“The Church, anxious about the spiritual welfare of her children at every period of their lives, becomes more and more solicitous about them as death approaches, knowing that their salvation depends upon their dying in the state of grace. Hence she is ready to administer to them over and over again the holy sacrament of Penance, instituted by her divine Founder as the sovereign remedy for sin.”1 But besides the eternal punishment due to mortal sin there is also a temporal punishment, which must be either cancelled in this world by works of penance or indulgences, or atoned for in the next world in the purifying flames of purgatory. The love of the Church for her children is not wanting here. Aware that it is better to satisfy the divine justice in this world than in the next, she has provided a remedy by which it may be done not only in life, but what is more important and more deserving of our gratitude, at the moment of death. Besides the sacraments of Penance, Extreme Unction, and the Holy Eucharist, to the last of which, as all Christians know, a special privilege is granted by which it can be received by those who are not fasting—there is yet another favor which the Church in her maternal solicitude grants at that time, and with which it is to be feared many Catholics are not sufficiently familiar. For that reason it will be made the subject of the present essay.
The devout Christian, who knows not the day nor the hour when God shall call him to account, and who has been assured by the words of Eternal Truth that death shall come as a thief in the night, and that a man shall not know the time of his coming, cannot afford to be indifferent to any assistance that is within his reach at that decisive moment. What a boon for him, then, that the Church has provided him with a blessing to which a plenary indulgence is attached, which, when gained in its full extent, is capable of remitting, and actually does remit, all the temporal punishment due to him, and thus frees him from the painful obligation of languishing in the fires of purgatory for perhaps a long period of years. It is the blessing in articulo mortis,—at the moment of death,— better known as “the last blessing.” Maurel, having treated of other indulgences that may be gained at the hour of death, and of which something will be said further on, continues: “Besides these indulgences for the hour of death, there is another much more solemn, and of great antiquity in the Church, which through a special grant of the Roman Pontiffs bishops impart personally, or by delegated priests, to the sick in their agony. At first they acquired the privilege merely for a limited period, but by his Constitution Pia Mater, of April 5, 1747, Benedict XIV. extended it to the entire term of their episcopate, or as long as they held their sees, together with the power of sub-delegating their priests, secular and regular, to apply the indulgence to the dying.”2
Regarding the origin of this indulgence, O’Kane remarks (No. 958): “From the earliest ages of the Church bishops were invited from time to time to give their blessing to the dying, and when given by the popes, or those specially delegated by them, it was, no doubt, very often accompanied by a plenary indulgence. We have, most probably, an instance of this in the indulgence granted to St. Clare by Innocent IV., as we read in her Life given in the Roman Breviary. At all events it is certain that the popes have power to grant such indulgences, and that this power has been frequently used in the Church.” It is to be given after the sick person has received the last sacraments, or such of them as the nature of his ailment or the condition of his mental faculties permits him to receive. It may be given not only to those who ask for it in express terms, or to those who, although they do not ask for it, either through negligence or forgetful ness, yet show signs of sorrow for their sins; but “this indulgence should be communicated even to the dying who have lost the use of their senses; for we may always presume, at least in ordinary cases, that it would be their desire to receive this blessing had they the use of their reason. It may also be applied to children who, by reason of their age, have not made their First Communion.”3 This is to be understood, of course, of children who have come to the use of reason; for those who have not attained the years of discretion, and persons who have never had the use of reason, being incapable of sin, have no need of it. Nor can it be imparted to excommunicated persons, nor to such as, to all appearances, are dying impenitent. “It may be doubted, however, whether the benediction is restricted, like Extreme Unction, to such as are in danger of death from bodily sickness, whether it may not be given to one who is in danger of death from any other cause, e.g. , to a convict about to be executed. The words of the bull Pia Mater, as well as the rubrics, undoubtedly seem to suppose that the person receiving the benediction is sick, infirm, etc. Now, it may be that this is supposed or required as a condition; or it may be that the words are used, not to express a condition, but simply to describe the case that usually occurs. It is quite uncertain, and depends altogether on the intention of the Pontiff. But in the absence of authority against it, the benediction may be given at least conditionally.”4
With regard to the circumstances under which the blessing may be repeated, the same author remarks (No. 962): “It is certain that the benediction may be repeated in the circumstances in which Extreme Unction may be repeated, that is, when the sick person, having partially recovered, relapses, and is again in danger of death. But in case of protracted illness, where the danger still continues, it cannot be repeated. Both points have been expressly decided by the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences. It has been long before decided by the same Congregation that a plenary indulgence in articulo mortis given simply and without any other declaration, should be understood strictly as gained only when death actually occurs.” It would seem, however, that a more recent decree permits the repetition of the last blessing. Says Maurel (p. 299): “In the same danger, or in the same articulo mortis, said the ancient decrees, it is not permitted to recite many times the benediction for a dying person, with an application of the plenary indulgence. But Pius IX. has given leave to repeat the form of the indulgence over the same in valid and in the same danger. He furthermore allows priests vested with the power to impart several times—pluries—to a dying person the different indulgences in articulo mortis, to which he may have a right under various titles. Notwithstanding this, the indulgence cannot be gained more than once, and is not truly applied to a sick person, except when death actually ensues. Thus the articulo mortis is that moment which is actually followed by death, the intention of the Supreme Pontiff in granting the indulgence being, according to Theodore a Spiritu Sancto, ‘that the faithful might have nothing to expiate after this mortal pilgrimage.’” The conditions for gaining this indulgence are: first, at least an habitual intention of gaining it; secondly, the eliciting of an act of contrition and of love, if the sick person is able to do so; thirdly, the invocation, at least mentally, of the name of Jesus; and fourthly, the sick person is admonished to bear with resignation the inconveniences and sufferings incident to his sickness, in expiation of the sins of his past life, and to be ready to accept from the hand of God whatsoever it shall please Him to ordain, even death, which he has deserved by his sins.5
A necessary condition for receiving the last blessing is that the sick person be in the state of sanctifying grace, for no one can gain a plenary indulgence in the state of sin.
“The most important condition for gaining a plenary indulgence is to have a true hatred of all sins, even venial, and to be wholly free from any attachment to them. This condition is absolutely necessary; for, as St. Alphonsus teaches, ‘it is certain that, so long as the guilt of venial sin is not remitted, the punishment due to it cannot be remitted.’ So that while the soul bears the guilt of a single little venial sin, or even any attachment to such sin, it is clear that it cannot obtain the total remission of its punishment, or, in other words, a plenary indulgence ; for a plenary indulgence is nothing more nor less than the complete remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, of which the guilt has been already remitted.”6
On this point O’Kane remarks (No. 963): “If the person, however, be not in the state of grace when the benediction is given, it is of no avail, and should be repeated when he recovers the state of grace. But should he, after having received it in the state of grace, again fall into mortal sin, he would receive the fruit of the indulgence at the moment of death, provided he had in the meantime recovered the state of grace; and therefore in this case the benediction should not be repeated.” Recent legislation on the subject of the last blessing has somewhat modified the conditions, and for that reason the above is not now strictly correct. The blessing can not be repeated in the same sickness, although the sickness continues for a long time, nor can it be imparted by several priests, nor is it to be repeated if the sick person was in the state of mortal sin when he received it, nor in case he relapses into mortal sin after it is given.7 It should be given while the sick person has the use of his mental faculties, and not be deferred till the last moment. The faculties now granted to priests in general include that of conferring this blessing, and hence sick persons are seldom deprived of the opportunity of gaining this indulgence so profitable and necessary for them.
With regard to certain other indulgences that may be gained at the hour of death, O’Kane remarks (Nos. 978, 979): “It may be observed that this is not the only plenary indulgence that can be obtained at the hour of death. A great many have been granted for this hour to the faithful who are members of certain pious confraternities, who practise certain devotions, or who have rosaries, crosses, medals, etc., to which indulgences are attached, provided they comply with the requisite conditions. The titles on which these indulgences are granted are altogether distinct, and the conditions are not incompatible. It has been decided by the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences that, when Communion is required as a condition of the indulgence the same Communion may suffice for several plenary indulgences. The conditions required for those in articulo mortis are very easy. They are for the most part those acts which should in any event be frequently elicited by Christians in danger of death: acts of contrition, acts of the love of God, and of perfect resignation to His holy will, and the invocation of the holy name, with the heart if not with the lips. To gain the indulgences attached to the rosaries, crosses, medals, etc., it is enough to take the blessed object in the hand, or to have it about or near the person, while making the acts prescribed, which are usually those just mentioned. The ministry of a priest is not necessary, though it is, of course, very useful in assisting the sick person to make the acts required. It is probable that even by virtue of a single concession the indulgences may be gained as often as the prescribed acts are repeated, but there is no reason to doubt that several may be gained when the titles are distinct. With respect to the intention, it is sufficient that one have that of gaining all the indulgences he can by the acts he performs. It is not necessary to think of them in particular, nor even to know that they are attached to the acts. It is even probable that an intention of gaining the indulgence is not required at all, provided the work to which it is attached be done. St. Liguori seems to think that at all events it is enough to have an interpretative intention.”8
Whatever may be said of the necessity, no one can fail to see the advantage of an intention made at the time the indulgence is to be gained, nor the extent to which it will contribute in disposing the sick person to receive it with the most abundant fruit. For this reason it is advisable for Christians to accustom themselves to make sometimes during life, and more especially when sick, although the sickness may not endanger life, an intention of gaining the indulgences of the last blessing, as well as all the other indulgences to which they may be entitled at that hour; and they should frequently pray God to grant them that inestimable favor. Nor should they neglect in time of sickness to beg of those who have care of them to see that this blessing is imparted to them at the proper time. Any request coming from themselves shows their good disposition; and, besides, friends sometimes lose sight of the needs of the soul in their zeal to provide for those of the body. But it is a sacred duty of those who assist at the bedside of the sick to see that they are not deprived of so powerful a means of grace; and in addition to calling in the priest they should endeavor to dispose the sick person in advance for the visit of the minister of God. A fatal delusion sometimes seizes the sick person, and those also who have care of him, by which they imagine that he who receives the last sacraments and sacred rites of religion must necessarily die — that these are a kind of death warrant. No good, but many evils are the result of this delusion. It prevents the sick person from trying earnestly to excite those dispositions so necessary, or at least so expedient, for receiving the last blessings of the Church; it imposes on the priest the obligation of disposing him at the very moment he is to receive these sacred ministrations; and even then his friends may, unconsciously, place obstacles in his way by continuing to deceive the sick person with delusive hopes. We should not, indeed, fill anyone with despair of recovery; neither should we, on the other hand, conceal from the sick person the danger in which he is, at least in so far as the consciousness of this danger will aid him in disposing himself for a profitable reception of those graces that are to be his ultimate preparation for a judgment upon which an eternity of happiness or misery depends. What kind of love is that which permits, or runs the risk of permitting, the sick person to lose the use of his mental faculties before he is alive to his danger? It is a folly that may and often has cast souls for long years into purgatory, and has endangered the eternal salvation of not a few who were unhappily in the state of mortal sin; for, had they been conscious of the near approach of death, they would have endeavored to elicit an act of perfect contrition if they had not an opportunity of going to confession. That love which prefers the life of the perishable body to that of the immortal soul cannot be called Christian; and, besides, the peace and tranquillity of mind which usually follow perfect reconciliation with God are often very conducive to the restoration of bodily health. A secondary end of Extreme Unction is the restoration of health, whenever such is the will of God; and it not unfrequently happens that recovery dates from the reception of the last sacraments.
One of the plenary indulgences most easily gained is that which is imparted to the prayer to our holy guardian angel. It is granted, says the decree, “at the hour of death to all those who, during life, shall have frequently said this prayer, provided they shall have the required dispositions.”9 With regard to these indulgences O’Kane says (No. 980): “It is true that if he had the happiness of gaining one plenary indulgence he could not gain a second for himself at the same time, for even one includes a complete remission of all the punishment due to his sins; but it is hard to reckon in any instance on the presence of all those conditions, and especially of those perfect dispositions which are necessary to gain a plenary indulgence in its full extent. But although it be not gained in its whole extent, it may be gained partially; and if many be gained in this way, the effect of all united may come very near, and when there is a renunciation of all venial sins, may be equal to, the full effect of a plenary indulgence.”
Too much importance cannot be attached to the inestimable grace conferred by this blessing. We should be grateful at all times for the favors of Heaven, and anxious to profit by them; but for this one, which is bestowed upon us in the hour of our greatest need, we should be especially thankful. Another circumstance, also, shows the wisdom and love of the Church for her children; for, while other indulgences may be gained, and the graces of them afterward forfeited by sin, this one is reserved for the moment of death, when there is no fear of it being lost. Thrice happy the soul that merits so great a blessing and receives it in its plenitude, for it will be immediately admitted into the joy of its Lord. “Oh, let us, then, strive at this last moment, before entering on our road to eternity, to gain as many indulgences as possible! for how do we know what debts we have to pay to the divine justice, or whether these plenary indulgences have been applied to us in their full extent, or in what proportion they are applied? It is also of the utmost importance to us to qualify ourselves in life for such an abundant application of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints at the hour of our death. The most effectual means for attaining this end is carefully to keep ourselves in the friendship of God, especially by a frequent worthy reception of the sacraments, as also by being devout to the Blessed Virgin, and to St. Joseph, the patron of a happy death.”10
1 O’Kane, “Notes on the Rubrics of the Roman Ritual”, No. 970.
2 Maurel, p. 298.
3 Maurel, pp. 298, 299.
4 O’Kane, No. 960.
5 Wapelhorst, p. 462, No. 3.
6 Raccolta, p. xxiv.
7 Wapelhorst, p. 463, No. 6.
8 See also Wapelhorst, p. 462, No. 3.
9 Raccolta, p. 308.
10 Maurel, pp. 299, 390.