Guest Column by Father Arthur Torres Barona
As priests at Sacred Heart Cathedral, we receive phone calls almost every day asking us to come to the hospital or the nursing home to administer the so-called Last Rites to the dying. Not long ago, a faithful parishioner called me to come to anoint her longtime 66-year-old friend who was dying due to a severe stroke. I came to the hospital room, and there was her friend lying on the bed. Also, two other faithful women were there waiting for me to arrive. As usual, I greeted them with a hug and disposed myself to celebrate the sacrament. I did everything required by the Church in this situation, and I asked these two women, “Do you also want me to give her the apostolic pardon?” They all seemed troubled at my question and sort of embarrassed because they didn’t know what I was talking about, even though they were Catholic.
I explained to them that it is an “indulgence given for the remission of temporal punishment due to sin.” It is a faculty granted to all bishops, and by them it is delegated to the priests (Pastoral Care of the Sick, Nos. 184, 187, 195, 201). At the discretion of the priest, it can be added after the sacrament of penance, the anointing of the sick, and the viaticum (Communion brought to the sick and the dying) or in case of emergency. However, the person must be in the state of grace. So, they agreed, and they said afterward, “Father, we want that for us too, OK?”
Now, to have a better understanding of this final blessing that prepares the dying to enter heaven, we need to look at the Scriptures in which the apostolic pardon has its foundation. In the Gospel of Matthew (16:19), Jesus gives to Peter this authority: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Hence, we call this blessing the apostolic pardon. But going beyond that, in this prayer we also find the mercy of Jesus toward those who with a contrite heart repent from their sins, as in the case of the repentant thief. Jesus promised him: “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). In the Catholic Church, we firmly believe that the dying, after having received the sacraments of penance and of the anointing of the sick along with the apostolic pardon, will be welcomed into heaven.
Other than the sacraments that accompany the process of the dying, the apostolic pardon prayer is considered the greatest act of mercy given by the Church at the hour of our death. Seeing in it an undeserving gift to the soul, the Church brings to the dying Christian consolation and tranquility, speeding up his soul’s process to leave this world in peace. By this blessing, we are asking the Lord to open for this soul the gates of paradise, which in confidence we commend to His fatherly hands. It is the way we in the Catholic Church prepare the dying, who for many reasons did not have the time to prepare himself for the moment of death or to make enough reparation for his sins. As St. Augustine said: “However innocent your life may have been, no Christian ought to venture to die in any other state than that of the penitent.”
As mentioned before, the apostolic pardon is given as part of the Last Rites. In The Handbook of Indulgences, 28, it says: “Priests who minister the sacraments to the Christian faithful who are in a life-and-death situation should not neglect to impart to them the apostolic blessing, with its attached indulgence.”
However, to avoid seeing this blessing as something magic or superstitious, the same Handbook of Indulgences averts: “The dying person must be ‘rightly disposed’” (total desire to reject whatever kind of sin, and true repentance) and have “regularly prayed during their lifetime” to receive this blessing. We will talk more about this later in the article.
You might be wondering now as you read this article, what does this prayer say? Will I be offered this prayer at my bedside when I’m dying? How can I make sure I have been given the apostolic pardon before I render my soul into God’s hand and that He will be merciful to me on my final judgement?
To answer all this here you can find the proper responses:
n The apostolic pardon in the Pastoral Care of the Sick, 156, offers to the priests two options (forms) that he can use at his own discretion. Form A: “Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may Almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May He open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.” Form B reads as follows: “By the authority which the Apostolic See has given me, I grant you a full pardon and the remission of all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
n Certainly, you can be offered this prayer when dying. All priests know of this, and they all are dutifully trained on this regard. It is part of the last rites, and it is followed by the sacrament of penance and of the anointing of the sick. However, remember it is only given to those in the near danger of death.
n Now that you know of the apostolic pardon, to make sure you receive it at the proper time, tell your family members and friends to kindly remind the priest to give you this blessing before you go to meet the Lord. It also brings peace to our loved ones, who in that time of distress tend to lose faith and hope before the circumstance of death of their relatives. All Christian Catholic families should ask for this grace from the priest, in case the priest giving the last rites doesn’t offer it or forgets about it.
Another question that can be raised here is, “What if a priest is not present when I die?” Will I be granted the apostolic pardon as well?
The same Handbook of Indulgences, 28, encouragingly stipulates that “If a priest cannot be present, holy mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis, at the approach of death, provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime.” One should keep in mind these two conditions. The dying person must be “rightly disposed” and have “regularly prayed.”
Being rightly disposed means to be in the state of grace and without any attachment to any sin. The dying must show — at least in his heart — repentance from his sin and love of God. Now, what does it mean to have “prayed regularly in some way during their lifetime”?
The Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences (Indulgentiarum Doctrina), promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1967, says: “If one of the faithful in danger of death is unable to have a priest to administer the sacraments and to impart the apostolic blessing, the Church, like a devoted mother, graciously grants such a person who is properly disposed a plenary indulgence to be gained at the hour of death. So, the only condition manifested here is the practice of praying every day without ceasing, as St. Paul tells us in his letter (1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18) during life.
Indeed, in the apostolic pardon we find an extraordinary gift of grace for all the dying: a powerful tool for those preparing to join their souls to the Blessed Ones in heaven, a formula to prepare our way for the Kingdom of God.
In Domina Nostra.
Father Arthur Torres Barona is an associate pastor at Sacred Heart Cathedral.