Last Rites -- What takes place and why is it performed?


Hello all,
I am a protestant inquirer who is interested in knowing more about what takes place during Catholic Last Rites and what its significance is in Catholicism. I assume it a special prayer for the person’s soul and to prepare him/her for death in some way.

I assume that it takes place for a Catholic who is at or near death and involves a priest performing a special set of things, but I have little or no knowledge of the specifics, or what spiritual benefits the dying person receives from it. I assume the absolution of sins is involved, but that is just a guess on my part.

My only background involves Father Mulcahy on the old TV series MASH making the sign of the cross and doing other unspecified things for soldiers who were at death’s door.

Follow up question: Can last Rites be performed on someone who recently died or do they have to be alive and conscious? Does the recipient have to be Catholic?

Thanks in advance for your help in better understanding what takes place during Last Rites.


Hi Tommy,

Although God can and does give us grace directly, he instituted sacraments in keeping with our nature. We especially need grace when we are at death’s door, because at that time we are particularly weak, and the devil tries to tempt us all the more, as it is his last chance.

For this reason three sacraments are given to someone presumed near death, to make sure we are in a state of grace, to give us strength in our last struggle, to heal our soul’s wounds, and if God wills it, to heal also the body. These sacraments are: Penance (a.k.a. Confession or Reconciliation), Extreme Unction (a.k.a. Anointing of the Sick), and Holy Communion.

“Last rites” cannot be performed on a dead person, because “last rites” includes Penance and Holy Communion. But the Anointing can be given even a few minutes after death, since we don’t know exactly when the soul leaves the body, i.e. whether it coincides exactly with what doctors judge to be “clinical death”.

I believe that in special cases last rites could be given to a non-Catholic who is validly baptized, but certain conditions would have to be met. If you really want to know details on this, someone can refer you to the relevant canons, etc.


Thanks, Ad Orientem. I was thinking about the timing of things because I could see the potential for a priest to not necessarily arrive at a hospital in time or to an accident scene right away and that the person might die before the priest arrives.

Also, if the person is alive but unconscious or in a coma but is considered likely to die, would just the anointing part be performed but not the reconciliation and holy communion?
Just curious. Thanks again for the reply.


The person must be alive but not conscious, and must be a validly baptized Christian, but normally a Catholic.(See Canon 844)
CIC Canon 844, §1. Catholic ministers administer the sacraments licitly to Catholic members of the Christian faithful alone, who likewise receive them licitly from Catholic ministers alone.
CIC Canon 844, §4. If the danger of death is present or if, in the judgment of the diocesan bishop or conference of bishops, some other grave necessity urges it, Catholic ministers administer these same sacraments licitly also to other Christians not having full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who seek such on their own accord, provided that they manifest Catholic faith in respect to these sacraments and are properly disposed.

These rites are three sacraments of Penance, Anointing of the Sick, and the Holy Eucharist. The Anointing of the Sick may be* given to a member of the faithful who, having reached the use of *reason begins to be in danger due to sickness or old age.

If the faithful is conscious and not in a state of grace, then the sacrament of Penance is necessary before giving Anointing of the Sick and the Holy Eucharist.

If the faithful is not conscious then there are some other considerations that I will not detail here, that determine is the sacraments may or may not be given.

There is also the Apostolic blessing (with plenary indulgence) at the hour of death that may be given, as part of the Anointing of the Sick.


1499 “By the sacred anointing of the sick and the prayer of the priests the whole Church commends those who are ill to the suffering and glorified Lord, that he may raise them up and save them. And indeed she exhorts them to contribute to the good of the People of God by freely uniting themselves to the Passion and death of Christ.” 98

A sacrament of the sick

1511 The Church believes and confesses that among the seven sacraments there is one especially intended to strengthen those who are being tried by illness, the Anointing of the Sick:[INDENT] This sacred anointing of the sick was instituted by Christ our Lord as a true and proper sacrament of the New Testament. It is alluded to indeed by Mark, but is recommended to the faithful and promulgated by James the apostle and brother of the Lord.125
1512** From ancient times in the liturgical traditions of both East and West, we have testimonies to the practice of anointings of the sick with blessed oil. Over the centuries the Anointing of the Sick was conferred more and more exclusively on those at the point of death. Because of this it received the name “Extreme Unction.” Notwithstanding this evolution the liturgy has never failed to beg the Lord that the sick person may recover his health if it would be conducive to his salvation.126

1513 The Apostolic Constitution Sacram unctionem infirmorum,127 following upon the Second Vatican Council,128 established that henceforth, in the Roman Rite, the following be observed: The sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given to those who are seriously ill by anointing them on the forehead and hands with duly blessed oil - pressed from olives or from other plants - saying, only once: "Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up."129

In case of grave illness . . .

1514 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."130

1515 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.


Very helpful, Vico. Much obliged. :tiphat:


In cases where the priest is not sure if the person is alive or dead (remember, the definition here is that the soul has left the body, not that a doctor has pronounced someone legally dead) the priest still anoints, but he says “If you are still alive…” and then does the anointing.

Also, if the person is alive but unconscious or in a coma but is considered likely to die, would just the anointing part be performed but not the reconciliation and holy communion?
Just curious. Thanks again for the reply.

Certainly not Communion, because there’s really no way to administer Communion to someone in a coma. The priest can still absolve the person, so long as he has reason to believe that he wants to be absolved, and would confess his sins if able. Same with Anointing.


To start, we have to understand the distinction between “Last Rites” and other circumstances. “Anointing of the Sick” is not the same thing as “Last Rites” although the terms are often confused—yes, by Catholics!

The Last Rites are for the dying. The Last Rites (note the plural) are:

  1. Confession
  2. Anointing of the Sick (the Sacrament of Unction)
  3. Holy Communion (in this case, it’s called “Viaticum” which means food for the journey)
  4. The Apostolic Pardon at the time of death.

1 through 3 are Sacraments. The Apostolic Pardon is a special prayer remitting the temporal punishment due to sin.

It’s not necessary for one to be literally dying for the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. In fact, if possible, that should be done before the person reaches that point. When that happens (as it should) then the term Last Rites does not apply.

The term “Last Rites” is used only in cases where they are indeed the very last rites of the Church that the person will receive before death.

If you really want to know what the fictional Father Mulcahy would have done, that’s easy. Here’s a link:

Even though the TV series took place a decade before that book, for all practical purposes, that’s exactly what was done during the Korean War (except that it was done all in Latin at the time).

The link is only for Anointing of the Sick. Just go to the index to see the sections on Confession, Communion and the Apostolic Pardon.


Thanks, FrDavid96. I just read the link. Looks like it gets pretty involved and specific. Like Paul Harvey used to say, now I know the rest of the story. Much appreciated.


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