Guide to Last Rites: Definition, What's Said & Popular Rites

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Last rites are a way to bring peace to those approaching death. They’re often associated with Catholic funerals, though they actually take place during the dying person’s final days. The formal name form this practice in Catholicism is Viaticum. This is a type of Holy Communion given to someone who is dying. It also includes specific prayers and ceremonies. 

The Last Rites are a religious process for cleansing one of his or her sins before they leave this earth. Since Catholics believe in judgment after death, they want to leave this life as clean souls free from sin. The practice and prayers of the Last Rites protect the recipient on their journey to the afterlife. 

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In this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about Last Rights as well as what’s said during these ceremonies and the most popular types of rites. 

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What Are Last Rites?

Text about when Last Rites are given over an image of the sky and clouds

The Last Rights, or Viaticum, specifically refers to 3 sacraments. These are confession, the anointing of the sick, and final Holy Communion. Each of these is a way to cleanse a person’s soul of sins in preparation for the afterlife. 

In the past, last rites were only given to those who were on their deathbed. It wasn’t enough to simply be ill. One had to be nearing their final breaths. Today, the Last Rights are standard for any Catholic who is elderly, terminally ill, or undertaking a life-threatening surgery. Let’s look closer at the three sacraments:

  • Confession: First, if the sick person is able, he or she should go to a sacramental confession. While this isn’t required, it’s the best way to ensure the soul is ready to receive the final Communion. 
  • Anointing of the sick: This practice is actually preferred when the sick person is not near death. The tradition itself involves anointing a person with oil and reading from Scripture. This is either done for one individual or an entire group at a congregation. The anointing of the sick was traditionally only done for those in extreme danger of dying. Today, the Vatican encourages this sacrament for anyone who is sick or in their old age. 
  • Final communion: Communion is when one receives the Eucharist or the body and blood of Christ after the confession and anointing of the sick. If someone can’t travel due to his or her condition, the final communion is brought to them. 

Finally, if someone is in immediate danger of death, there is also the Apostolic Pardon. This isn’t a sacrament or even a rite. It’s offered by a priest or by the dying person themselves if they reach the requirements for this particular practice. An Apostolic Pardon is an indulgence given immediately before dying to remove any punishments for any sins. 

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What’s the Purpose of Last Rites?

A catholic person will generally want to receive last rites if they’re severely ill, hospitalized, or ready for surgery. The blessings they receive at these crucial stages align with their faith. The religious trinity of God, the Father, and the Holy Spirit works in their favor to work miracles on their healing. 

At this stage, the last rites offer messages of hope to someone who may have a fear of dying because of their medical condition or the situation they’re in. However, many people, including Catholics, confuse healing with curing. The last rites do not offer the hope of curing whatever ailment they face. They serve to heal the soul in preparation for death and the afterlife. 

Last rites also give the person who fears imminent death the opportunity to cleanse their consciousness of any wrongdoings if they don’t pull through. For Catholics, asking for forgiveness for their sins is necessary to be accepted into the Kingdom of Heaven, where they’ll meet their Father and Lord Jesus Saviour. Clearing their past allows for a clean slate at judgment time. 

The practice of asking for forgiveness through the confessional is crucial for Catholic beliefs. And while not receiving confession isn’t a bar to entering Heaven, Catholics believe that their God is a forgiving one. The better prepared they are before dying, the easier the decision is for admittance once they reach the heavenly gates.

For Catholics, the purpose of the last rites lies deep within their faith of cleansing the soul, asking for forgiveness, and entering the afterlife as close to pure as when they entered this earth. The last rites also comfort those left behind. Survivors rely heavily on God’s promises of forgiveness and continuation in the beyond, where one day, we will all meet our loved ones again in heaven. 

What Happens If You Don’t Get Last Rites?

To die without last rites is the equivalent of dying without forgiveness. And, dying with the recitation of last rites is equivalent to dying a good death for Catholics. Last rites are the final sacrament that every believer desires when their time has come.

However, not everyone has the opportunity to receive these final blessings because of the circumstances leading to their death. Many people perish without warning in times of war, natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and even rapid onset illness or accident. 

The Church prays for them remotely whenever a Catholic cannot get last rites because of their location, isolation, or the suddenness of their affliction. When individuals find themselves at the point of death, the Catholic Church offers sacraments for them to comfort and reassure the dying and the loved ones they're leaving behind. When a priest isn't available, a Catholic layperson or any other believer can administer them. 

The Church has specific requirements for the dying to receive this final blessing. They must be willing to receive and accept, having prayed a few prayers during their lifetime, repent their sins, and seek and desires forgiveness. 

If a person dies without the opportunity to receive the last rites, there's still hope for them to receive this blessing after death. Although the anointing of the sacraments is specifically for living persons to accept, there are two different types of sacraments. There are sacraments of the living and sacraments of the dead. 

Although sacraments of the dead don't refer to physical death, there's a misconception that a deceased person can still receive sacraments after death. A deceased person cannot accept the sacrament. But, if a priest or another person wishes to anoint, and they're uncertain how long it's been since the person passed, they can still offer the sacraments in good faith. 

The best bet for a believer is to live a prayerful life, seek constant forgiveness, align their lifestyles to fit within their values and beliefs, and go to confession during their life. 

When Are Last Rites Performed?

Text about when Last Rites are performed over an image of the sky

In the past, the last rites were commonly performed in extreme circumstances. They were for those who were nearing death. When we think of last rites, images of war and famine might spring to mind. During times where death was common, priests would circle the battlefield, hospitals, and even neighborhoods performing Last Rites for those on their deathbeds.

Today, the Catholic belief is a little different. There’s a proper time for every sacrament. For example, confession and Holy Communion are welcome all the time. 

However, anointing of the sick has some limitations. Even these aren’t as strict as you might think. This is not a sacrament only for those at the point of death. The anointing of the sick is for anyone who is beginning to be in danger of death. Whether they’re approaching their old age or they’re suffering from a long-term illness, Last Rites are an option. 

Catholic leaders urge believers not to wait until the final moments to make the call for their loved ones. There are no limits to how many times one can receive the Last Rites. These can be given many times if needed. Because of this, it’s safer to err on the side of caution when performing Last Rites. 

What’s Said During Last Rites?

During the Last Rites, there are several prayers given. These are not funeral prayers, though these sometimes overlap. The first prayer is for the anointing of the sick. This prayer is simple. It goes, “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”

The priest will then say the Lord’s Prayer. The priest will recite a final prayer during the communion— a prayer for protection from the Lord. It goes, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” The recipient will then consume the eucharist, usually wine and a wafer, which concludes the sacraments. 

Who Can Perform Last Rites?

Only a bishop or priest gives certain sacraments. Only bishops and priests can be the minister for a confession or the anointing of the sick. However, in dire circumstances, laypeople have actions they can take. 

You don’t need to be a priest or a bishop to perform the Holy Communion. There is no scripture restricting who can give a communion. This is something anyone can do if a priest is not reachable in time. 


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Who Can Receive Last Rites?

The Last Rites are for any Catholic who wants to receive them. However, they’re also for non-Catholics. For baptized non-Catholics who can’t reach their own minister, they can receive the Last Rites within a Catholic church. 

If a sick person is not baptized and is approaching death, he or she can not request Last Rites. They will need to request a baptism, which is a gateway to the sacraments. Last Rites are only common in Catholic traditions, not other forms of Christianity. 

How Do You Arrange Last Rites?

As soon as you learn of your loved one's serious illness or accident, or if their condition has suddenly worsened or they're due for surgery, this is the time to call their parish priest to inform them of the circumstances. You should specifically request that they administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and the Sacrament of Reconciliation for your loved one. Although, you don't need to remember what to ask for exactly, as the priest will know when it's time to do each of these. 

If you are at a loss of who to call, ask the hospital or hospice chaplaincy volunteers to help you make these arrangements. Provide them with as much information as you have and allow them to schedule the prayer services and coordinate with your loved one's church staff. When there isn't any time to waste in an emergency, notify the hospital or hospice pastoral care team immediately. Their on-staff or volunteer chaplain can administer Holy Communion and Last Rites for someone dying. 

If your loved one's at home and seriously ill or dying, you can follow the same steps above. The hospice chaplaincy volunteers can help you coordinate with the parish priest so that they can prepare all that's necessary either for a home or virtual visit.

Also, know that any sick person can receive anointing, and you don't have to wait until they're dying for the church to perform these rituals. You can ask for a romal blessing whenever you or your loved one feels necessary. The church can repeat the anointing if the condition worsens or if it improves and later reoccurs. 

As time can be of the essence in asking for and receiving last rites, work closely with church, hospital, and hospice coordinators to prepare for the next steps well ahead of time, whenever possible. 

How Do Emergency Last Rites Work?

In an emergency, it's better to be prepared with the contact information of your loved one's parish priest or the parish office so that you're not left scrambling for it when things take a turn for the worse. But, it's not mandatory to have a priest's presence to receive the benefits of the sacraments. Trained volunteers and hospital chaplains can administer emergency last rites in unforeseen circumstances. 

Most catholic churches offer an after-hours phone number that directs you on how to reach a priest when the parish office is closed. A priest on duty is always available any time of day or night. You may not have a choice on who'll administer the last rites. However, you can still request a specific priest if there's a special relationship between them and your loved one. 

The Church will offer emergency last rites to anyone at risk of imminent death. These sacraments include the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist. A priest can administer the sacraments in person, by phone, or remotely. You can request an in-home or facility visit, but sometimes getting there in time may prove impossible. Your loved one will receive sacraments over the telephone or virtually. 

Any person can help perform last rites alongside the person requesting it, so long as they're a believer and accept their responsibility. But most typically, a priest, deacon, or trained chaplaincy volunteer delivers the sacraments at the behest of the family or Church. A layperson can say prayers over the dying and bring communion. However, they can't validly administer the last rites as the Church reserves this duty for ordained priests. 

When a priest's presence isn't possible, the Church grants forgiveness of sins to all who desire it and have prayed at least a few prayers during their lifetime. A person must express genuine remorse and a desire for God's forgiveness. Suppose your loved one finds themselves in this situation where there's no priest available to administer the last rites. In that case, you or anyone present can guide them in asking for forgiveness on their own before their passing. 

These are the new norms the Church has implemented to put a believer's mind at ease and explain how God grants forgiveness regardless of whether a priest makes it to them in time. All that's needed are prayers, the desire to be forgiven, and the acceptance of God into their lives.

How to Perform Last Rites

Text about the first step to perform Last Rites over an image of plants and flowers

The administration of the Last Rites depends on the specific circumstances. Some dying people are not able to travel or communicate, and they might not be in good standing with the church. All this plays a role in how these Last Rites are performed. However, here is an overview of the process. 

Contacting the church

The first step is to contact the church. If you or a loved one is nearing death and wants Last Rites, you’ll need to make arrangements to do so. Most Catholic churches offer confessions and communion regularly, or even daily. 

However, you’ll need to make arrangements with the church for the anointing of the sick. In some cases, a priest travels to a sick person and performs bedside Last Rites. Again, this will depend on the individual and the situation. 

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Sacrament of confession

If the person can speak, the priest will start with the sacrament of confession. The priest first makes the Sign of the Cross, and they lead the ill person in what’s known as an Act of Contrition. This is a prayer that expresses sorrow for one’s sins. 

Next, the priest recites the Apostles' Creed, which is a renewal of one’s baptismal promises. The recipient does not need to be Catholic to participate in these prayers. 

Anointing of the sick

The second sacrament is the anointing of the sick. If the recipient is Catholic, they are anointed with holy oil. For non-Catholics, the priest uses olive or seed oil. Again, the priest leads the recipient in a prayer to heal his or her body. 

Communion

Finally, the last sacrament is Communion. The priest gives the dying or ill recipient the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. This symbolizes food for the journey into one’s next life in Heaven.

The last step in this sacrament is the final Communion prayer. If the person is conscious, he or she might request different prayers after the Last Rites.

Additional Last Rites

It is not uncommon to perform several Last Rites for the same person. Because the Catholic church does not recommend waiting until one is on their deathbed to perform the Last Rites, some people will receive this ceremony multiple times during their life. 

Last Rites are commonly taken before any extreme medical treatments, like surgery. They’re also common for the elderly who aren’t sure how much time they have left. The Last Rites are a way to free one’s soul from sins so he or she can prepare for the afterlife in peace.  

Last Rites: How Catholics Prepare for Death

Each culture and religion has a different approach to death. For Catholics, this means holding a Mass of Christian Burial, listening to Catholic funeral songs, and performing Last Rites. In Catholic tradition, the Last Rites are a way to protect those who are in grave danger of dying. This ritual prepares the soul to face its final judgment in the afterlife. 

Catholics believe that by confessing one’s sins and receiving Holy Communion, a dying person is free from his or her sins in the face of God. Though these prayers and sacraments were originally called the Last Rites because they were the last thing a person received before dying, this is no longer the case. Today, the Catholic Church recommends these Last Rites to anyone who is facing death in some way, whether that’s by old age or disease. 

The Last Rites bring peace to those approaching death as well as their families. In the Catholic faith, this means turning to the church. 


Sources:
  1. “Anointing of the Sick.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. USCCB.org
  2. Higgins, Jethro. “Anointing of the Sick.” Oregon Catholic Press, 6 March 2018. OCP.org
  3. Kerper, Michael. “Dear Father Kerper: When Can Last Rites Be Given?” Catholic Church of New Hampshire, 2016. Catholicnh.org.

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