The Principal Catholic Practices, Chapter 7 – Care of the Sick

The Principal Catholic Practices, by Father George Thomas SchmidtWhen to Call the Priest. In the Sick Room. Extreme Unction. Latent Life. After Sudden Death.

It is an axiom that “the sacraments are for human beings.” This being true, we will observe how lovingly God has provided for that momentous day when death approaches with the inevitable summons. Death is the most important event in the life of man; for upon the nobility or depravity of the soul in that hour depends an eternity of happiness or damnation.

It will be apparent that we may not trifle with Death, nor may we prescribe to him the methods of his procedure. At times he is merciless and with one sudden blow strikes down his victim. Then again he assumes the role of friend and tarries before announcing his message. Again he paralyzes the functioning of will and intellect long before his icy hand is laid on the frame.

One thing is certain, at the first hint of the approach of death the one who is to be called should have the full benefit of the sacraments and the blessing of the priest. This at once presents the question: When should we call the priest for the sick? There are times when there are no indications of immediate danger of death. But past experience has taught us that it is wise to prepare for possible contingencies. Thus, for example, many will undergo minor operations, such as are usually successful, as for appendicitis, without receiving the sacraments. Ninety-nine may live many years after a minor operation, but the hundredth one may die on the table. Would it not be lamentable if the unfortunate one were unprepared for death?

It is self-evident that when an operation upon any of the vital organs is undertaken, the patient should be prepared by going to confession and communion. It may be noted here that it is preferable to have the priest administer the sacraments in the home rather than in the hospital. For in the home greater privacy is assured, and the Blessed Sacrament is less exposed to irreverence. However, this is not always possible; and the priest will gladly go to the hospital when called.

But the great majority of Catholics die in their homes. Many are confined to their beds for weeks and months before the final summons comes. From a spiritual standpoint, this period of sickness preceding death is very valuable. The sufferer can store up riches for himself, can atone for many sins of his life, and can make his suffering the means of shortening purgatory in the next life. He must, of course, have the proper intention, and he must be in the state of sanctifying grace, in order that his prayers and sufferings may be meritorious. Hence the advisability of having the priest come when it becomes apparent that the patient will have to endure long suffering.

That we should never put off sending for the priest until the death agony sets in will be obvious if we but realize that it is very difficult for the sick person to pray in the last hours. There is a terrible struggle going on. Body and soul united so long, must be separated, and this separation causes pain and distress. You will observe that the dying sometimes ask others to pray for them. If it is difficult for them to pray, it will surely be burdensome to make a good confession and receive holy communion devoutly.

Now when it becomes advisable to send for the priest, he should if possible be notified during the day. If a call at night is urgent, and if the patient lives at a great distance from the church, a conveyance should be provided for the priest; or, at least, he should be accompanied by a boy or a man if he walks to the home.

The arrival of the priest at the home of the sick is the signal for reverence and respect. For he brings the Saviour into your house. It is a pious custom to meet the priest at the door, holding a burning candle. The light is the acknowledgment of the Real Presence.

In the sick-room a table will have been provided for the convenience of the priest. It should be covered with a white cloth. A crucifix, two blessed candles, holy water, a glass of ordinary water, a spoon, a little salt, and some cotton complete the preparation of the table for the sick visit. Decency and reverence would demand that these articles be clean. They need not be of the very best of materials. The writer has attended the sick on occasions when he was obliged to lay the pyx with the Sacred Host on the window-sill. But such conditions are rarely met with in the homes of practical Catholics.

The priest, after blessing the sick-room, will probably hear the patient’s confession if time permits, and if the latter is able and disposed. He will, therefore, ask the attendants to leave the room for a few minutes. The period of time when the priest sits by the bed of the sick to receive his or her confession is most valuable. It may be the patient’s last confession. Oh, that it might be the best confession of his life! Does it not seem quite proper, therefore, that the attendants in the adjoining room, instead of indulging in gossip and loud laughter, should kneel down and pray? Priests can bear testimony that great miracles of grace have been wrought by prayer for the sick and dying.

When the confession has been made, the attendants and visitors are free to enter the sick-room. Needless to say, the sacred rites that follow – namely, the administration of the Holy Viaticum and Extreme Unction – are so rich in spiritual value to the sufferer that the conduct of those present should inspire devotion and piety in the sick person.

However, let us not so briefly dismiss the wonderful sacrament of Extreme Unction. To those who are conscious, this sacrament devoutly received is a source of untold strength and consolation in that dark hour when body and soul are struggling in the agony of separation. I have seen men and women who feared death with an indescribable fear, and who spoke of death with body atremble and eyes dilated with horror. But when they had been anointed with the Holy Oils, the peace of God stole over them. Not seldom this sacrament actually restores health or prepares the way for convalescence. Every priest will bear testimony to the wonderful workings of Extreme Unction in restoring the sick to health and in strengthening and consoling the dying.

But we have not yet seen the limit of God’s mercy to man. Not only when man is able to make a good confession is the Lord willing to forgive him his sins, but even when he stands on the threshold of eternity the mercy and love of God go out to him. Thus, if a baptized person, at any time in his life, had either implicitly or explicitly made the intention of receiving Extreme Unction before death, and if death suddenly struck him down giving him only a moment for imperfect sorrow for his sins, the sacrament of Extreme Unction administered before life was extinct would save his soul.

This being true, we cannot emphasize too strongly the desirability of calling the priest to the aid of one who suddenly has died or has met with a fatal accident. For, even though all indications point to death, even though the doctor has declared that death was instantaneous, life may linger for many minutes, yes, for hours. This is particularly true in cases of sudden deaths, drowning, electrocution, and the like. This is not a new theory- The facts have been substantiated, and science has unmistakable proofs for the belief in latent life after apparent death. Personally, I have anointed a number of persons thirty minutes after apparent death from heart-failure. In one case I baptized a man who had signified his intention of becoming a Catholic, but was prevented from carrying out his resolve by sudden death. It may be that my ministrations were too late in all cases. However, it is equally possible and even probable that in every case life was not yet extinct. If the one stricken had but momentary contrition, and that imperfect, he could not be saved if he had been in the state of mortal sin. But his contrition together with Extreme Unction would save his soul.

Such is the wonderful grace of the Holy Anointing. We should all have the intention of receiving this sacrament before our death. We should also do everything in our power to enable others to receive it. For we have the words of Holy Scripture to guarantee its worth and value: “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.” (James 5:14-15)