I am sure that I have made mention in past columns how the most powerful and meaningful times in my life as priest are when I am visiting the dying, in particular when I am anointing them and bringing them Communion.
|Father Richard Kunst
You can ask pretty much any priest who has been around awhile what some of his experiences have been while anointing people before their death. I can assure you that the priest will have much to say. These are experiences in which time and eternity are mysteriously interlinked. Often the person who is dying is having conversations and in some cases even seeing loved ones who have long been gone. Now, in some cases this could be hallucinations, but I am equally convinced that many really are in both worlds as they approach their final breath.
The beauty of the last sacraments is so evident to those of us who are ministers of them. A case in point which happened just recently for me is when I went to anoint a woman who was near death, and after I anointed her she kept saying, over and over again, “I am so blessed, I am so blessed, I am so blessed.” She knew in her very fiber what the anointing meant for her as she approached God.
Sometimes, though not all the time, I am able to bring the Eucharist for the dying person. If they are still able to take nutrition, bringing them Communion makes an already powerful sacrament all the more so. There is a word that we use for someone’s last Communion: it is called “Viaticum,” which literally means “food for the journey” — food for their final journey to heaven and God. The Eucharist is the closest we can be to God this side of the grave, so to give Communion to someone who is about to meet God is indeed a powerful thing.
Viaticum is food for the journey to heaven, but isn’t all life really a journey? I actually don’t like that verbiage, because it just seems too much like something that would be said on The Hallmark Channel. I prefer to think of life not as a journey but as a pilgrimage, because our destination is a holy place, namely heaven. And as on any journey or pilgrimage, we need food for along the way: physical food for bodily sustenance and spiritual food for our immortal soul’s sustenance.
In all instances in the Gospels, the miraculous multiplication of the loaves to feed the large crowds are signs and symbols of the Eucharist. In Matthew’s Gospel, after John the Baptist is killed Jesus withdrew by boat to get away from the people so as to have some time alone with his disciples, but the Gospel says, “The crowds heard of it and followed him on foot from the towns” (14:13). After spending the rest of the day with them as evening drew near the Gospel continues with, “… the disciples came to him with the suggestion: ‘This is a deserted place and it is already late. Dismiss the crowds so that they may go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them: ‘Give them something to eat yourselves’” (14:15-16).
The point Matthew is making in this passage is that the crowds needed to be fed as they were journeying to see Jesus, and Jesus saw to their nourishment. Well, if all of life is a journey or a pilgrimage towards heaven, then we need to be nourished at all times as well. Our greatest spiritual nourishment is always the Eucharist; it is truly our food for the journey, it is our Viaticum.
And yet there are so many people who do not partake of this necessary sustenance or partake of it rarely. Christmas and Easter Masses are always overflowing because so many people only come to Mass twice a year. How can reception of the Eucharist twice a year sustain us? It can’t.
But let’s “up” the analogy a bit. Can eating once a week sustain our body? Probably, but not very well. If we were given the chance to eat physical food more than once a week we would all take it. We eat every day to keep our bodies working and healthy. Why would it be any different for our souls than it is for our bodies?
I have always been a big proponent for weekday Mass attendance. We will have no clue as to how good it is for our soul to go to daily Mass until we get to heaven.
Now, I fully realize that for some people this is impossible, but there are people who are reading this column who may be retired or have a work schedule that would allow such a practice. I encourage you to give it a try, since most all parishes have a daily Mass schedule. We all need Viaticum, we all need food for the journey, as we are on our way to God.
That food is available every day.
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].