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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

For Catholics, the last rites is the fourth emergency service. It should be recognised as such

The killing of MP Sir David Amess in October during a constituency surgery shocked not only people in Britain but those who knew him in Rome. Sir David, a devout Catholic, was well-known in Vatican circles for setting up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Holy See – the more official way of describing the Vatican. A sign of that respect is the message from Pope Francis that was read at his Requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral on Tuesday. 

So it is appropriate that in the week of his funeral a bill is making its way through parliament giving priests the right to administer the last rites. Given Sir David was prevented from receiving them as he lay dying, what better legacy could there be for a man who combined political life with passionate commitment to his faith? 

For Catholics, a priest administering the last rites is the fourth emergency service, as vital when you are in dire trouble as police, fire or ambulance. Every believing Catholic wants to hear those words of comfort from a priest when the end is near: to have your sins forgiven, to be blessed, to be sent on your way to meet your God as best you can. Dying is the moment you pass from this life to your eternal destiny and you want to be made ready for the journey. 

When it emerged that a priest tried to attend Sir David after he was attacked in his surgery but was prevented from passing through the police cordon by a constable there was consternation among Catholics, including parliamentarians. They would have known how important the rites would have been to the dying MP and what a comfort it would have been to his family if a priest had been with him at the end, not only whispering prayers, anointing him and giving absolution for his sins, but probably holding his hand. The consolation of faith is everything at such a time.

The way in which Catholic parliamentarians of different political stripes have come together to urge that the right for a dying person to have a priest with them at a crime scene is written into law highlights how much this issue matters to them. The “Amess amendment” to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was first proposed by Catholic Labour MP Mike Kane and is supported in the Lords by several peers, including Conservative Remainer Lord (Chris) Patten, who would never have seen eye to eye on Europe with Brexiteer Sir David Amess. 

For all of them, as for all of us Catholics, death is part of life, not hidden away. At Mass, we always pray for the recently dead. We mark All Souls Day on November 2, remembering those who have gone before us, as the words of the Mass put it, “marked with the sign of faith”. And the prayer perhaps most associated with Roman Catholics, the Hail Mary, finishes with the words to the Virgin, “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”. Prayer helps aid the soul in its journey to paradise, it is believed. Or as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet, may “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”. 

To have the law changed to honour these end-of-life rituals would not just benefit Catholics: plenty of people of other faiths would no doubt welcome such comfort. 

It is especially significant for Catholics for other reasons as well. If the parliament of a country that split from Rome, that has a monarch who promises to uphold the Protestant religion as part of coronation vows, and has an Established Anglican church recognises Catholics’ spiritual needs, then that is a sign that Roman Catholicism is embraced, accepted and respected. 

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