|Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick|
I am telling this story second hand, but it's such an extraordinary illustration of God working through matter (another name for the Sacraments) that it has vividly stuck with me through the years. A good friend of mine, Hannah Carter, was at the bedside of her dying father who was in hospice in a city far from where she lived. Hannah didn't know any of the priests in the area, so she called a local parish to ask for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. A priest came, hurriedly did some kind of ceremony that only took a few minutes and left. Hannah had never been present at an Anointing of the Sick before, but she felt uneasy, almost as though her father had not received "the Last Rites." She called another parish priest. When this priest arrived, he performed a lengthy ritual over her father which included something called "The Commendation of the Dying" (not the "Condemnation of the Dying," ha ha). http://www.ibreviary.com/m/preghiere.php?tipo=Rito&id=371
The Commendation is various biblical and deliverance prayers and litanies that recount "from death to life" Scripture passages. Since her father was unconscious, the priest wasn't able to administer Holy Communion or Confession, but forgiveness is invoked in the prayers as well as a final blessing.
After the Sacrament, Hannah was about to rush back to the side of her father to hold his hand and comfort him as she had been doing, but the hospice nurses held her back. "Wait," they instructed, having seen this many times before: "he's going to respond to the Sacrament." "What? What do you mean?" Hannah asked, confused. "Your father is going to respond to the Sacrament. Either he will take a turn for the better for a while, or he will be released." Sure enough, her father's puckered brow and permanent look of consternation relaxed into a peaceful countenance. He drew one last enormous breath and exhaled every last bit of it as he died. Hannah was at once saddened, relieved and astonished.
The more I study John Paul II's Theology of the Body, the more I see how concrete our God is, what a materialist He is. (He must love matter because He made so much of it, and it's not going away. Rather, there will be a "new heavens and a new earth," Revelation 21).
John Paul II says in his Theology of the Body that "the spousal meaning of the body is completed by the redemptive meaning on the different roads of life and in different situations: not only in marriage or...virginity, celibacy, but also...in the many kinds of human suffering, indeed, in man's very birth and death" (TOB 102:8). JP2 did not take up these last two themes in his masterwork, but others have built on it. A new book is entitled "Theology of the Body Extended: the Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment and Dying."
There can be so much fear surrounding the certain prospect of our own death. But we must trust in the One who loves us and Who accompanies us in the person of His priest, "another Christ," administering the Sacraments at our major life-events: hatched, matched and dispatched.
It is said that the last words of Pope John Paul II were mumbled weakly in Polish, as he struggled to breathe and swallow: “Let me go to the house of the Father.” Six hours later, in a comatose state, Karol Wojtyla the Great died.