Heaven or Hell? McVeigh's Request for Last Rites

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—“Does the personification of evil ask for the sacraments?”

That's what Father Michael Orsi, chaplain and research fellow at Ave Maria School of Law, asked himself when he heard reports that Timothy McVeigh, the deadliest mass murderer in American history, had requested the anointing of the sick before his execution June 11.

Father Orsi said, “Everybody's quick to think this guy was the personification of evil. And I thought that too, but then when I saw [that McVeigh requested the sacraments] I had to think.”

Even one of McVeigh's lawyers expressed surprise at his client's request. But Father Ron Ashmore wasn't puzzled. Father Ashmore met McVeigh as part of his work as a chaplain at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. McVeigh was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, although before his execution date he had said he would not seek the sacraments.

Father Ashmore said, “I saw Tim in a way that most people have not been able to see Tim. I saw Tim in his goodness, and also in his sinfulness, the horror of what he did.”

Father Ashmore said McVeigh could be “generous, gracious and sensitive”—although he said that most of his knowledge of McVeigh “cannot ever be shared.”

But was McVeigh's request a sign of repentance?

According to his attorneys, when the prison warden asked if he would like a chaplain and the sacraments, McVeigh said, “Sure, send him in.” Even this seemingly halfhearted request contrasted starkly with the public face McVeigh presented in his last days. He was described as “defiant,” and although he had said he regretted the deaths he had caused, he still insisted that he had been justified in bombing the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.

Father Orsi explained that the sacrament of the anointing of the sick includes a penitential rite which is “very similar to the rite at Mass.” However, it is standard practice for that rite to be replaced with the sacrament of penance.

Both Father Ashmore and Father Orsi said McVeigh would have been informed about what the sacrament meant. “Any pastor would tell the person that part of the efficacy of this rite is that it presumes that you are sorry for your sins,” Father Orsi said. Because of the seal of confession (and prison publicity rules), “we don't know if he went to confession,” Father Orsi noted. “But it's implied that penance is part of this rite.”

Msgr. Francis Mannion, a sacramental theologian and director of the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., added, “I would expect that any priest who is dealing with a death row inmate who has admitted in public to a serious crime would very pointedly raise the matter of the sacrament of penance.”

Father Orsi said McVeigh's “defiant public face” could signify that McVeigh had “invincible ignorance—this person just did not understand the gravity of his actions, or he believed that his purpose in some way mitigated the responsibility for the action.” But even in that case, he said, “implied in the sacrament is that even if I do something which I don't perceive to be sinful, if it was sinful, I'm sorry for it.”

Did the Chair Prompt Penitence?

No one will know what led McVeigh to request the sacrament. But Father Orsi pointed out that “rehabilitation of the criminal” is one of the four goods “traditionally attributed to the death penalty.” (The others are defense of society, deterrence, and just retribution.)

Father Orsi said, “The imminence of death is something that would move someone to conversion. Was the death penalty a good for Timothy McVeigh? Did it bring him into contact with the sacraments?”

He added, “This should cause us to re-evaluate the death penalty, and, to an extent, to re-evaluate Timothy McVeigh. We're very focused on the here and now; we're not looking at the big picture, which of course entails eternity and the immortal soul.”

While Father Orsi suggested that the death penalty spurred McVeigh to repent, Father Ashmore argued that it had cut short the process of repentance: “Given time—which means life—we believe [McVeigh] could come to a point of acknowledgment of his wrong and asking for forgiveness publicly.”

Father Ashmore said, “If you talk about a public apology, he never got there fully, but there were inklings that it was coming,” citing McVeigh's letter to the Buffalo News, his hometown newspaper. McVeigh wrote, “I am sorry these people had to lose their lives. But that's the nature of the beast. It's understood going in what the human toll would be.”

“He was moving slowly to a position where he could publicly acknowledge the hurt and the pain he caused,” Father Ashmore said. “That's one of the reasons our American bishops say that execution is inappropriate. It takes away the time necessary to grow into that conversion of heart.”


Father Ashmore claimed, “In my judgment of hearing Tim in a way not many people were able to, I feel the Lord will take him to the Kingdom.”

Msgr. Mannion noted, “Were I somebody who had committed a serious crime and at the end of my life repented of it, I would expect to spend a great deal of time in purgatory.” But, he pointed out, purgatory is “the process by which we are conformed to Christ.”

The priest added, “No matter how serious the crime is, nobody who is truly repentant is beyond the reach of God's redemptive power. God sees into the heart of the person who has committed the crime better than we can.”

Chad Steener, an evangelical Protestant, rented a billboard in Terre Haute to proclaim, “Pray for McVeigh.” And McVeigh's childhood parish church, Good Shepherd in Pendleton, N.Y., offered a Mass for him at the hour of his execution.

What was the effect of those prayers? In a trial and execution that became a media blitz, the most important event was off-camera, in the silence or confession of a killer's heart.