptures that are read to the dying?
A: Some of the psalms, especially Psalm 51, “The Miserere,” (Have Mercy), which is beautiful. Halfway through it is the verse [paraphrased]: “Sacrifices and oblations you do not look for, Lord, but a humble and contrite heart you will not spurn.” It’s also read before the funeral, before the procession of the body into the church. I get a little emotional about that because it’s so true, we can do great things but if we’re far away from God it means nothing to him.