Recently I wrote about coronavirus giving an opportunity to learn prayers of Spiritual Communion. These have been encouraged by many saints throughout history for use during the course of our normal lives, not just during extraordinary circumstances. Yet many of us are only learning them now. Tragically, I fear the time is coming where another set of prayers we have neglected may become incredibly important. Prayers for the dying.
A Catholic is ideally attended at death by his priest who may offer anointing of the sick, reconciliation, communion and the apostolic pardon. This is the sort of holy death we all pray for. Yet stories are beginning to surface of priests unable to minister to the dying through hospital, government, or church restrictions.
What can we do? Well, we may not be able to do much to change the circumstances above. However, there is some small service that we should be ready to offer. We as laity may find ourselves, either as family members or medical professionals, in the position of accompanying the dying in their final moments and while we can never offer the sacraments that a priest can, we do not have to come to this situation completely unprepared.
The website for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers an important resource for those accompanying the dying. Here we find the commendation of the dying, a moving prayer offered as death becomes imminent.
Prayer of Commendation
As the time of death approaches, this prayer may be said.
Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you,
go forth, faithful Christian.
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 all the Angels and Saints.
Now is a good time to familiarize ourselves with resources such as these. The link also offers appropriate scripture passages to read including several brief verses which could be easily memorized, recited, and repeated as a prayer. One example: Romans 8:35 “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” Prayers and verses committed to memory may be particularly useful in a situation where even books may be barred from the room for fear of spreading infection. Know your act of contrition so that you can lead the dying through it in the absence of sacramental confession.
If memorization is difficult, we can at least familiarize ourselves with the themes of these prayers and scriptures so that, however stumblingly, we can impart their message. Having resources at hand could also be useful. Print out the Commendation of the Dying to put in a wallet or glove compartment. This website offers a long form set of prayers for the dying in both a printable booklet and online format. The latter can be saved to a smart phone for easy access. If we are the only comfort a fellow Christian has at the last, let us strive to be prepared.
Sadly, we too may be separated from our loved ones in their final hours. Or maybe we simply wish to help those many strangers around the world who are dying alone. We can still offer spiritual aid from afar! Here, along with others, you can find this traditional prayer that could be incorporated into daily devotions both during the pandemic and afterward:
Most Merciful Jesus, lover of souls,
I pray You, by the agony of Your most Sacred Heart,
and by the sorrows of Your Immaculate Mother,
to wash in Your Most Precious Blood,
the sinners of the world who are now in their agony,
and who will die today.
Heart of Jesus,
once in agony,
have mercy on the dying.
While, the current crisis may be our motivation to familiarize ourselves with these prayers they are by no means only useful now. As with spiritual communion we would do well to live in these practices when there is no evident crisis. After all, people die in need of prayers every day. When those deaths do not touch us they are easy to ignore. But they do touch us! As members of one mystical body we ought to be holding up our brothers and sisters in prayer even when we have never met.
As Catholics in fact, our duty to the dying continues beyond the moment of death. Another prayer that ought to be in regular use in every Catholic home is the Eternal Rest. Many of the resources in this article also include prayers for immediately following death and others can be found for anniversaries of death.
None of us ever knows when we will be called out of this world or whether we will be there when another is called. We pray in every Hail Mary for a good death. We pray to St. Joseph for one. But sadly, it is not always the case that we die accompanied by a priest even in the ordinary way of things. If I print out my little commendation of the dying, or better yet memorize it, for this pandemic and never use it, perhaps my moment to offer some small comfort will come in ten years or twenty, or tomorrow passing a car accident. He comes like a thief in the night and we would all do well to be prepared, both to face our own death, but also to help another face theirs.
St. Joseph, Patron of a Good Death, Pray for us.