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The Papal Blessing In Articulo Mortis

Cases of Conscience from The Casuist

(Vol. III, New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1910)

Case: Discussing recently, with some fellow priests, the question of the papal benediction “in articulo mortis,” there seemed to be a considerable difference of opinion as to how often it might be given to the same sick person during the progress of the same illness. Some of the clergy thought that it might be given or repeated whenever Extreme Unction was given or repeated when such person made a good confession. Others seemed to think that if the sickness continued for some time and the sick person had the misfortune to fall, from time to time, into mortal sin, the blessing ought to be repeated each time that the sick person received absolution for mortal sin. Is there any certainty in this matter, or may a priest follow whatever seems good and reasonable to him?

Answer: A priest may not follow whatever seems good to him in this matter, as the Sacred Congregation of Indulgences has, at various times, answered all the above questions. Let us take them up, one after another. First, may the papal blessing be given more than once during the same sickness? At least, may it be repeated whenever Extreme Unction may be repeated during a protracted sickness? No, the papal blessing, in articulo mortis, may not be given more than once during the same sickness, even though it might be allowed to repeat the administration of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. St. Alphonsus and the theologians generally permit the repetition of Extreme Unction during the same sickness about once a month, because if the sick person continues to live for a month or more after having been anointed, the original crisis or danger of death, or periculum mortis, is supposed to have passed and a new danger to have supervened, which renders lawful a new administration of Extreme Unction. But the same cannot be said for the repetition of the papal blessing, because the Congregation of Indulgences forbids it. Asked whether the last blessing might be given “twice or more in the same illness that is unexpectedly prolonged, even if the sick person should not recover,” the Sacred Congregation replied, September 23, 1775: “Only once in the same grave illness.” Again, when the Sacred Congregation was approached with the doubt: “Whether the Apostolic Blessing could be given repeatedly to the sick, should a new danger of death return,” it replied, on September 24, 1838: “In the negative, if the same danger of death should endure; in the affirmative, if the sick should recover, and thereafter for whatever reason again be in danger of death.”

The reason why it is not permitted to repeat the blessing during the same sickness is because such repetition is useless. The plenary indulgence granted by the Pope to the dying can be gained only once and that only at the instant of death. If the sickness continues, the indulgence also continues, to be gained at the moment of death. If the sick person does not die, neither does he gain the indulgence. If the sick person recovers and later on contracts a new sickness, he must receive a new blessing, because the former one passed with the passing of the sickness, for which alone it was granted.

The second question to be answered is this: If the last blessing was received in the state of mortal sin, ought it to be repeated when the sick person is absolved from mortal sin? Again the answer is no. This was the answer made to this question by the Congregation of Indulgences on June 20, 1836. As the plenary indulgence is not gained when it is given, but only at the moment of death, it makes no difference quoad hoc, whether the sick person be in the state of grace or in mortal sin at the time the blessing is given. The indulgence is gained at the instant of death, at the moment when the soul leaves the body, and if at that moment the dying person is in the state of grace and has complied with the other conditions for gaining the indulgence he gains it, even though he was in mortal sin at the time the priest gave him the blessing. Therefore, Fr. Schneider, S.J., in his work, Rescripta Authentica, p. 701, after reminding his readers that the blessing can be given only once during the same sickness, adds: “None of these things, therefore, impede the effect from taking place, as long as the sick person at the actual moment of death is properly disposed; it is for that moment that the indulgence is given.”

For the reasons just given it follows that it is not lawful to repeat the last blessing, even though the sick person, after having received it in the state of grace, should afterward fall into mortal sin. As was just said, the plenary indulgence granted by the blessing is intended only for the moment of death. If the dying person, who has received the blessing while in the state of grace and then has had the misfortune to fall into mortal sin, is in the state of grace at the moment of death, that is all the Sovereign Pontiff requires for the gaining of the indulgence. And for this reason, the Congregation of Indulgences, on June 20, 1836, replied that it was not necessary, and therefore not lawful, to repeat the papal blessing in articulo mortis, even though the dying person should fall into mortal sin, after having received it. And this was the third question to be answered.

For the further illustration of this matter it might be well to recall to mind that all persons who are in danger of death, and who are capable of receiving sacramental absolution, may and should receive this papal blessing. Therefore, first, even those who are unconscious and who, even through their own fault have not received the last Sacraments, ought to receive the last blessing; second, also children who have never been to Confession or Holy Communion, provided only they are old enough and capable of committing sin; third, all those who are condemned to death for crime, provided they repent; fourth, soldiers, before going into battle; fifth, all persons who are in danger of death, whether through sickness or from some external cause.

The conditions for gaining this plenary indulgence are:

First, the same conditions that are required to gain any indulgence: that is to say, the person must be in the state of grace when the indulgence is gained and must have the intention of gaining the indulgence.

Second, he must be fully resigned to the will of God in dying.

Third, he must pronounce the holy Name of Jesus with his lips, if possible, and if he be not able to speak he must at least invoke the holy Name of Jesus in his heart.

Special attention is called to this last condition of pronouncing the most holy Name of Jesus. It is required by the Congregation of Indulgences in order to gain the plenary indulgence in articulo mortis, September 22, 1892. It is something very easily overlooked, and, therefore, we direct especial attention to it.

Finally, it is customary to give this blessing after confession, Viaticum and Extreme Unction. It is not necessary to follow this order, but it is generally followed. In which case it is necessary to repeat the Confiteor three times, i.e., once before giving Viaticum, a second time before Extreme Unction, and the third time before giving the last blessing.

In a case of extreme need, where no time is to be lost, the Confiteor is omitted and the priest begins the blessing at the words “May Our Lord Jesus Christ,” etc. If there were danger even in the delay required for this formula, then the priest ought to begin with the words: “By the faculty given to me by the Apostolic See, I grant thee a plenary indulgence and remission of all sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” If there be no time even for this much of the prescribed formula, some theologians are of the opinion that the formula, “May almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost bless thee. Amen” is sufficient for the valid imparting of the apostolic blessing and the plenary indulgence (Cf. Schuch, O.S.B., Pastoral Theologie, p. 823).

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