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What to say to the dying

Chances are you have known or visited someone who is dying. What do you say to that person when you want to help lead them to heaven?

Father Robert J. Wagner, parochial vicar of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, has experience with that through his work at Fair Oaks Hospital. He said one of the priests visits patients one or two days a week, but the other days are covered by Deacon J. Paul Ochenkowski or an extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

“In these visits, those who are suffering experience the love of Jesus Christ, who does not abandon them in their time of need, but who desires to be with them, to provide healing and hope, and, if needed, to prepare them for death and eternal life,” said Father Wagner.

He said patients in a hospital are often more open to discuss serious issues of faith and conversion during a time of suffering. “This, too, is one of the blessings of hospital ministry. When things are going very well, our hearts are often less open to listening to what God wants to speak to our hearts,” said Father Wagner. “It is in suffering that we are often more willing to hear God’s promise of salvation. Therefore, ministry to the sick and dying provides dramatic opportunities to bring someone back to the faith.”

Parishioner Fred Costello has brought communion to patients at Fair Oaks Hospital in Fairfax for eight years. He recently gave a presentation on what to say to the dying to the parish Patricians group, part of the Legion of Mary. He attends to them, listens to them and the Holy Spirit, in hopes of leading many of them back to the sacraments.

He shared and expanded on tips from hospice on what to say to the dying person.

“Hospice recommends listening to the dying person; allowing them to talk and not pretending or talking to the person as if he is not dying,” said Costello. “Be truthful. Don’t say that they look good.”

Costello said hospice forgot about the spiritual life.

“The first recommendation should be to pray to the Holy Spirit, then converse.”

To prepare for meeting someone, Costello turns to prayer.

“Each week I pray intensely for those (who) I met that week who said that they would return to the sacraments,” he said. “Each night, I continue to pray for all I have met over the years.”

He approaches the patients by listening to see where they stand and what they are thinking. They may start to tell him their life story, but Costello encourages them to change their focus.

“They can’t do anything about the past and the future is really important to them,” he said. “Sometimes they will start something, and I will divert them from it.”

During his presentation, Costello said, “Keep in mind that you want to make a friend, be a friend, and bring the friend to Christ, but add ‘guide a friend to heaven.’ I don’t review their goals, memories, accomplishments, things they did wrong, the times they have been wronged, except perhaps for short periods to lessen the intensity of conversation about their soul.”

Costello has no prepared statements when he talks to patients, but during his presentation he offered suggestions, including, “God is all merciful. He gave you the means for asking for his forgiveness. Go to confession and communion and receive the anointing of the sick. Then you will be ready to rejoin your mother and father in heaven.”

He approaches them from common ground.

“One advantage I have is I have had almost every ailment the people have,” he said. “It makes a lot of connections that way. God had a plan.”

Elliott can be reached at elizabeth.elliott@catholicherald.com or Twitter @eelliottACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019