A cliché often repeated about blogging (or Facebook or Twitter ...) is that it prevents people meeting real people. Well this evening, as I was blogging, I received a phone call from the local hospital. As a young priest in Camberwell, I often had to respond to such calls, and made my way over to Kings College Hospital "in the still of the night". Another local parish looks after the main hospital here so well that I don't have these calls so often now. So when I do get called out, it is a reminder for me of a basic part of the ministry of the priest: to attend to the dying.
Late at night, the drive to the hospital is easy enough. I drive briskly but well within the margins of safety, keeping alert and reminding myself of the advice in "Roadcraft", the advanced drivers' manual. At the hospital, it is easy enough to park since most of the visitors have gone. At the ward station, the nurse is waiting and I meet the family, and chat to them in a good humoured way. This might seem strange but it is important to remember that people cannot continue relentlessly in a state of stress, and I have more experience than I would really wish for in dealing with death and dying; both within my own family and with others. I know how the process works. When it is particularly tragic, one of my well-rehearsed, but important pieces of advice is to urge close relatives "You still have to eat and you have to sleep." Sometimes people just need someone to give permission for them to do so.
The prayers of the Sacrament of Anointing, the Apostolic Blessing and the Commendation of the dying never fail to put me in danger of blubbing on the spot. I gave the last rites to both of my own parents when they died, as well as to several young people from my parish, and the memories never go away. I feel that these experiences have helped me to be more authentic in my own ministry for the dying. Nevertheless, the good old British "stiff upper lip" is, in my own experience, a help for those around the bedside so I make sure that my own emotions do not take over and impinge on them.
The Sacrament of Anointing carries with it the full remission of sin and the consecration of the time of dying, preparing the dying person to enter into paradise. The Apostolic Blessing is one of the most powerful prayers in the Church's treasury, not only giving forgiveness but also the remission of all temporal punishment due to sin. The Commendation for the dying is one of the most beautiful prayers of the Church, bringing the beauty of the intercession of the angels and the saints into the last moments of a person's life. Of all the things that a priest does, the ministration of the sacraments to the dying must surely be at the same time the most agonising and the most sublime.
It was only when I discovered the spiritual formation that accompanied the celebration of the usus antiquior that I realised the importance of the mementos in the Roman Canon. Now, when someone asks me to pray for them, I make a mental (or often a written) note to include them in the memento for the living. Tomorrow, I will include in the memento the person who is dying in our local hospital. You can also do this when you assist at Mass by uniting your prayers to the sacrifice of Christ made present on the altar. When you have read this, pray for a good and faithful Catholic who has met the last hours of life fortified by the rites of Holy Mother Church.