How to Prepare for a Sick Call
An inescapable part of Catholic family life — of any kind of life, for that matter — is sickness and death. There are times in a family when a member is more or less seriously ill but recovers, and there will also be the time of a member’s last illness and death. In either case it is imperative to call the priest, so that he may bring the comfort and strength of the sacraments to the ailing person. Cardinal Vaughn of England beautifully noted some hundred years ago that the essence of the priesthood consists in bringing people to Our Lord through the sacraments and bringing Our Lord to them when they are unable to come themselves.
When a priest is called to a person in danger of death, he will give “the Last Rites,” which consist of the sacraments of Penance, Holy Eucharist (which will be administered as Holy Viaticum), and Extreme Unction (Anointing of the Sick). The Last Rites also include the Apostolic Blessing, which, if received with the proper dispositions, will gain for the dying person a plenary indulgence at the hour of death. As death becomes imminent, the priest will also lead the prayers for the dying which are contained in the Roman Ritual.
Be sure to notify the priest when you or a family member is seriously ill, confined to bed, or preparing for an operation. It is the priest’s pastoral duty to visit you in the hospital, nursing facility or at home when this happens. Besides the opportunity to receive the sacraments, the sick call also strengthens the priest-parishioner relationship, and in some cases even restores it (e.g. in the case where a sick person has been away from the sacraments or from the church altogether).
Another reason to call the priest in any serious illness is that it may easily turn into a danger of death. What a tragedy it would be if someone died without the sacraments and the blessings of the Church simply because the family members mistakenly thought it premature to call the priest! It is in the hour of death that the devil typically wages his fiercest battle to drag the soul into further sin, discouragement, or even despair. It is his chance to try to snatch the soul.
Contact the parish in a timely manner to assure the sick person is able to receive the sacraments with better presence of mind and with conscious preparation. A manual for Catholic pupils notes:
“When anyone is very sick, we should not wait until he is dying to send for a priest. The sick person cannot go to confession and receive Holy Communion after he is unconscious. Often persons are afraid that the priest will frighten the sick person. On the contrary, the sacraments are a source of comfort and consolation to the sick. They are usually much happier after they have seen the priest.”
In imminent danger of death, the priest should be called immediately, of course, at any hours of the day or night. If the danger is not imminent, however, some preparations for the priest’s sick call are in order. Unfortunately, many Catholics are ignorant of how to prepare the home for a sick call.
In order to prepare for the visit of the priest, bathe the patient if possible, and make sure that the sickroom is clean and tidy. Have a small table near the sick person’s bed and cover it with a clean white cloth. Place the following items on it:
- a crucifix
- two candles (blessed candles are available at the Candlemas on February 2)
- holy water (available in the church vestibule)
- a small glass of fresh water and a spoon
- a white napkin for the use of the sick person
- several cotton balls (these will be used to wipe the Oil of the Sick after the anointing)
- a plate containing a half-slice or so of bread (the priest will use it to cleanse the Oil of the Sick from his thumb afterwards)
- a small bowl of water and a small towel (so the priest can wash his hands after giving Extreme Unction)
If possible, the priest should be met at the door by someone with a lighted candle, who will lead the priest to the sick room. All present should kneel out of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.
The first three named articles should be easy to procure, since every Catholic family should have a crucifix, blessed candles, and holy water in the home. However, if few or none of these items are available, don’t worry; the priest typically carries miniature versions of these items in his sick call kit.
If the priest is coming only to give Holy Communion, then skip items 6-8, as they will not be needed. The manual for Catholic pupils mentioned above has this beautiful exhortation (p. 41):
“Pray for the Grace of a Happy Death. The grace to die in the friendship of Almighty God is the greatest blessing that can ever come to us. Like Saint Joseph, we hope to die with Jesus and Mary beside us. We should pray for the blessed privilege of receiving Our Lord at the last, so that He will be our Food to strengthen us for our journey into eternity, and also that Mary, our Mother, will be praying for us. Let us often say the following prayer:
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last agony.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul in peace with you. Amen.”