By: Protodeacon David Kennedy
Do deacons of the Eastern Catholic Churches bring viaticum to the dying?
The term viaticum, etymologically meaning “provisions for the journey” refers to a practice in the Latin Church of holy communion being distributed to the dying with special words for the distribution, namely:
The priest goes to the sick person and, showing him the sacrament, says: The body of Christ (or:The blood of Christ).
The sick person answers: Amen.
Immediately, or after giving communion, the priest adds: May the Lord Jesus Christ protect you and lead you to eternal life.
The sick person answers: Amen.
Others present then receive communion in the usual manner.
(Anointing and Care of the Sick. no. 112, 1972.)
This rite may be celebrated within Mass or outside of Mass. It is part of an aggregate or continuum of services: confession, anointing of the sick, and viaticum.
We read in no. 29 of Anointing and Care of the Sick, “The ordinary ministers of viaticum are the pastor and his assistants, the priest who cares for the sick in hospitals, and the superior of clerical religious institutes. In case of necessity, any other priest, with at least the presumed permission of the competent minister, may administer viaticum.
If no priest is available, viaticum may be brought to the sick by a deacon or another of the faithful, either a man or a woman who by the authority of the Apostolic See has been appointed by the bishop to distribute the eucharist to the faithful. In this case, a deacon follows the rite prescribed in the ritual; other ministers use the rite they ordinarily follow for distributing communion, but with the special formula given in the rite for viaticum (no. 112).”
We can see from this instruction that in the Roman rite, the deacon is only a minister of viaticum if no priest is available. Preferably, viaticum is not dislocated from the aggregate of confession and anointing of the sick. Thus, even in the Roman rite it should not be usual for a deacon to be the minister of viaticum.
The same aggregate of services is to be found in the Eastern Churches for the dying: confession, anointing of the sick, and holy communion. The term viaticum is not traditionally used in the Eastern Churches. Note that the words for the distribution of holy communion to the dying is the ordinary form, e.g. in the Byzantine rite: The servant of God, N., partakes of the precious, most holy and most pure Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of his/her sins and life everlasting. Amen.
Yet, we can easily see that the form for distributing holy communion in the Byzantine rite at least in the last phrase is somewhat similar to the distribution for viaticum in the Roman rite. Specifically, we should pay attention to the following:
Roman rite for viaticum: protect you and lead you to eternal life.
Byzantine rite usual formula: for the forgiveness of his/her sins and life everlasting. Amen.
It would be rather redundant to have another formula for the distribution of holy communion to the dying in the Byzantine rite, as it already says everything and even more than the Roman rite words for distribution for viaticum say..
In the Eastern Churches, the deacon has no active liturgical role in private confession, although he has a very active role in conjunction with the priest in the mystery of anointing. Here, his function is as usual: censings and litanies. In this aggregate of services for the dying, the actual distribution of holy communion to the dying is done by the priest.
However, if in case of necessity, where no priest is available, a deacon with the blessing of the bishop or priest (at least presumed) might take holy communion to the dying and distribute it. This of course would be extra-ordinary. The reason is based on the deacon being a minister of holy communion. (Cf. Lumen Gentium, Commentary Part II as previously posted below.)
There is also another service in the Byzantine rite that is part of the liturgical ministry to the dying: The Order of the Parting of the Soul. This can be found in The Great Book of Needs or Great Euchologion. In the pre-Vatican II Roman Ritual there was a similar office: Ordo Commendationis Animae/Commending the Departing Soul. The deacon takes no active part in either of these offices.