VIATICUM: COMMUNION OF THE DYING
From the earliest years of the Christian Church, people who are dying have received absolution and communion. This final communion is called viaticum, from the Latin word meaning ‘provision for a journey’. It is food for the journey from this world to eternity.
According to Canon Law, “Christ’s faithful who are in danger of death, from whatever cause, are to be strengthened by Holy Communion as viaticum”. (Canon 921)
The Catechism says of viaticum: “Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of ‘passing over’ to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection.” (CCC 1524)
Whenever it is possible, dying Christians should be able to receive viaticum within Mass. In this way, they share fully, in the final moments of their life, in the eucharistic sacrifice which proclaims the Lord’s own passing from death to life. However, circumstances such as physical location or medical condition often make the celebration of Eucharist impossible, in which case the rite for viaticum outside Mass is appropriate.
This rite follows a similar pattern to that of Communion in Ordinary Circumstances: Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the word, Liturgy of Viaticum and Concluding Rites.
A distinctive feature of the celebration of viaticum, whether within or outside Mass, is the renewal of the baptismal profession of faith by the dying person. This occurs after the homily and replaces the usual profession of faith. The form echoes the Christian’s first profession of faith which is renewed every Easter. In the context of viaticum, it is a renewal and fulfilment of initiation into the Christian mysteries, with baptism leading to the Eucharist.
The rite includes a litany after the baptismal profession of faith which consists of three invocations to Christ each followed by, “For our brother/sister, Lord, we pray”.
As an indication that the reception of the Eucharist by the dying Christian is a pledge of resurrection and food for the passage to death, the special words proper to viaticum are added when communion is given: “May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life”.
The dying person and all present may receive communion under both kinds. The sign of communion is richer when received in this manner because it expresses more fully the nature of the Eucharist as a meal which prepares all who take part in it for the heavenly banquet (General Instruction of the Roman Missal # 281). In some cases, the sick person may not be able to swallow the host but can receive Christ under the form of wine alone.
If the wine is consecrated at another Mass, some of the precious blood is kept in a properly covered vessel and placed in the tabernacle. It is carried to the sick person in a container which avoids all danger of spillage. Any precious blood remaining after communion is consumed by the minister.
The rite of viaticum concludes with the sign of peace. The minister and all present embrace the dying Christian. This and other parts of the liturgy openly embody both a sense of leave-taking and the joy of Christian hope which is the comfort and strength of the one near death.