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UK lawmaker’s murder leads to call for right to emergency last rites

JOURNALIST

Shutterstock | Mamunur Rashid

John Burger - published on 10/19/21 - updated on 10/20/21

After the fatal stabbing of a Member of Parliament, a priest was denied access to anoint him.

In the wake of a high profile incident where a Catholic priest was denied access to a dying person, a bishop in England has called for greater recognition of the Catholic sacrament of Anointing of the Sick as an “emergency service.” And a Member of Parliament in the U.K. has called upon his colleagues to pass legislation guaranteeing that priests have access to the dying. 

Last Friday, Sir David Amess, a Catholic member of the House of Commons was assassinated while meeting constituents in a church east of London. Emergency medical personnel tried unsuccessfully to save Amess after a man stabbed him repeatedly. 

A local priest, Fr. Jeffrey Woolnough, hearing of the stabbing, rushed to Belfairs Methodist Church, where Amess lay dying. Fr. Woolnough knew that Amess was a devout Catholic and would likely want to receive the “last rites” of the Church. Police denied the priest entry into the building, however, saying that it was a crime scene. Fr. Woolnough accepted the restriction and prayed the Rosary for Amess outside the church.

Responding to the incident, Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury on Tuesday called for recognition of the sacrament of Anointing as an emergency service, which would have let Fr. Woolnough approach the dying parliamentarian.

“Every Catholic Christian hopes to receive the Sacraments and be accompanied by the prayer of the Church in the final crisis of our lives,” Bishop Davies said. “Every believing Catholic desires to hear Christ’s words of pardon and absolution for the last time; to be strengthened by the grace of anointing; accompanied by the assurance of the Church’s prayer and whenever possible to receive Holy Communion.

“This is something well understood in hospitals and care homes, yet the events following the murderous assault on Sir David Amess suggest this is not always comprehended in emergency situations,” Bishop Davies continued. “I hope a better understanding of the eternal significance of the hour of death for Christians and the Church’s ministry as an ‘emergency service’ may result from this terrible tragedy.”

In addition, Member of Parliament Mike Kane suggested that lawmakers pass an “Amess amendment” guaranteeing priests access to persons in need of spiritual care when in danger of death. Kane, a Catholic member of the House of Commons, noted that Amess “participated fully” in the liturgy and the sacraments of the Church.

“Catholics believe that extreme unction helps guide the soul to God after death, so maybe we could come up with an Amess amendment so that no matter where it is, in a care home or at a crime scene, Members, or anybody, can receive that sacrament.”

“In case of emergency …”

Fr. Patrick Dowling, a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri, gained national attention when he was identified as the “mystery priest” who had come to the scene of a road accident in 2013, ministered to a victim, and disappeared without a trace.

“If the patient requests a priest, I would expect that would be respected,” he told Aleteia Tuesday, reacting to the Sir David Amess incident. “It is not so common nowadays for people to carry a card ‘In case of emergency please call a priest.’”

He noted that some people think that the approach of a priest to such a situation might trigger anxiety on the part of the patient. “That was the reaction of the deputy when I asked him, but he reconsidered,” he said.

Fr. Dowling said he was glad to read of the respect Fr. Woolnough expressed for the police in the situation of the Amess assassination. But, he added, “As for myself, I carry the ‘in case of emergency’ card.”

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