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SOAPBOX: Last Rites; Against Death (So Present, So Often), the Shield That Remains Is Community and Love: A Priest's Story


ON a recent Sunday afternoon, on returning to the parish house after the baptism of a baby, I asked our receptionist if there had been any calls. "Yes," she said. "A young man might be dying today or in a few days. Could a priest stop over?"

Strong contrast. A little one checking into life; someone checking out. And it was a young man. These days, AIDS comes up on the screen.

I returned the call, but the person who answered was uncertain. "Who was it who called you? You didn't get a name? Well, I don't know who would have called for a priest. Let me see."

How different from years past! Then, anyone who answered would have known. Frequently you'd be greeted at the apartment door by a spouse or son or daughter holding a lighted candle. Everyone there would withdraw from the bedroom while the sick person confessed to the priest, then regroup around the bed for the anointing of the sick and the administration of Communion.

Calls on the dying at home are more infrequent today. Most bedside ministry takes place in hospitals, surrounded by the blinking lights and pinging sounds of medical technology and far from the patient's home and parish.

Religion and ministry were more public and widely accepted a generation or two ago. The cops always used to come to the rectory with a radio car on the occasion of an imminent or sudden death.

Scenes stick in my mind. Climbing the ladder with the police up the old Third Avenue railroad bridge over the Harlem River to minister to a little boy. After swimming, he had crossed over the tracks and touched the third rail. Trains inched by on either side, people crossing themselves as they looked down at the young body. There was a public sense of passage. Police officers were the acolytes at a passing from one world to another.

I remember a body in a gutted building, water dripping from charred beams, the only light coming from the electric torches of the men of Ladder Company 13. Massive helmets came off. They knelt as they listened. "May the angels lead you into paradise." It was a passing with ceremony and participation.

Back on the phone, the original caller had been found. "Yes, there is a man dying," he said, "but his father is here and has that old superstitious view that if the priest comes and gives the last rites, his son will probably die." I explained a more enlightened view of the anointing of the sick and I said I'd drop over shortly and would emphasize the prayers for a return to health.

At the apartment, I passed through a crowd of people and into the bedroom. Light rock was playing in the background. A woman lay atop the coverlet next to the dying young man, her arm gently around his shoulders. Men and women sat on the bed.

As I gave an impromptu introduction to the sacrament, all those in the apartment, including a bunch of kids, crowded into the room. People were in physical contact with the young man, holding his hand, his knee, his foot. I put my hand on his arm.

In 48 years of priesthood, I have never experienced such a participating congregation at what would shortly be a deathbed. I read portions of St. Paul's message to his beloved Corinthians: "No, we do not play the coward; though the outward part of our nature is being worn down, our inner life is renewed day by day."

What to do about the confession? Clear the room? The decision was made easier because the young man was obviously in no condition for a computerized listing of transgressions or even an approximation of them. He was slipping in and out of awareness, but awareness there was.

So I said to all present, "Have not all of us, myself included, transgressed God's love and law in various ways? Have we not on occasion wounded our fellow human beings?" There was a murmur of assent from all. "And are we not all profoundly sorry for these transgressions?" Again, the murmur of assent from all including the dying man. And then, like refreshing water, the words of absolution over the dying man: "Through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

After the laying on of hands and the placing of oils on forehead and hands, and after a blessing, I rose to a standing position, and there were exclamations of approval and delight from those present -- Christians, Jews and secular New York agnostics.

It was a remarkable deathbed scene filled with life and love. The children and others went up and kissed the dying man on the forehead. The easy rock playing in the background was so appropriate! It was a passing with ceremony and participation.

This plague of AIDS is among us. These innumerable deaths in their untimely and tragic quality, like the little boy who touched the third rail, have brought forth anger and devastation, but they have also brought forth enormous affirmations of love and affection. There is surely something of the face of God in this.


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Information in this article was accurate in February 27, 1994. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.