When Shall We Call for a Priest to Administer the “Last Rites”?

My phone rang at 2 in the morning. A gentle voice on the other line spoke with occasional pauses to hold back tears. She first apologized for making the call in the wee hours of the morning. Then she continued by politely asking if I could go to the hospital. A family member in the ICU was dying.  She said, “I think it is about time to administer the last rites.”  When I arrived, family members were surrounding the patient at the bedside. They found peace and comfort through the grace of the Sacrament.

Like the caller, many Catholics call for a priest to administer the “last rites” when the patient is already struggling to breathe or when the monitoring machines start to turn erratic. This misconception may be attributed to the fact that the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, which many believed as the “last rite” used to be called “Extreme Unction.”  It was given as the final anointing for a person who was in imminent danger of dying.

Many have the notion that we give up the hope for a physical cure once a priest administers the last rites.  That’s it, there is no more going back to life!  The person is already prepped to meet the Creator.  It is also in this line of reasoning that some patients and family members refuse to have a visit from a priest. They fear that death would be immediate once he says the prayers and administers the sacraments.  This fear overrides the benefits of receiving the sacramental grace, which spiritually strengthens the sick person.

So, to answer the question, when do we call a priest for the “last rites,” we must understand what “last rites” truly mean.

The term “last rites” encompasses the three sacraments –reconciliation, anointing of the sick, and viaticum, or holy communion– celebrated together during someone’s last days.[1] The teaching of the church reiterates that penance, the anointing of the sick and the eucharist as viaticum constitute at the end of Christian life the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland or the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimage (CCC, 1524- 1525).

We shall take an effort to administer the three sacraments while the person is still receptive and conscious.  A person who is close to the point of death may no longer have the ability to comprehend, to speak for confession, or receive Holy Communion. In this case, a priest administers the anointing of the sick.  In any event, the anointing also has the effect of forgiving sins.

It is important to understand that the sacrament of anointing is not for those who have minor illnesses.  It is administered as soon as a person begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age (CCC 1514).  The anointing of the sick can be given to anyone suffering from a serious illness or preparing for a complex procedure or operation. The same holds for an elderly person who is becoming more frail (CCC, 1515).

The anointing is repeated when there is a change in the person’s condition—-during a relapse of an illness or if a health condition worsens over time. Unlike the anointing, a sick person may request confession whenever there is a reasonable need for it. The hospital chaplain or the person’s parish may schedule for regular communion with the patient.

Given the above explanation, we should not wait when death becomes imminent to call for a priest to administer the “last rites.”  The recipients and their family can benefit the most if there is full participation in the celebration of the sacraments.

While family members desire that a priest is present at the time of death, this is not always possible. In the absence of a priest, the prayers on the commendation of the dying and the prayers for the dead may be recited by those who are present.


[1] Fr. Kenneth Doyle, Have the last rite expired? Catholic Philly,  accessed through http://catholicphilly.com/2016/03/catholic-spirituality/have-the-last-rites-expired/

Cover photo courtesy of Pexels.com

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