For me, visiting a dying person is a special, graced-filled moment because I am so much aware of the loving care the Church gives to one about to enter eternity.
For eleven years, I was Pastoral Care Director for a large Midwestern retirement and nursing center. There were between 80 and 90 deaths each year and I had the opportunity to be with many dying residents. Sometimes the family was present and at other times it was just myself and the dying person. When I use the word dying keep in mind that I’m with a person who in a matter of minutes or short hours will enter eternity and see God face to face. In a way, you might say it is the closest we get to the feel for eternity except when we ourselves experience it.
The Church’s Care for the Dying
The Church is especially caring for the dying. We have special patrons for the dying, particularly St. Joseph. Imagine having Jesus and Mary at your bedside at that moment. As another example, the prayers of the Mass remember each and every person, whatever the state of life or circumstance is. This includes those facing death at that very moment, whether by natural causes, accident or persecution. In a word, the Church prays for all without exception.
As part of the Christian community, the body of Christ, you and I are together with all our brothers and sisters praying for one another. The Eucharist is celebrated around the world from the rising of the sun through its setting. There is never a moment when the Mass is not being offered somewhere on earth, never a moment when we are not praying for one another.
When it comes to assisting the dying into eternity, the prayers of the Church are filled with hope and anticipation of the person’s union with God and reunion with his or her loved ones. I have often felt the presence of the dying person’s deceased loved ones in the room with me, preparing for that magnificent reunion.
Listen to the opening prayer for the dying: “Go forth, faithful Christian, from this world in the name of God the Father almighty who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God who suffered and died for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit who was poured out upon you, go forth faithful Christian.” Note the beautiful image: “Go forth.” It is a true send-off, armed with the prayers of the Church.
Listen further: “May you live in peace this day; may your home be with God in Zion, with Mary the Virgin mother of God, with Joseph, and with all the angels and saints.” The prayers depict a wonderful meeting and heavenly homecoming. Further we pray, “I commend you, dear brother/sister to almighty God.” (It’s like the Church is writing a letter of recommendation for that person.) “I entrust to you to your creator.” The Church is gently handing over its brother or sister to the Lord as a precious gift. “May holy Mary, the angels and all the saints come to meet you as you go forth. May Christ welcome you into his garden of paradise; my Christ the true shepherd welcome you as one of his sheep and acknowledge you as one of his flock. May He forgive all your sins and set you among those he has chosen. May you enjoy the vision of God forever.”
I must tell you that I get chills whenever I recall the opportunities I have had to pray those words at the bedside of one soon to be with God. And remember, I’m not praying them only as Fr. Jim. I’m praying them in the name of whole church. As a believer you are there as part of the person’s family, for indeed, we are brothers and sisters, the very body of Christ.
On this past Holy Saturday, April 3, I received a call from a nearby nursing home asking me to come to pray with and anoint a patient who was dying. The woman was in her late 70s and had just lost her husband about a month earlier. I learned later that she died on Easter Sunday.