Let’s begin our examination of the Church’s liturgical ministry to dying believers. Pastoral Care of the Dying covers sections 161 through 296 in the Rite of Pastoral Care of the Sick (PCS), a bit more than Part I on Anointing (42-160) we’ve just completed.
How is Viaticum different from Anointing in the Church’s approach? This is spelled out in the very first paragraph of the Introduction to Pastoral Care of the Dying:
161. The rites in Part II of Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum are used by the Church to comfort and strengthen a dying Christian in the passage from this life. The ministry to the dying places emphasis on trust in the Lord’s promise of eternal life rather than on the struggle against illness which is characteristic of the pastoral care of the sick.
When is the believer prepared to accept that the time to fight for one’s life is over? What a question.
I have seen it in my own father, as well as in many parishioners over the years. The rite presumes the spiritual discernment has been made. It gives the minister resources for when that determination has been made, and to impart a confidence in the recipient-celebrant of these rites.
The preference is clearly for not postponing these rites to the very end of life. Viaticum is meant to offer “comfort and strength” and those qualities will be needed as the person first realizes dying is an inevitable result of their physical condition, and all through the dying process.
The first three chapters of Part II provide for those situations in which time is not a pressing concern and the rites can be celebrated fully and properly. These are to be clearly distinguished from the rites contained in Chapter Eight, “Rites for Exceptional Circumstances,” which provide for the emergency situations sometimes encountered in the ministry to the dying.
With eminent pragmatism, the Church is aware that emergency situations do occur. But the Church’s ministers, especially pastors, are charged with distinguishing properly how the liturgical ministry to the dying will be carried out. We’ll cover that in the next post.
Meanwhile, I’ll also point out that these rites are among those a non-Catholic may request and a Catholic minister may celebrate, given a serious spiritual need. The requester must ask of her or his own accord, and profess a belief in the Catholic sacraments. This practice is not limited to the “exceptional” rites, but would depend on the availability of ministry from the person’s own tradition, be it Protestant, Anglican, or Orthodox.