Sometimes people will say about married priests, “Well, he’s not going to be available to get out of bed and go to anoint someone at three in the morning.”
What a ludicrous statement. Why would it be more difficult for a married man to go to the hospital in the wee hours?
I always go when called–not because I have to but because I want to.
What a blessing it is to be with people at the end of their lives, and what a blessing to give them the last rites and see them on to the ship on which they will sail to the Grey Havens.
You usually find the person surrounded by loved ones, sometimes struggling in the final stages of their lives.
Mostly unconscious, maybe they are moaning — their facial expressions indicating that they are in some distress.
In a couple of recent inidents I introduced myself, and found that in both cases there was a non-Catholic Christian with us–a nurse and the nursing home chaplain.
So I explained the Rite of Anointing, “We Catholics believe that the power and grace of God is administered not only spiritually, but physically. So I’m going to say some prayers with (we’ll say) Jeanine and then I’m going to lay hands on her and pray for healing. Then I’m going to anoint her with holy oil. You know, like it says in the Book of James, “If there are any who are sick among you call the priest and anoint them with oil and the Lord will raise up the sick person and they will be forgiven.”
Then I asked if they would like to join us in those prayers. Neither refused to share in the prayers with us.
So I opened my little traveling anointing case, got out the pyx, the oil stock and set up the crucifix, donned the stole and began the prayers.
At once a different atmosphere started to pervade the room.
It was as if the veil between this world and the next were opened and the invited angels began to surround us.
As the prayers continued, in both cases the women stopped moaning. I asked one if she could hear me to take my hand and squeeze it. Suddenly her hand reached up, searching for mine.
The rite is so simple and so ordinary…no signs and wonders it seemed…no amazing miracles…or so it seemed…just the Lord’s presence and the Church’s sacrament.
At the anointing itself there was a sense of quiet wonder and gratitude.
Then in each case I went on to recite the precious prayers for passing….”Go forth upon your journey Christian soul. Go in the name of God the Father who created you. Go in the name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you. Go in the name of the Holy Spirit…Go forth….”
Then a prayer that the Holy Guardian angels might take her and lead her into paradise.
Then it was over.
I remember reading somewhere that Evelyn Waugh was questioned about the deathbed scene of Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Re-Visited. If you are unfamiliar with the scene, old Lord Marchmain comes home to die. He’s been a lapsed Catholic and rebellious against the church. Then on his death bed the priest comes and anoints him. When he leads through the confession he asks old Marchmain for a sign that he has heard and his will is engaged. Out of his unconsciousness Marchmain feebly makes the sign of the cross.
Waugh was challenged. “That scene was simply too unrealistic.” his critic complained.
Waugh replied, “That was the only thing in the book which was based in a very real experience. Everything else was fictional, but that scene was accurate. I saw such a thing happen.”
So it is. The last rites are one of the times when we see the power of the sacraments and I have never seen the prayers and anointing not bring peace when they have been asks for. The person really does go forth on their journey in peace. They are given their passport and they may go in peace.
I experienced it again twice in the last three days.
After it was over I took off my stole, whispered an extra re-assurance into the ear of the dying soul….”I’ve just anointed you and blessed you. You are forgiven. Go in peace.”
Then I was gone about the business of another busy day. In fact, it was not only a busy day, but a day with a certain amount of stress–yet more people being petty, mean, greedy, suspicious, negative and sour. Yet more people indulging in gossip and believing gossip. Another day in which I did not pray enough and did not rely on God, but trusted only in my own strength. Another day in which I had too much to do and too little time to do it.
The deathbed visits were almost routine in the midst of the rest of a hectic life.
But I knew that in the midst of that busy day with all the temporal concerns these visits were the location of eternity in my life and a window to the everlasting opening for me and for others even if only for a moment.
So I went on my way and then, in each case, just about an hour after my departure the family called to say that after the anointing the child of God had gone over Jordan.
The distress and death agony had passed and they died in peace at the last.
When I recounted the story to Holy Deacon he said, “That is a priest’s work. Forget about the other stresses of the day. That was only the devil. He was mad at you for saving two souls and handing them over to the Master.”
I cannot disagree with Holy Deacon.