Fasting during Lent; status of last rites

| Father Kenneth Doyle | March 15, 2016 | 0 Comments

Q. On the two obligatory days of fasting, I do fast, but I sometimes wait until just after midnight and then satisfy my hunger with an amount of food not in keeping with the notion of fasting. While I believe I am meeting the letter of my obligation, I am not sure that I am honoring its spirit. What sort of guidance would you offer?

A. The Catholic Church, it seems to me, is rather modest in the dietary discipline it asks from believers. As you note, there are only two days of fasting on the Church’s calendar: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On those days, Catholics are to limit themselves to only one full (and meatless) meal.

Some food can be taken at the other regular meal times, but that food (combined) should not equal a full meal. Liquids are permitted at any time, but no solid food should be taken between meals.

The discipline of fasting governs only those between the ages of 18 and 59, and it does not apply to anyone for whom it might create a health risk — for example, the sick or the frail, pregnant or nursing women — or even to guests at a meal who cannot fast without offending the host.

We fast, of course, to unite ourselves to Christ and to the burdens he endured on our behalf. Logically, then, this fasting should result in some sacrifice on our part. In your case, I believe that you are being faithful to the letter and the spirit of the law (assuming that after midnight you are not being gluttonous). The fact that you do struggle later in the day means that it does cost you something — not to mention the fact that you need to stay up so late to satisfy your hunger!

Q. A few years ago, we lost a son who was 50 years old. We had called his parish priest to administer last rites. When the priest arrived at the hospital, our son had already passed. When we asked about the last rites, he told us that they don’t do the last rites anymore. Did I miss something, or am I misinformed?

A. The last rites have not been eliminated. What many Catholics do not understand, though, is that the “last rites” encompass several sacraments, including penance (confession of sins), viaticum (holy Communion given as food for the journey to eternal life) and the anointing of the sick. Ideally, those sacraments should be administered when the recipient is aware and able to benefit most.

What the priest was probably trying to explain was that, like all the sacraments, anointing is given only to the living. The word “sacrament” means “sign,” a sign of Christ’s presence. But after death, the person is already meeting Christ face to face.

As Canon No. 1005 in the Code of Canon Law indicates, though, the sacrament of anointing may still be administered if there is doubt as to whether death has occurred.

If the person has already died, the priest instead chooses from the prayers for the deceased in his ritual book (“Pastoral Care of the Sick”).

What is particularly troublesome to parish priests is that families often wait until the last minute before calling a priest. This is due, in part, to the fact that the sacrament of anointing of the sick used to be called “extreme unction.” But the clear teaching of the Church is that someone does not have to be “in extremis” (i.e., in imminent danger of dying).

Canon No. 1004 provides that “the anointing of the sick can be administered to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of reason, begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.” The ritual itself designates as proper recipients, “a sick person . . . before surgery, whenever the surgery is necessitated by a dangerous illness,” as well as “elderly people . . . if they are weak, though not dangerously ill.”

What many forget is that the first purpose of anointing is to bring about healing, physically and spiritually. (See Jas 5:14-15.)

If, instead, it be the will of God that the person soon die, the prayer of anointing asks that the person be relieved of suffering and feel the power and peace of God. The sacrament should be administered when it can do the most good, so the rule of thumb is: Call the priest sooner rather than later.

Father Doyle writes for Catholic News Service. A priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York, he previously served as director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Questions may be sent to Father Doyle at and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.

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