From the days when I was trained to be a priest in the seminary, we were reminded of a rather important consideration: the sacraments of the Church are intended for the living.
Being in close proximity to a hospital and several facilities for the aging, we receive a significant number of requests to visit people in the hospital and nursing homes. Some people call asking for the last rites for their loved one. Others call for a priest to hear their confession or to bring them Holy Communion. Unfortunately, there seems to be a great variety in the levels of understanding—and even some confusion—regarding when a priest should be called to visit a patient/resident.
As a general rule of thumb, whenever there is an emergency, call for the priest immediately. Tragedies such as car accidents, heart attacks, strokes and any unforeseen grave situation should prompt an immediate call for a priest. Please realize, however, that most priests lead a busy daily schedule and are not usually sitting around just waiting for an emergency call. We try to act promptly, but sometimes we are in a meeting, teaching in the school, hearing a confession, answering an important phone message, etc., and may not be able to drop everything we are doing instantly. If we hear that it is an emergency situation, we will do our best to respond as soon as possible.
If a patient is terminally ill or in a hospice situation, it is certainly appropriate to call for the priest to administer the last rites. The last rites of the Church include the opportunity for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (confession), Holy Communion (Viaticum), and the Anointing of the Sick (formerly Extreme Unction). Ideally, these sacraments can be most beneficial when the person is conscious and is able to respond. Please do not wait until the person is at the point of death or unconscious before calling for the priest, especially if the illness is prolonged. The sacraments are available to bring spiritual consolation and comfort to the patient. Remember, the sacraments are intended for the living.
Additionally, there are times when a person should ask for the Anointing of the Sick. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Anointing of the Sick "is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived."
If a sick person who received this anointing recovers his health, he can in the case of another grave illness receive this sacrament again. If during the same illness the person's condition becomes more serious, the sacrament may be repeated. It is fitting to receive the Anointing of the Sick just prior to a serious operation. The same holds for the elderly whose frailty becomes more pronounced. (#1514 & 1515)
It is not unusual to find some people unwilling to request this sacrament for themselves or to hesitate to ask for it for their family member because of fear of sending the message that death is imminent. This sacrament, in conjunction with the reception of Holy Communion and a sacramental confession, may be a great spiritual consolation and a means of healing for the sick or elderly person. Again, the sacraments are intended for the living.
In those difficult circumstances when the person has already died when the priest arrives, the priest is certainly available to pray for the deceased and to help to comfort the family.
Fr. Ed Namiotka