A Roman Catholic Perspective

Monsignor Peter R. Beaulieu, M.A., S.T.L.

A project to assist medical professionals, patients and families in understanding Roman Catholic teaching on the quality of life and other moral issues. This is a work in progress.  Please check periodically for updates.


Illness is the common ailment of humanity, though most forms of illness entail suffering, they are usually not fatal. So, while Anointing of the Sick “is the proper sacrament for those Christians whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age” (PCS, n.97), when the prospect of dying becomes apparent, the reception of Communion as Viaticum is the “last sacrament of Christian life” (PCS, n.175). Anointing places the emphasis upon “the struggle against illness,” whereas viaticum “places the emphasis on trust in the Lord’s promise of eternal life.”

Development of the Notion of Viaticum

In ancient Greece, when someone was preparing to set out on a journey, the custom prevailed of giving the travelers a supper called a hodoiporion. At that feast, all the provisions and paraphernalia necessary for the trip were given, too, which were called ephodion (Gk. εφόδιον). The Latinized version of those two Greek words was the adjective viaticus that could be used to describe whatever pertained to a particular road or to an upcoming journey. Eventually, this term came to be applied to the ultimate journey—dying in Christ.

The Rite of Viaticum

Evidence of the importance of receiving Viaticum as food for the journey to heavenly life is that the Eucharistic fast is abrogated and the rule forbidding receiving Communion more than once a day, too. Formerly, the reception of viaticum was a precept that legally bound the dying to do so; however, the revised Codex Iuris Canonici uses exhortatory language to urge the faithful to receive “food for the journey,” if they are in danger of death. However, liturgical law preserves the obligation to do so: “all baptized Christians who can receive communion are bound to receive viaticum” (PCS, n.237).The ideal setting for the dying to receive viaticum is within the celebration of the Eucharist, though, more than likely, it will take place in circumstances that do not allow for the complete rite to take place that way. One of the distinctive features of the reception of viaticum is the renewal of the baptismal profession of faith. In one of his writings before being elected Pope, then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “The content of the Christian faith has its inalienable place in the context of the profession of faith which is...in the form of assent and renunciation, a conversion, an about-turn of human existence into a new direction of life” (Introduction to Christianity, p. 96). So, in renewing the promises that were originally made in baptism, the person who is approaching death assents to belief in the Holy Trinity, the Church and life eternal, while renouncing Satan and the empty promises of fleeting joy. Baptismal faith, then, leads to communion with Christ, the living Bread. The second distinctive feature of Viaticum is that this sacred nourishment is taken to be “a pledge of resurrection and food for the passage through death,” so that there are these unique words used by the priest or deacon, after someone has received communion as viaticum: “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life.” This last rite, then, seeks divine help so that the Lord “may lighten their suffering and save them,” as well as contribute to the “welfare of the whole people of God by associating themselves freely with the passion and death of Christ” (Lumen gentium, n.11).

Continuous Rite—Rite for Emergencies & Initiation

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council sought to have a continuous rite established (SC, n. 74), where in exceptional circumstances (PCS, n.232: sudden illness or an accident results in an immediate or proximate prospect of death) the sick may be anointed after confessing their sins and, then, receive communion as viaticum. Adjustments must be made in the variety of situations that cause unexpected, life-threatening trauma: In grave situations, confession can be generic, with only a single anointing and, then, viaticum; whereas in extreme situations, pastoral preference is ascribed to viaticum, even more so than anointing the sick. For the actively dying person who has not been confirmed and the bishop is not readily available, any priest can confirm the dying before anointing. The term last rites nor only refers to receiving the last anointing, but also to confessing our sins and receiving Holy Communion as Viaticum. People should realize that, normally, Anointing is for those who are seriously ill or so advanced in age as to be debilitated , but last communion is the sacrament for the dying. Receiving Viaticum should be seen as the culmination of all life because the Eucharist is the source of life, as well as the simultaneous presence of the total mystery of Christ.

Print version