As the Catholic chaplain made his rounds at St. Alexius Hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota, he stepped into the room of 95-year-old Anne Ulmen, who had recently suffered a stroke. Her daughter, Margaret Sitte, asked the priest if he would administer the last rites, which include the sacraments of penance, anointing of the sick and viaticum (Holy Communion given at the point of death as food for the eternal journey).
“Would you also like me to give her an apostolic pardon?” the priest asked. Although Sitte was a lifelong Catholic, she had never heard of it. He explained that it was an indulgence for the remission of temporal punishment due to sin given to a dying person who is in the state of grace.
In other words, just as Jesus promised the Good Thief on Good Friday he would be with him in paradise “this day,” properly disposed Catholics who receive the apostolic pardon (or blessing) will enter heaven.
The apostolic pardon is given as part of last rites. The Handbook of Indulgences, 28, 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.
“But if a priest cannot be present, holy Mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained at the approach of death, provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross is recommended in obtaining this plenary indulgence. In such a situation, the three usual conditions required in order to gain a plenary indulgence are substituted for by the condition ‘provided they regularly prayed in some way.’”
Once Sitte learned what the apostolic pardon was, she immediately agreed to it.
“Who wouldn’t?” she said. “It gave Mother enormous comfort. She was not afraid to die, but I could tell that listening to the prayer brought her tremendous peace.”
Ulen was not expected to live much longer, but Sitte said she ended up going home from the hospital and living another three months.
An Emergency Situation
When Eric Bergman thought he might be dying in 2006, his first thought was to receive the last rites. The former Episcopal minister from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and his wife, Kristina, had entered the Catholic Church only two months earlier.
For several years, Bergman had suffered repeatedly from a misdiagnosed gall bladder infection. On Jan. 14, 2006, he suffered an attack more sudden and intense than any he’d ever experienced before. Bergman was rushed to the emergency room. His gall bladder needed to be removed immediately.
Msgr. William Feldcamp arrived to administer last rites while Bergman was on the table having a scan. “Father is going to hear my confession, so I need you to leave,” Bergman told the technician.
“No, I can’t leave during this procedure,” the technician replied.
Bergman looked desperately at the priest. “Don’t worry,” the monsignor said. “I’ll give you the anointing now, and you can make your confession later.”
Just before Bergman was wheeled into surgery, Bishop John Dougherty arrived at the hospital to hear his confession and pray over him.
“I knew I had to be ready, and I felt like I was,” he said. “I was at peace. I was not worried for myself, but I was thinking about my wife and three children.”
When he woke up in the recovery room, his wife was sobbing over him.
“What went wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she cried. “I’m just so glad you’re alive.”
Bergman says he credits his healing to the power of the sacrament he received.
Bergman’s health returned stronger than ever, allowing him to be ordained a deacon on March 24, 2007. Then, on April 21, 2007, through the “Pastoral Provision” of St. John Paul II, he was ordained a Catholic priest. Since 50 members of his congregation followed him into the Church, Father Bergman now ministers to some of the same people he shepherded when they were all Episcopalians. He is now the pastor of St. Thomas More Catholic parish at St. Joseph Church in Scranton, a parish of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
“I was a chaplain at Mercy Hospital in Scranton for a year and am still regularly on call,” he said. “Just last night, at 3am,” he said, “I administered last rites and gave the apostolic pardon.”
The prayers of the apostolic pardon are pronounced after the sacraments have been administered.
“The next time I celebrate Mass,” said Father Bergman, “I remember the dying person as my personal intention for that day, characterized principally by the peace which comes when we have offered to the faithful all we can, and thus have confidence that God’s mercy will be applied to the soul of the deceased.”
Father Bergman said it is a shame that more people do not take advantage of this blessing.
“Some people associate a priest at the hospital with dying, so they’ll wait until they are absolutely sure that person is dying,” he said. “I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been called to the hospital and the person is already dead, because the family waited too long to call for a priest. “
According to Father Bergman, the sacrament should be administered right away when a person is in danger of death, rather than waiting for the last moment.
He said there have been many beautiful experiences when he has administered the sacrament, such as one man who hung on until Father Bergman had anointed his forehead and hands. He died immediately afterward.
“Another time, I anointed a guy just as the doctor came to pronounce his death,” Father Bergman explained. “The monitor still showed a heartbeat every 20 seconds. He was not dead yet, so I anointed him. A nun from the hospital later told me: ‘The guy we called you after hours for last night — well, he walked out of the hospital this morning.’”
Father Bergman said that the sacrament prepares a person to pass from this world to the next, but it can also provide physical healing. “It is one of those sacraments more people should be asking for.”
Father Bergman added, “We mustn’t forget the Church’s teaching that reparation for sin always goes along with the absolution we receive from the priest. The apostolic pardon is the means by which the Church’s treasury of merit can be applied to us in our last hour, when we don’t have much time on this side of eternity to make the reparation required. For the sake of peace for their loved ones’ souls, family members should ask for this grace from Holy Mother Church, in the unlikely event that the priest administering the last rites doesn’t offer it.”
Register correspondent Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.
Two apostolic pardon prayers explain what it imparts.
“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.”
“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.”