One of the worst tragedies of the modern Church is the downplaying of sin–both its reality and its effects. The number of ignorant Catholics who have not been taught the necessity of repentance through the Sacrament of Penance to rejoin the chasm between our Creator and creature severed by mortal sin are legion. Even if one is not in mortal sin, but guilty of venial sin and imperfections, the Sacrament is a great grace to strengthen one’s spiritual life and encourage compunction that should not be taken for granted.
Though individuals must answer to their Maker for every idle word spoken at the Judgement (Mt 12:36), there is also a great and terrible judgement reserved for those priests and bishops who did not do all they could to preach the message of the Baptist, the harbinger of the Christ: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mt 3:2). And likewise the words of St. Peter, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). And our Lord to St. John: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (Rev 3:3)
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die (Ecc 3:1), and we do not know when that hour comes (Mt 24:42).
So for those who lay sick and dying, who have been baptized as Catholics, one would think they would be desirous to confess their sins out of compunction and receive the grace of being washed clean. But alas, we often die as we live. Thankfully the Church in Christ’s mercy is given the sacrament of Extreme Unction/Last Rites, otherwise known in the new Catechism as Anointing of the Sick. From the 1992 Catechism:
“The special grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has as its effects: the uniting of the sick person to the passion of Christ, for his own good and that of the whole Church; the strengthening, peace, and courage to endure in a Christian manner the sufferings of illness or old age; the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of penance; the restoration of health, if it is conducive to the salvation of his soul; the preparation for passing over to eternal life” (CCC 1532)
And from the Catechism of Trent:
“As all care should be taken that nothing impede the grace of the Sacrament, and as nothing is more opposed to it than the consciousness of mortal guilt, the constant practice of the Catholic Church must be observed of administering the Sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist before Extreme Unction.”
And yet if we die as we live, it is not uncommon for modern Catholics today to
a) either brazenly or ignorantly receive Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin
b) have gone for years without confessing their sins in the sacrament of Penance
c) feel no need to confess, either due to ignorance, faulty catechesis, or their culpability or willful refusal to make use of the Sacrament
So, when it comes to the hour of death, we are fortunate to have the grace of Extreme Unction/Anointing of the Sick to prepare us for our Judgment and final repose.
But notice the bolding in both Catechisms (my emphasis): that the expectation is that if one is to receive anointing of the sick and receive the grace of forgiveness of sins though the sacrament, the inference (from the new CCC) is that if the sick or dying person IS able to confess and make use of the sacrament of Penance. If a priest is called in to anoint, the sick or dying person should be informed that the constant practice of the Catholic Church must be observed of administering the Sacrament of Penance and the Eucharist before Extreme Unction.
This responsibility lies on the priest to inform the person of this necessity. But were the sick or dying person refuse to confess their sins, and had the opportunity to do so (after all, the priest is right there, and assuming the person was in their right state of mind, should ask him first to hear their confession) but did not and instead has the attitude of “just give me the anointing” (without confession)–isn’t that a problem? And for the priest who were he to not ask the person “do you want to confess?” before anointing, or if he goes ahead with the anointing regarding confession unnecessary–is he himself not culpable?
It is not uncommon for those on hospice and those in hospitals with terminal illnesses to lose their sense of reason, in which case they may not be able to confess because they are not in their right mind, but can still make use of the Sacrament of Anointing. But I think this is a different scenario than one who has their reason and feels no need to confess, yet sees the Anointing as “covering all the bases” including forgiveness of sins without having to confess them. This seems like a grave dereliction in my mind of both priests who neglect to insist upon Confession before anointing for those in their right mind and capable of it, and those ordinary Catholics who see no need for Confession but presume upon the forgiveness of sins without it.
What do you think, reader? Am I reading too much into this? I am not trained in canon law or moral theology, but I would think the surest way–outside of perfect contrition, which is possible but rare–is to follow the good thief Dismas and confess with sincere contrition one’s sins while they still are able, and to refuse to do so when given the opportunity is perilous.
If a priest is available to anoint, he is available to hear one’s confession. To spurn that opportunity thinking it is not needed seems gravely misleading. And for a priest not to encourage it and instead gloss over the need to confess (if one is in a state of mortal sin and able to confess) is culpable himself. For no one enters the Kingdom of Heaven who is not sincerely penitent. God is both merciful and just. Dying is serious business, and it weighs on me in these kinds of circumstances that presumption reigns in the vacuum left by neglecting to preach the necessity of confession and conversion.
Comments are open. I am, as well, to learning more and being corrected if I’m off base. I especially value the input of priests and religious more learned in sacramental theology than I am to shed light on this dilemma.
Image: The Confessional by Henri Lehman, 1872.