Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ministry to the Dying
I was called out a bit after 11 p.m. last night to attend the death of a parishioner in a local nursing home. I have certainly been at many deathbeds over my almost seven years as a priest. However, usually I am there some hours or days before the actual death or, perhaps, just moments after death has taken place. Last night was different. A Catholic nurse called me to come and told me the lady was slipping quickly.

I arrived and some of the family were present. I had seen this lady only about two weeks prior and she had been fine. I was surprised by how clearly close to death she was. I had no indications before last evening that she would die any time soon. She was not very conscious and was breathing rather inefficiently. I have the practice of leaning near the person and telling her I am present and that I will be administering the Sacraments. I believe that people can often hear what is going on around them on death's door, even if they can't respond in a fashion that gives us undeniable evidence. So, I quickly began the ritual of granting absolution, the Apostolic pardon, and Anointing of the Sick (what we commonly refer to as Last Rites). She was not conscious enough to receive Holy Communion. As I began the rite, I decided mid-stream that I would truncate the ritual, because she really seemed to have shallow breaths. It was interesting that she seemed to calm down as I got part way through the ritual. Whereas she had been sort of gasping for breath before we began, her shoulders arcing as she opened and closed her mouth, she calmed down and moved less as I was administering the Sacraments. By physical activity she seemed much calmer when I had concluded. She remained that way, taking increasingly more shallow breaths. I waited a few moments and told the gathered family members to take a moment to come to her bedside to let her know they were present, to kiss her, and to tell her they love her. After that I began some prayers for the commendation of the dying. I led a Litany of the Saints asking the prayers and aid of other members of the Communion of Saints as this lady passed. Following the litany there is a commendation prayer which reads: "Go forth Christian soul," return to God who made you and who calls you to Himself. What was interesting in this pastoral experience was that the lady died precisely as I was saying that prayer. I have never experienced that sort of timing before. I could tell as I concluded the prayer that she had not taken a breath in a while, so upon the completion of the prayer, I motioned for the nurse to come over and take vitals. The lady had passed away. It was a really beautiful moment in the midst of a sad event for the family. The timing of everything was most remarkable and full of grace.

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