You would think that being non-Catholic, let alone Jewish and female, would disqualify me from standing in for a priest for a patient when none are handy. And that is usually what happens: no priest, no service. My husband jokes that all I need to do is put on a beard and wear a robe and say a few Latin words to be the next best thing. Hmm; impersonating a priest simply does not sound kosher.
However, there were two occasions where I was better than nothing; a lot better they assured me. The first was when Julia ( name pulled out of the air) wanted me to hear her confession. I made sure she fully realized what flavor religion I was, and of course my untraditional gender. No matter. She found peace by unburdening herself of regrets in front of someone who symbolized God’s loving forgiveness. As I learned online, confession is also called the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Feeling reconciled with people and with God is a crucial task that many dying people wish to accomplish, so I am glad I could make it happen for Julia. Thankfully she did not ask me how many Hail Mary’s she had to do or any other such penance.
The other day, a family was with a patient who was not many breaths away from his very last one. They asked me over and over every half hour or so about getting a priest for last rites, and getting one right away. They had to ask me over and over because embarrasingly enough, I could not find one even after calling several. Finally I found one, but not one who could rush over literally at that moment. He said he would be there about two hours later. I explained this to the family members, who were all crowded into the patient’s room just waiting, and they decided that just in case it would be too late (it was, it turned out) to get the priest, that they would like me to offer a final prayer. The patient had only been on hospice for about five hours and could no longer respond in any way.Their distress felt so extreme, that I left out the distracting details of my religion and only let them know I was not a Catholic. I hoped that as I offered spontaneous prayer standing together in a circle holding hands with each other and with the patient, they would not notice too much that I left out words like “Jesus” and “Christ.” Perhaps they wondered to themselves several hours later what that was all about, but this family was comforted that I recited a prayer that for them, put the finishing touches on the man’s soul at the critical moment.