A reader’s story of an emergency room confession and advice to readers

From a reader:

Yesterday (Friday) and I was rushed to the E.R. with a possible aortic dissection. It turned out that it was just muscle pain. I asked for a Catholic priest, and, to my great fortune, my regular parish priest was on call! He was extremely nice! He gave me the Anointing of the Sick, and heard my Confession. I got some things of my chest, and I am glad that I did. I just wanted to write to recommend to all your readers that if they go to the E.R. or hospital, it helps to get Anointing and have Confession. It comforts the soul. Thank-you for ministry, Father, and may God Bless You!

“It helps.”

I should say it does!

One of our most earnest prayers as Catholics in the Litany of Saints is “from a sudden and unprovided death, deliver us O Lord”!  We don’t know the day or the hour.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you may be saying.  “You ask this once in a while.  Do you want to scare the hell out of us?”

Yes.  I do.

  • There is a good alternative to being scared, however.
  • Reflect frequently on the reality of death.
  • Examine your consciences daily.
  • Make a good confession as frequently as you need to of all mortal sins in number and kind.

Parish priests, bishops, please hear confessions, preach about confession, teach about confession, make your own confession.  It is going to happen to you to, Fathers.  You also are all going to die.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Margaret says:

    Yup and yup and yup. I was in a similar situation a few years ago. Ambulance trip, monitors, nitro, IV, etc. Utterly terrifying.

    I was deeply thankful to be able to confess and be anointed. The really ironic part, though, is that I had just made what I thought was a very good, complete, contrite confession a little over a week earlier at the end of a silent retreat. Nothing focuses the mind and conscience quite like an (apparent) heart attack. I was very happy to go to confession again.

    And Fr. Z (and by extension all good and faithful priests)– thank you again for your continued ministry, particularly that of hearing confessions.

  2. albizzi says:

    Dear Father Zuhlsdorf,
    You are right, absolutely.
    Confessing the sins in kinds, OK, but in numbers sometimes it is harder and uncomfortable. [And your point is?]
    And the priests seldom help since they look as if they don’t care. Indeed among the hundreds confessions I made probably was I asked only once: How many times? [Persevere.]
    A priest even said me that Jesus isn’t a severe account keeper an that theexact number doesn’t matter.
    Who is right, who is wrong?

    [The Church asks us to do our best. We cannot do the impossible. But we should indeed do our best in confessing in kind and number.]

  3. jonathanm says:

    albizzi: “A priest even said me that Jesus isn’t a severe account keeper an that theexact number doesn’t matter.”

    St. Matthew: “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known.” (10:26); “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted.” (10:29-30)

  4. Mike says:

    My parish: all vernacular; nearly zero chant; touchy-feeling locked in the 70’s pastor; only one mention of new translation thus far from pulpit; faithful in pews always applaud the musicians after Mass; perhaps 40% don’t genuflect in front of the tabernacle:

    Today at 3:45 Confessions, how many penitents? three. What a surprise!

  5. Andy Lucy says:

    Don’t count on getting a priest. A few years ago, I had some severe chest pain, went to the local ED, my ECG was incorrectly read, and as a result, I was whisked to a bigger hospital… a Baptist hospital… 60m miles away. When I asked the nurse for a priest, she looked at me like a monkey working a math problem. Three hours later, and with a raging nitro headache in me gulliver, she came back and asked if a Baptist preacher would be just as good. I said, “No, thank you,” sighed, made an Act of Contrition and waited, while watching all of those videos the make you watch showing everything that can go wrong during a heart cath.

    I was then visited anyway by a very nice Baptist chaplain, who very subtly asked if I should like to become a Christian. Through the haze of the headache, I just told him “Thanks, ” but that such an act would be nonsensical, as I had left the Southern Baptist Convention, and had become fully Christian… a Roman Catholic. A Papist, no less.

    My wife got there, asked if I had asked for a priest. When I said that I had, but that the hospital had sent a Baptist… well… my wife went to the nurses station in the ICU and commenced to verbally strip the hide from them for ignoring my request. My beloved is a true… artiste… in that regard. Needless to say, less than 15 minutes later, there was a priest there to anoint me and hear my confession.

    Fortunately, after undergoing a complete heart cath, it was found that I had zero blockages and that my chest pain was caused by acid reflux, and the erroneous ECG was a loose lead and an inattentive ED doctor. So, all’s well that ends well, but it has always seared into my mind to frequent the confessional, as there is no guarantee of getting to see a priest in an emergency… at least here in Western Kentucky.

  6. bookworm says:

    In late August I became very ill one night with pain just below the rib cage. I went to see my doctor the following day and after ruling out heart attack, he ordered a sonogram the next day because he suspected gallstones. I finished my sonogram at just the right time to make it to confession at a nearby parish. I figured, good a time as any and the lingering pain from the attack could be offered up as part of my penance.

    That was a little over 3 weeks ago, so I guess I’m still good to go — haven’t missed Mass and no serious sins in the meantime that I am aware of — as my surgery (outpatient gallbladder removal) is Monday! Would it be appropriate for me to request Anointing from the pastor after I go to Mass tomorrow?

  7. sparks1093 says:

    I had to chuckle about “do you want to scare the hell out of us” because at my first CCD class last week I told the kids that our culture today is a spiritual dessert and if they were to rely too much on that culture they would die spiritually. The look on their faces was something. Death is something none of us wants to think about but it is a fact of life. We will be ready or not.

  8. Glen M says:

    My mother is a retired nurse. During her career she sat with people as they lay dying. One man, surrounded by his family, described angels and light as he slipped away peacefully. Another man suddenly sat upright in his bed and pleaded with the demons not to take him.

    Death. Judgement. Heaven. Hell.

    It’s very sad to see how few souls go to Confession on Saturday afternoon. This life is temporary – the next is permanent.

  9. Andrew says:

    A priest got into a car accident. They put him in an ambulance and took him to an emergency room. They put him on a stretcher and carried him to the door, but the door was locked. He looked up at the sign posted on the door: “we open for emergencies Saturdays from 3:35 to 3:55 or call for an appointment.” He wondered in confusion: “what kind of a sign is that?”

  10. APX says:

    One thing I’ve often wondered about emergency confessions, and I guess extreme unction would fall under this category as well, if a person is in the ER and in extremely rough shape, how much access to the person would the ER staff actually give the priest if the doctors’ concerned more with saving the person’s life? Are doctors usually pretty hospitable and patient about these things and willing to let a priest in to the ER, or would they rather just do what they need to do and not be bothered by maybe having to wait for an emergency confession, or for the priest to give extreme unction?

    My own personal emergency room experiences make me believe otherwise, perhaps with the exception of Catholic hospitals.

  11. Samthe44 says:

    When I was doing R.C.I.A., our parish priest told us a story that when he was on duty as a hospital chaplain, he was about to say Mass when he got a call from the hospital. A man was going to go into surgery, and he wanted anointing. Father said that he had to celebrate Mass. However, the doctors decided to get the man ready for surgery, and then wait until Father came after Mass. After it was done, Father asked the doctor why he waited. The doctor said that the man was so nervous that he would have died if he had not been anointed.

  12. BLB Oregon says:

    In the United States alone, sudden cardiac death causes an estimated 325,000 deaths each year. Yes, that means that about 1,000 Americans every day, or about 2 per minute, have their heart just stop and never start again. It is estimated that 95 percent of victims of cardiac arrest die before they reach a hospital or other source of emergency help. In 2002, just under 30 people of the people who died of SCD every day were between 35-44 years old (that is, over 10,000 that year).

    Don’t wait for the emergency room chaplain to be your confessor, but do put a card in your wallet stating that you are Catholic, directing the staff to call a priest for you in case of serious illness or impending death. Even if your heart doesn’t give out, one of the other nuts on the road could still get you. It happens often enough.

  13. Frank H says:

    Speaking of bishops in confessionals – I lived for a time in Milwaukee, in the late 1970s to early 1980s. The most memorable confession of my life was when I knelt in the box in the Cathedral, and to my surprise the confessor was Archbishop Weakland! Now, this was very early in his reign, before all the wackiness. His demeanor and words contributed to the most peaceful feeling of having been forgiven that I have ever experienced, before or since.

  14. Bryan Boyle says:

    BTDT a couple years ago. Thankyou thankyou thankyou Father for reminding us…

    We go along, day in and day out…thinking this just keeps on rolling along.

    Those of us who have faced the tenuousness of our own mortality (that we manage to stay alive is a testament to this wondrous physical body gifted us by God…) can relate: lying on a gurney in an ER, gasping for breath or feeling intense pain (or both), doctors rushing around, etc. Knowing you are SERIOUSLY ill, and, glancing into the eyes of the intern or ER sawbones, that this is NOT good.

    And then, in my case, hearing a Filipina nurse ask if I wanted a priest. Guess the crucifix and Miraculous Medal around my neck said what I was incapable of verbalizing at that time. You can not imagine the sense of blessed relief that flows through you when you see that collar, stole, gentle smile looking down at you, and the consecrated hand of a priest raised in blessing over your prone figure, and the rest of the staff leave for this most private moment. Nor the sense of ‘It’s in HIS hands’ as you confess, receive absolution, are annointed with the oil of the sick, and hear the apostolic pardon imposed on you as the drs come back in and you feel the anesthesia take effect. You want to know about ‘certainty’? At that point…if you’ve gone thru it, you now know what certainty is, and the true understanding of just how important being privileged, if that is His will, that your death will be provided for.

    Now, what terrifies me…is not having recourse to a priest in the last moments of my life…and facing eternity without the consolation of confession, absolution, viaticum. Scare the hell out of me? Yes, Father, it does.

    The old books had a beautiful ritual for the accompaniment of a person on their final journey. I’m sure, with the number of priests about 60% of what they once were, that there are more unprovided passings these days than back ‘in the day’. All the more reason for us to take the bull by the horns, pray for good vocations, and take responsibility for keeping ourselves ‘straight with the Lord’. Because, the day before my problems, I was the image of robust health and vitality. It can come, like a thief in the night, when we least expect it.

    Pray hard, eternity is long.

  15. marymoore says:

    It’s a great idea to make the intention of gaining a plenary indulgence at the moment of death. If we are trying to live our lives as Jesus wants us to – frequent Confession, trying to avoid all sin (including venial), etc., we don’t have to worry about a priest not arriving at our deathbed in time. The New Regulations on Indulgences by Fr. Winifred Herbst states that a plenary indulgence can be gained “For the hour of death when a priest cannot be present to give the sacraments and apostolic blessing with plenary indulgence, provided that during life one habitually said some prayers….” Wow, what an incredible gift from the Church! We can catapult from this life straight into heaven!

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