Question: May a non-Catholic ever be given the anointing of the sick and the last rites, especially if there is no minister of his own church available?
— Ann Corless, Green Valley, Ariz.
Answer: The answer to this question is yes. Before the Second Vatican Council, this was not possible; however, as a result of the council, the Catholic Church made some modifications in its outlook and practice on this matter.
In the 1967 Vatican Directory Concerning Ecumenical Matters: Part One, we read as follows: “Celebration of the sacraments is an action of the celebrating community, carried out within the community, signifying the oneness of faith, worship and life of the community. Where this unity of sacramental faith is deficient, the participation of the separated brethren [non-Catholics] with Catholics, especially in the Sacraments of the Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick, is forbidden. Nevertheless, since the sacraments are both signs of unity and sources of grace ... the Church can for adequate reasons allow access to those sacraments to a separated brother. This may be permitted in danger of death or an urgent need (during persecution, in prisons) if the separated brother has no access to a minister of his own communion, and spontaneously asks a Catholic priest for the sacraments — so long as he declares a faith in these sacraments in harmony with that of the [Catholic] Church, and is rightly disposed” (No. 55).
It is not unusual nowadays for the inactive Protestant spouse of a devout Catholic to ask for the anointing and the last rites (prayers for the Commendation of the Dying), especially in hospitals — and where no Protestant minister is available.
Question: Some time ago my daughter-in-law (who has never been baptized into any church) talked to my pastor about becoming Catholic. He told her that as part of the process she would have to receive some exorcisms. She was shocked. Can you shed some light on this? Or did she misunderstand?
— Name and city withheld
Answer: Your daughter-in-law did not misunderstand what your pastor said. However, it is clear that the communication between the two was incomplete. While the Church has a rite for a major exorcism that responds to extraordinary situations of serious diabolical possession (and is used only in very restricted circumstances), there also exist minor exorcisms as part of the process of preparation for baptism — both for infants and adults.
These rites are somewhat hampered by their name — exorcism — as this conjures up in most people’s minds dramatic scenes of colorful and hellish struggles with Satan. But the primary purpose of exorcism is the invocation of the Holy Spirit — so that the spirit of evil may be cast out.
The exorcisms that are part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) take place primarily after the homily on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent. Their positive nature is described in the RCIA as follows: “In the rite of exorcism ... which is celebrated by a priest or a deacon, the elect [those preparing for baptism] are freed from the effects of sin and from the influence of the devil. They now receive new strength in the midst of their spiritual journey and they open their hearts to receive the gifts of the Savior” (No. 144).
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.