Some of the most precious moments of my priestly ministry have come when I have helped parishioners who were near death to prepare well for the most significant event of their life. I believe strongly that how well we minister to the dying is a singular test of the quality of our priestly ministry. I will reflect on this task in this issue. This is an excerpt from a chapter of a manuscript for which I am seeking publication; hence it is a little longer than usual.
So many people in our culture die without making preparations for the most important event of their life. Hospitals, for the most part, are not good places to die. Doctors very often do not inform their patients that death is near, thus depriving them of this important opportunity to make death a decision — a final stage of growth; instead, death is often something people undergo passively. Sadly, this is true in many of our parishes as well. If nothing else, we would want our dying parishioners to know that resurrection is their inheritance, that death has been "swallowed up in victory." Wouldn’t we want dying persons to muster as much faith, hope and love as they could? Wouldn’t we want them to think positive, loving thoughts about the God of Life and Death who will greet them on the other side?
So many of us are ignorant of the spiritual world. When we experience that world, we begin to live in an entirely new way. We no longer fear death. We no longer fear life. We live each day assured that we are prepared for the last one. We can make our own the psalmist’s prayer, “My soul is thirsting for the Lord; when shall I see him face to face?” For the person who experiences the spiritual world, death no longer is seen as the end of existence. Instead, they see death as a gateway, an initiation into eternal life. Death is but a moment, though a significant one on the journey. Death is like crossing the border to a country we have never seen before.
And life on this planet is important because all of it is a preparation for the life to come. Whatever unfinished business we leave behind when we die, must be completed on our off-planet journey. Hindus and Buddhists speak of this as karma — that the good and evil we do in this life shapes future lives to come. The Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is similar to this. We must be purified and cleansed in the afterlife so that we become truly whole, truly holy, truly worthy to live with God in God’s kingdom. The cleansing of the soul is a gift, a natural process, not a punishment!
So thinking about death often in the midst of life is a practical thing to do. It impels us to think on the quality of our lives. You can be sure that those who do not reflect on death, do not think about their lives either. How sad. Death is meaningless for those whose lives are also devoid of meaning.
You see, each of us makes a decision to live our lives for God — or away from God. That is our fundamental choice. That choice affects all areas of our life until at one or more times we may change that decision. We call this change “conversion.”
There seems to be such a thing as a final choice as well in which we are given the opportunity to ratify our lifelong decision or to change it. The sacred ritual of the Church which we call Viaticum expresses this notion of final option most poignantly.
Viaticum is, in essence, a kind of solemn communion received in the presence of family and friends very similar to one’s first communion. Only this time it is celebrated with courage and expresses the dying person’s desire to die in union with our Redeemer Jesus and to ask him to send his angels to greet that person at the moment of that terrible, yet awesome passage. Viaticum is “food for the journey” par excellence. It literally means that the Church, in all of her sacramental power and mystery, requests that Jesus “go with” the person as he or she makes the transition to eternal life.
The ritual of Viaticum suggests that death does not have to be a tragedy. Rather, it can be a wonderful, and even, awesome victory! Through our union with Jesus in his paschal mystery, we can give solemn witness to our faith that, in Jesus, we, too, share his risen life! Death is not an end with all of the sadness and remorse that that suggests, but it is the beginning of a new and glorious life that will never ever end!
Viaticum consists of four parts:
First, there is a solemn renewal of baptismal promises, which point to an abiding, intimate and personal relationship with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Renewing those promises near the time of death, gives the dying person the wonderful reassurance that they share in — and desire to continue — that special relationship with God for all eternity. What a wonderful reassurance this simple act gives, not only to the dying person but also to the family members and perhaps some friends and fellow parishioners if they are present to witness those solemn promises!
But this, for some, may take a great act of courage and, therefore a lot of "midwifing" on the part of the Viaticum minister. Courage to give witness before one’s family this awesome and yet terrible mystery which is transition from life in the body to life in the spirit. It means that a person has arrived at the point that he or she is ready to accept death in our Redeemer. Dying in the Lord makes all the difference, for none of us, as believing Christians, would want to die without him.
To preside over Viaticum requires that the minister be comfortable with his or her own death. Presiding over Viaticum takes a lot of courage, which, perhaps, we priests may need to muster.
Second there is the solemn reception of Holy Communion. The notes of the Viaticum ritual strongly encourage that it be given within Mass. This can be done at home, either in the living room, if the person is up to it, or at the person’s bedside, or in the hospital. Here the little table that reaches over the hospital bed can become the altar.
The ritual also strongly encourages that communion be given under the forms of bread and wine. Receiving from the chalice solemnizes the dying person’s acceptance of his or her share in that mystery of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Then, too, it may be so that the person cannot swallow even a particle of the Sacred Host. In this case, the minister can give the Precious Blood of Jesus by “piping” a few drops into the person’s mouth with a straw. Then, those present are also encouraged to share in the Precious Blood to symbolize their union with the dying person in this solemn and sacred moment.
Third, there is the conferral of an Apostolic Blessing. If the minister of Viaticum is a priest, he prays that God would remit the temporal punishment due to sin, a gift of the Church.
Fourth, Viaticum concludes with a solemn Rite of Peace. Each person present (briefly, so as not to be too taxing on the person) has a chance to say “a word of farewell.” Once again, this is not easy. Those present have to be composed enough and accepting enough of the possible imminent death of the person to be able to do this. Some dying person or families are not. If they are still in the earlier stages of death and dying — if they are in denial — they may not be ready for this ritual act.
I remember one family of four who were not particularly church-going people who did this in a most inspiring way. Each of them bent over the dying woman, lying in her hospice bed. Her name was Ana. She was very weak and her voice was also weak. Each one whispered in her ear. Then she, too, responded with the words she wanted to address to the members of her family, individually and privately. And she took her time with each one, careful to say an individual word to each. The rest of us could not hear what was being said. I was the last one to address her. Much to my surprise and astonishment, even though I had met her only a few days before, she had a prophetic word for me that was greatly consoling and seemed to be very much prompted by the Spirit because it at once cut my soul to the quick and provided great consolation. I will long remember her words. She said, “I see a great gathering in your heart.”
How sad it is, I think, if dying people and their families are deprived of the wonderful moment that is Viaticum! And one thing I am sure of -- the grieving period for the living after the death of a loved one is quite a bit easier if and when they have the chance to participate in what may be a cathartic experience prior to the death of the beloved.
To make the journey into eternal life likewise involves preparation. Preparation that must be presided over by an experienced guide. Some traditions call this guide a “midwife for the dying,” a term that I think is very insightful. Helping a person die in the Lord is so much like the birthing process.
Recall the story in Scripture that illustrates the meaning of Viaticum. The prophet Elijah, who was fleeing for his life from the evil woman Jezebel, was prompted to prepare for a journey. He fell asleep on the edge of the desert and woke up to a hearth cake and jug of water sitting at his head. He was told to eat and drink and then traverse the journey of forty days across the desert to abide with God on his holy mountain (I Kings 19:9,11-13.) The long journey and the holy mountain are symbols of death and eternal life. And Viaticum is the food for the journey. Jesus solemnly promises that he will nourish and sustain those who have reaffirmed their covenant with him, that he will nourish and sustain the person and their family, until our Redeemer sends his angel to greet them. All that remains is to quietly and peacefully await the departure.
After this solemn communion, Viaticum can be repeated again and again in simple form as often as necessary. Viaticum can be given (not, of course, within Mass) by a deacon or a lay person, so no one need be deprived of its consolation.
Let me tell you a story about a Viaticum celebration I have had, the story of Margaret and her wonderful family. Margaret had suffered for months after diagnosis that she had cancer and had been more or less bedridden. Her daughter flew down from Connecticut and I also came to visit. It appeared that the time of her passage would not be long, so I explained to them the nature of Viaticum and we scheduled its celebration for the following Saturday. Her grand daughters also flew down from the North and Margaret prepared a guest list. She had many friends in our parish and had ministered to the parish in so many loving ways over so many years. When the day arrived, thirty people filled the living room. When all was ready, Margaret joined us in the living room, the long oxygen cord supplying her comfort in her breathing. The dining room table became the altar. The music was selected and conducted by a parish music minister.
We solemnly received her renewal of baptismal promises and quietly renewed our own. What an example of faith and hope Margaret was for us! She received the Body and Blood of Jesus. It was obvious to us that our Redeemer would indeed fulfill his promise to greet her at the gateway to eternal life. Then each of us, simply, yet with great dignity, offered her our last sign of peace. She died a week later, peacefully. And all of us, but most especially her family, had the assurance that she — and they — were ready. Afterwards, there was food and drink for everyone while Margaret went back to her room to rest and be in silence for awhile with her Redeemer.
Some think that talking about death is morbid — that the “D-” word is a forbidden topic. On the contrary, I think we should talk about death and dying, even when we are well and life is going smoothly. Indeed, Christian prayer has us think about death in the texts of the Liturgy of the Hours almost every day. Even this very morning, reflecting on death was a major part of the day’s readings. I have tried to lay this case before you: dying as well as possible, with dignity and hope and courage, is the great and final decision that we can make. Dying well makes us fully alive and fully human — up to our very last breath. And God wishes to reserve to God the time of our death. (I think perhaps that there are preparations to be made to receive us on the other side and, therefore, God reserves to himself — not even to his angels — the time of our death.) Assisted suicide, for example, can be seen as interfering with God’s plan for us.
I do not deny that facing up to the imminent possibility of death requires a great deal of emotional and spiritual energy on the part of the dying person and on the part of the minister. It is like having serious surgery.
No one likes to have radical surgery. We shrink from it as from any terrifying experience. But our doctors help us to undergo even the most life-threatening surgery and enable us to face its consequences. So, too, with the treatment plan of the spirit. Yes, facing up to the consequences of serious illness or imminent death can be as terrifying as radical surgery, but some things in life are just worth doing — no matter how difficult.
I have been privileged to behold again and again that there is something wondrous and even glorious about persons — either the afflicted persons and/ or their families — who face serious illness and death with courage and full awareness. They have touched all who have been privileged to be close to them with renewed faith and hope and an overwhelming sense of the presence of our all-powerful, all-healing and all-merciful God.
The most important part of Viaticum preparation is that, this time, the person will receive the Eucharist in the face of death. Tell the dying person that, as they receive Jesus in this celebration, to ask him with all their heart to go with them at the very moment they pass through the gateway of death into eternal life. Then, rest on the promise of Christ and his Church: Make sure your parishioners will not face death alone. (Can there be any more important ministry than to be a midwife for the dying?) Assure your people that Jesus or one of his chosen representatives (one of his angels) will be right there with them to lead them safely on their way for . . .
“Eye has not seen, ear has not heard,
nor has it so much as dawned on [us]
what God has prepared for those who love
(I Corinthians 2:9)