According to the New York Times, “President Biden, who spent most of [last] week exploring his family lineage in Ireland, broke down in tears … after an impromptu meeting with … the priest who had administered last rites to his son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015.”
Fr. Frank O’Grady is a former U.S. Army chaplain, who gave the last rites to Beau at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
What are the “last rites”?
When a person is homebound, bedridden, or suffering from a severe ailment, Catholics are taught to call the priest. Decades ago the sacrament reserved for the very ill or dying was known as Extreme Unction (last anointing) or more commonly “last rites.”
Today we know it as the Anointing of the Sick, and it is not given exclusively to those who are on their deathbed. It is one of the seven sacraments and invokes God’s divine aid for those suffering in a physical way.
While it was once common to make sure a priest was at the deathbed of our loved ones, this practice is now too often forgotten. And yet, while there is sometimes little that can be done for a dying person’s body, there is so much that can be done for the person’s soul!
4 Amazing effects
The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists four profound effects of this sacrament:
1520A particular gift of the Holy Spirit. The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death. This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will. Furthermore, “if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”
1521Union with the passion of Christ. By the grace of this sacrament the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.
1522An ecclesial grace. The sick who receive this sacrament, “by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,” “contribute to the good of the People of God.” By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, through the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father.
1523A preparation for the final journey. If the sacrament of anointing of the sick is given to all who suffer from serious illness and infirmity, even more rightly is it given to those at the point of departing this life; so it is also called sacramentum exeuntium (the sacrament of those departing). The Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it. It completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life: that of Baptism which sealed the new life in us, and that of Confirmation which strengthened us for the combat of this life. This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house.
A particular blessing for the most sacred moment
During the course of the same illness the sacrament can be repeated if the illness becomes worse. If the sick person gets better, they can receive this sacrament again in the case of another grave illness.
Within this sacrament, as a person draws closer to the doors of death, there is one blessing in particular that the Church reserves for this most sacred moment: the Apostolic Pardon. It is a pardon that can be given by any priest and has the special power of removing all temporal punishment due to sin.
The “last rites” are a beautiful sacrament meant to speed the penitent soul to the gates of Heaven. It does not guarantee someone will go straight to Heaven, but it clears everything off the road, so to speak, so that the soul can freely choose to run toward the arms of Jesus.