The day after Mother’s Day I was called to the hospital. The mother of two teenage children “was not long for this world,” I was told, and could I get right down to give her the last rites? It took a little time getting through all the covid screening, and then the ICU nurse wasn’t sure if I could be admitted unless someone left the room, but finally I got inside. The woman was propped up in bed with her children and husband nearby, breathing softly, with eyes closed. Her older child was having a really difficult time accepting the situation. “How could God do this to her … to us … to me?” I tried to reassure her that nothing God permits is meaningless, but it would take time and effort to find meaning in this very difficult experience.
I asked her family if she was still able to hear. “No,” the older child said, “she’s been unresponsive for a few days.” Nevertheless, I bent to her ear and said “my name is Fr. Joseph. I’m a Catholic priest and I’ve brought you the sacraments.” She made no movement. When the woman’s sister arrived I began the sacramental liturgy.
As I was praying the litany of saints, she gently stopped breathing. The older child looked at her mother, confused. She couldn’t believe what was happening. I glanced up at the monitor to see that all her vitals were flatlined. An alarm went off softly, and two nurses came in. They nodded quietly and I kept praying the litany. I pronounced the Apostolic Pardon with an unsteady voice, and I administered the Holy Oils with an unsteady hand. I began to cry myself as her family dissolved into uncontrollable weeping.
The younger child exclaimed, through his tears, that it was a miracle. God had provided the priest just in time! Her husband grasped my arm: “She held on until you brought her the sacraments! She made it to heaven!” And indeed, I’ve seen this four or five times over the last 30 years. Twenty years ago I was anointing a man when he flatlined, and the nurse came in to turn off the alarms. I expressed concern, but she replied matter-of-factly that he had “died” three times earlier that day, but each time he had revived. “This time,” she assured me, “he would not come back. We often see patients who will simply not die until they get the sacraments.”
Back in the ICU room on Monday: I stayed a few more minutes in respect for the family and for the dead. Then I quietly slipped past the nurses. Both were Filipinos, and I suppose both were believers. They thanked me with their eyes, and I thanked them with my eyes, and we all thanked God that Sister Death had come so gently to this woman. It would be very hard for her husband and children, but God would be with them. Back on the street outside the hospital, I climbed onto my scooter for home. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. “Take this mother’s hand and lead her safely over the waters of death, into the presence of God!”
The above comes from a May 11 posting on Father Joseph Illo’s blog.