Part 1 Introduction

Chapter s12 Introduction
to12:639 Ministry to the Sick, Dying and Bereaved

This page contains the general introductory materials for the 2014 12:425 Ministry to the Sick, Dying and Bereaved, taught at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.  The general introduction to my courses and teaching method can be found at Chapter d12  General Introduction To Fr. Tom's Courses    Please study the general page first, especially if this is your first course with me. 


Preliminary Considerations

My Background For Teaching This Course

Notes on the Reading Assignments

Recommended Reading

Questions of Fact / Deep Questions


Part I:  Ministry to the Sick and Dying

Part II:  Ministry to the Bereaved and the Dead

Rational for Teaching this Course

1.  "What is the shortest verse in the Bible?"  This is often a trivia question in parlor games.  However, the verse itself is far from trivia; it gives us a key insight into Jesus, and thus, into God:   "Jesus wept."  (John 11:35)

2.  When we read the Gospels, on nearly every page we find Jesus healing, curing, even raising the dead to life.  Jesus is the "sacrament" (visible sign/revelation) of a compassionate God.  And, on the evening of the first day of the week, after rising from the dead, "Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you.' After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' " (John 20:19-21).  We are "sent" to be agents of healing and ambassadors of reconciliation (see:  2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

3.  "Suffering and illness have always been among the greatest problems that trouble the human spirit. Christians feel and experience pain as do all other people; yet their faith helps them to grasp more deeply the mystery of suffering and to bear their pain with greater courage. From Christ's words they know that sickness has meaning and value for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world. They also know that Christ, who during his life often visited and healed the sick, loves them in their illness." (Pastoral Care of the Sick, #1)  Suffering and death are among the greatest of life's mysteries. 

 In this seminar we want to explore the mysteries of suffering and death so that (1) we might come to a deeper understanding of this mystery, and (2) we might be less anxious in the face of suffering and death; (3) we can assist others who are confronted with these mysteries; and (4) help others prepare for this ministry.

4.  The seminar has two parts:  1)  Ministry to the Sick and Dying, and 2) Ministry to the Dead and the Bereaved.  Each part of the course will have five focus areas:  1) Experience, 2) History, 3) The Rites, 4) Theology, and 5) Ministry.

5.  The ministry to the sick and bereaved is central to the work of a priest and lay minister.  To exercise this ministry well, one needs to know not only the rites and their history and their theology, but also to be in touch with one's own attitudes and feelings toward sickness and death.   (These attitudes / feelings often are rooted in the sub-conscious and are difficult to examine).  

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Preliminary Considerations

During the time assigned for this seminar  we will study and discuss our ministry to the sick, dying, dead, and bereaved. At first glance, this seminar may not seem as "central" or as "important" as the courses on the Eucharist, Trinity, or Fundamental Moral Theology; but, looking deeper, this seminar considers two of the most troubling mysteries of human existence: suffering and death.

While in this modern, technological culture -- where almost anything is possible [we can walk on the moon!] -- why do we still suffer?  If God is loving, all good, and all powerful, why does God permit suffering? Does God want us to suffer?  And why do we die?  What happens at death?  Is death the end or is there "life" after death? 

During the seminar we will struggle with these mysteries. While we cannot "answer" these questions, we can (and must) come to some insights and conclusions which will help us ground our pastoral practice. This is, perhaps, the main hoped for outcome of the seminar.

"They will know we are Christians by our care and concern for one another..."   At the time of sickness and/or death this agape is especially important. (In my 50 years of pastoral experience, it is in these situations where priestly ministryand compassion is appreciated the most!) 

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'" (Matthew 25:31-36 NAB)

Facts / Skills

During the seminar we will hopefully learn some "facts":  the structure and elements of the rituals, the history of their celebration, the laws surrounding these rituals, etc.

It is important to note at the very beginning of the course that "knowing the facts" is not the whole picture.  Ministry is an art.  Liturgy is an art.  Learning an art requires practice, practice, practice (and practice under supervision).   Simply "following the rules" is not enough.

"Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects."  (Constitution on the Liturgy, #11)

This "something more" is the art.  We cannot expect to become great "artists" through one course!  But I hope that this course (in conjunction with courses in pastoral care and counseling, CPE, etc.) helps you to acquire these skills required for the art of ministry.

The Iceberg Metaphor

While it would seem that a group of dedicated Christians who are eager to improve the quality of their ministry to the sick and the bereaved would have much in common and would be friendly and supportive companions on the journey, this is not always the case. On our journey we carry a lot of mental "presuppositions" and "baggage" -- some of it necessary, some of it not so necessary, but all of it "unseen" and frequently "unrealized." The iceberg metaphor has been helpful for many to understand this reality.

Often things that are not said and not discussed are the determining factors in our pastoral practice. Imagine, for example, four ministers are considering how best to comfort a dying person. Each of them presumes that they are looking at the same pastoral situation and coming to it from the same Catholic background and theological understanding. And while nothing is said about these issues explicitly, one believes that when we die we go to purgatory; another believes that there is so much sin in the world that most people go to hell and only a few are saved; another believes that the important thing is this life and death is the end of that life, and another believes that God, as a loving parent, loves all of his children and takes them all to heaven with him when they die. These unarticulated presuppositions will influence their discussion and may even lead to a heated confrontation.

In your work, you may have the opportunity to train persons who volunteer for this ministry of visiting the sick and consoling the bereaved and who come with great generosity, but with little understanding of the changes that have taken place during the past 50 years in our understanding of sacramental theology, ministry, the Bible, Church, and even our understanding of God!  Their unexamined presumptions and conclusions will influence their ministerial practice.

The Flat Earth Metaphor

There was a time when most people believed that the earth was flat while the scientists who studied the stars and the planets and their movement came to the conclusion that the earth was round. For most people this did not make any difference; for a long while no one ever traveled more than 15 miles from their home. Even for most of those who were captains of sailing ships, it did not make much difference. For those ship captains who were going to venture far out into the ocean, there was a special set of rules so that they would not get too close to the edge and fall off and end up in the abyss and never come back -- and indeed many vessels never came back.

But once those who believed that the earth was round begin to teach in the "How to Be a Sea Captain School" the curriculum changed. Many things stayed the same (e.g. how to predict a storm, how to read the stars), but some things that were very important before were no longer taught (e.g. how to keep from falling off the edge of the earth). Much of what was in the traditional "How to Be a Sea Captain" textbooks was still valid; but some chapters were now out of date. Still, if you were simply the captain of a fishing boat on an inland lake, the "new geography" didn't seem to make a lot of difference. 

The Bottle Opener Metaphor

There was a time when I frequently needed a bottle opener to open pop/soda bottles and beer bottles, and to poke a triangular hole in the top of juice cans.  Today, when I buy soda or beer it usually comes in a bottle with a twist top or a can with a pull tab opener.  I still have the bottle opener in my kitchen drawer so that it is available when I need it, but I use it much less frequently than formerly.  Some Church doctrines are like that also. 

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My Background For Teaching This Course

1.  Pastoral Experience    From my first experience of Extreme Unction (in 1959) throughout my half century of priestly ministry I have had many positive experiences with the rituals of Anointing and Funerals.

2.  Academic Background  Professor P.-M. Gy, O.P. (my thesis director and principal professor, director of  the Institut Supérieur de Liturgie in Paris when I was a student there, 1971-1976) was one of the principal authors of both of these rituals.

3.  Publications   I have published widely in these areas.

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Notes on the Reading Assignments

1.  The primary "source" is the Church's own prayer.   Lex Orandi ...

2.  The texts by Morrill and Rutherford are the most frequently used texts for this course in seminaries in this country.

3.  The students are to be familiar with those sections of the Documents of Vatican II, the Code of Canon Law, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church which pertain to the Sacrament of Anointing and the Rite of Funerals. 

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Recommended Reading

"Sacrament of Anointing:  The Church's Prayer for the Sick."  DVD 17 min, Franciscan Media DVD, Order # D2093  ($19.95).  Franciscan Media, 1-800-488-0488

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M. "The New Rite for Anointing the Sick." Catholic Update Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1984. Text available at:

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M. Would You Like to be Anointed? Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1987.  [I wrote this pamphlet specifically for older Catholics who are sick and should be anointed but who might be afraid of the sacrament because they still think of it in terms of Extreme Unction and preparation for death.]

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M. Would You Like to be Anointed? (Audio cassette) Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1988.  [On this cassette I read the text of the pamphlet for those who may be too sick to read.]

Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M. "Anointing the Sick: A Parish Sacrament," Catholic Update, Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, January, 1996. C0196.


Beverly S. Gordon.  Toward Acceptance:  Prayers for Dealing With Chronic Illness and Disability.  St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1991 ISBN # 0-8716-167-1 Paper. $3.95.

Susan Borrelli.  With Care:  Reflections of a Minister to the Sick.  Liturgical Training Publications, Archdiocese of Chicago, 1980 $1.90.

James Empereur, S.J.  Prophetic Anointing:  God's Call to the Sick, the Elderly, and the Dying.  Michael Glazier, INC, 1982.  ISBN # 0-89453-233-2.

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Questions of Fact / Deep Questions

Not all questions are alike:  A) There are questions of fact, and there are also B) deep questions.

A) There are questions of fact: the answers to these questions are either true or false. And there are deep questions; questions which do not have easy answers; sometimes the answers to these questions cannot be labeled simply true or false; sometimes an answer and its opposite are both true.

Some questions of fact that we might study during this course on pastoral ministry to the sick, dying, and bereaved:

1. What is the essential formula for the sacrament of anointing of the sick?
2. How sick does one need to be in order to be anointed?
3. What is the difference between healing and a cure?
4. When a priest is ill, are the palms of his hands anointed, or the back of his hands?
5. Who has a right to a Catholic funeral?
6. Can you have a Catholic funeral for Protestants?
7. Can you have a funeral Mass for unbaptized infants and/or children?
8. Etc.

These questions of fact are things that we will study during the course and by the time we are finished you should know how to answer these questions.

B) There are also deep questions that are studied during this course. These questions will not be answered by the time the courses over. These are questions that take a lifetime of reflection. However during the course we want to begin (or continue) thinking about these questions and discovering some of the parameters which can direct and aid our thinking.

1. Why do we have to suffer?  What role does pain and suffering play in our lives?
2. Is there any positive value in suffering?
3. How does the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick produce healing?
4.  Is suffering the result of Original Sin?
5. Why did Jesus (who did not have Original Sin) have to suffer?

6. Why do we die?  Should I be scared of dying? 
7. What happens after we die? Heaven? Hell? Purgatory? Simply nothingness?
8. What is the relationship between physical death and Christian baptism?
9. Is death the result of Original Sin?

10. What would it be like if we never died but our bodies always stayed the same as they are now?
11. What would it be like if nothing died? Would the earth fill up?
12.  Do I have a soul that is distinct from my body?  Am I "me" without my body? Is my risen body a physical body?
13. What will I (my body/person) be like after I rise from the dead?
14. Etc.

When the sacrament is celebrated during the parish Sunday Eucharist, before the liturgy starts one should explain any of the "questions of fact" that the congregation might need to know in order to celebrate actively and fruitfully.  During the homily the homilist should help the congregation grapple with one or more of these "deep questions".

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Part One:  Ministry to the Sick and Dying

Key issues related to the Sacrament of Anointing

1. The Human Person   How do you view the "person"?  There is a shift from the two part body/soul understanding that was the foundation of Extreme Unction.  (The Body had to be gravely ill; the sacrament healed the soul by taking away sin and/or the punishment due to sin. The current ritual prays (Lex Orandi) for healing in body, mind, and spirit.

"Make this oil a remedy for all who are anointed with it;
heal them in body, in soul, and in spirit,
and deliver them from every affliction...."

2.  Health / Illness   What is illness?  What is healing?  What is the difference between being cured and being healed?

3.  Recipient / individual    Who may receive the sacrament?  How sick does one have to be?  What kind of illness?

4.  Recipient / community   Sacraments are primarily acts of worship.  They involve the entire worshiping community / parish.

5.  Minister   Who may lead the sacramental celebration?  Why?

6.  An act of Cult / Praise / Thanksgiving   Regarding the BRK shape:  Who is addressed?  What is remembered?  What is asked for?

7.  The Ritual Act    What are the necessary (essential) elements of the sacramental ritual?

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Part Two:  Ministry to the Dead and Bereaved

Key issues related to the Ministry to the Bereaved and the Rite of Funerals

1.  Theological Issues:  Why do people die?  Is death a punishment due to [original/actual] sin or a natural part of human existence?  What happens to us after we die?  [Questions of judgment, limbo, purgatory, heaven, hell, nothingness, transmigration of souls, etc. How does your answer to this question flow from your understanding of "God"?]  Why did Jesus die?   How does the "mystery of death" flow from or relate to the "mystery of suffering" we studied in part one of this seminar?  Does death have a variety of theological meanings depending on the "type" of death (e.g. natural death after a long life, sudden death in the prime of life, violent death, murder, death of an infant, suicide, etc? 

2.  Canonical Issues:  Who can receive Catholic Funeral Rites?  (These issues are directly related to the theological issues.)

3.  Liturgical Issues:  The official Latin text of the Rite of Funerals was composed for a "world-wide" multitude of cultural variations.  ICEL adapted and selected the rites for the English-speaking Churches, and the USCCB through its Committee for Divine Worship adapted and selected the rites for our culture and customs.  The ritual has various stages:

1.  Prayers for the Dying (including Viaticum)
2.  Prayers at the time of Death
3.  Washing and preparation of the body for burial (in the USA this is usually done at the Funeral Home)
4.  [Rites in the presence of the body]  Viewing of the body / Wake / Prayers for the Dead / Liturgy of the Hours / Eulogies and Remembrance
5.  [Preparation of the Funeral Eucharist]
6.  Transfer of the body to the Church
7.  Reception of the body into the Church
8.  Viewing of the body / Wake / Prayers for the Dead / Liturgy of the Hours / Eulogies and Remembrance
9.  The Funeral Eucharist
10. Sending the body to the place of burial
11. Procession to the place of burial
12. (Blessing of the grave and) Prayers for committal to the grave

There is much variation in the importance of each of the above elements.  In the USA the minister will be concerned especially with the rites for #4, 7, 9, 10, and 12.  It is important to note the different functions which each of these rituals serve.  There is an "emotional" progression / resolution in the rites themselves.

4.  Ministerial Issues:  What attitudes and skills are necessary to minister to the bereaved?  How can we help lay ministers exercise this ministry well?   How can the liturgical books be used most fruitfully? 

5.  Personal Issues:  What has been my experience of death [near death experience / death of a loved one / witness to a violent death / cause of another's death, etc.]?  How do I think of my own death?  What is my "comfort level" in the face of death/dying?

6.  Cultural Issues:  The "American Way of Death Revisited", by Jessica Mitford / families who do not want any funeral at all / "celebration of life" in place of the funeral / private cremation and scattering the ashes without a burial / denial of death / funerals for "sinners" / funerals for people you hate!

These are not issues that can be "answered" or "resolved" during the course of a few weeks.  They are part of the task that we take with us on our faith journey. 

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 02/11/15.  Your comments on this site are welcome at