The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, when administered to the dying, is called by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “sacramentum exeuntium (the sacrament of those departing)” (CCC 1523). Nevertheless, it is not the sacrament of Anointing, but the Eucharist as ‘viaticum’, that the Catechism calls, “The last sacrament of the Christian” (CCC 1524). It explains,
Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of “passing over” to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (John 6:54). The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father. (CCC 1524)
Most of the time, when I visit dying patients in the hospitals we serve, they are, regrettably, not able to receive the Eucharist as viaticum. Sometimes they have tubes in their mouths or throats; sometimes they are unconscious or otherwise unable to receive food by mouth. Other times, however, dying patients can receive the Eucharist as viaticum. This is frequently the case when patients have exhausted their treatment options and are preparing to receive hospice care. Administering the Eucharist as viaticum to such patients and explaining to them the meaning of that sacrament is one of the most rewarding experiences I have in my health care ministry.
To explain the meaning of the Eucharist as viaticum, I typically tell patients about the meaning of that word. ‘Viaticum’ is a Latin word that comes from ‘via’, which means ‘road’ or ‘way’. ‘Viaticum’ refers to the provisions that one brings on the way. The Eucharist as viaticum is, first and foremost, the Eucharist. It is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ really present in the sacrament Jesus instituted at the Last Supper. Whenever we receive the Eucharist in Holy Communion, Jesus is really present with us and in us. When we receive the Eucharist as viaticum, Jesus is present with us and in us to guide us on our way to eternal life. Jesus is our food for the journey heaven.
The Eucharist is our Communion with Jesus in the sacrament of his body and blood. It is our Communion in who Jesus is and what Jesus did. At the Last Supper, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and give to his disciples, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you” (Luke 22:19). Eucharist is a noun – it is Jesus – and it is a verb – it is Jesus’ self-giving on the cross. The reality of Jesus in the Eucharist cannot be separated from his saving work – his Passion, Death, and Resurrection that were his passing over from this world to the Father.
When a person receives the Eucharist as viaticum, she is united with Jesus and, in a special way, she is united with Jesus’ “passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father.” In the Eucharist as viaticum, Jesus is the food for her journey. Jesus guides her on the way that he himself has trodden: the road from death to life.
People who are facing the prospect of dying are frequently scared and confused. They have a hard time making sense of what is happening and don’t know what to do. When I talk to such people about the Eucharist as viaticum and administer that sacrament to them, I often find that they experience a wonderful peace of heart and clarity of mind. They know Jesus is with them and is leading them along his way. One man told me, “Father, I was filled with fear and now I have serenity.”
The Eucharist as viaticum is “the last sacrament of the Christian.” But it is not isolated from the other “last sacraments” of the Church. When I administer the Eucharist as viaticum to a person preparing for death, it is almost always right after celebrating the sacraments of Reconciliation (aka ‘Confession’ or ‘Penance’) and the Anointing of the Sick. As the Catechism says:
Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist as viaticum constitute at the end of the Christian life ‘the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland’ or the sacraments that complete our earthly pilgrimage. (CCC 1525)