Care for people who are sick and dying has been part of Christianity from the time of Jesus. The Jewish tradition extends centuries into the past from there. In its rites for Pastoral Care, the Catholic church offers no less than fifty-eight key passages for prayer, reflection, and connection with God.
In the Roman Lectionary this summer, we are hearing from the Bread of Life narrative in John 6. We don’t quite hear the whole chapter. Here is a fragment of that chapter that didn’t make the Sunday Lectionary, but it does make the Rite of Pastoral Care. The Church recommends this pericope for those who are dying:
Jesus said to (the crowd),
“I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst.
But I told you that although you have seen me,
you do not believe.
Everything that the Father gives me will come to me,
and I will not reject anyone who comes to me,
because I came down from heaven
not to do my own will
but the will of the one who sent me.
And this is the will of the one who sent me,
that I should not lose anything of what he gave me,
but that I should raise it on the last day.
For this is the will of my Father,
that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him
may have eternal life,
and I shall raise him on the last day.”
Why a reading for hospice or Viaticum? “I should not lose anything of what he gave me.” The context is the feeding of the thousands, followed by Jesus’ challenge to the crowd that they aren’t looking to the sign, but rather they are just happy to be sated.
Unlike the crowd, we have the benefit of perspective. Believers today are aware that Jesus’ mission was to gather those “who come to him.” And yet we do not stay close to the Lord always. We have doubts, and sometimes those doubts surface when we are in extreme difficulty, such as at the time of death.
This is why the church has long seen an important connection between the Eucharist and the journey of near-death. A believer’s final days can be sustained with the insistent preaching of the nearness of Jesus, of the importance of his salvific mission for all people, not just the many “others.” Here, Saint John helps relate to us the Lord’s intention of drawing all his sisters and brothers into eternal glory on that “last day.” Is it something we can grasp with faith, with hope? That’s likely why the Lectionary includes this passage from the Bread of Life discourse. Those of us near death are heading to the periphery of human experience. Beyond this frontier, we know very, very little. To rely on the acceptance of the Lord: this is an important thing for a person to know. It helps us with our last reform and renewal, and moves us into a deeper intimacy with God as the threads our mortal connections begin to fade and disappear.
For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.