ASK FATHER: A dying man’s confession, death and YOU.

From a reader…


My father-in-law recently passed away. Before he died, he received Last Rites and a confession, but my wife is concerned about the validity of the confession. He suffered from a couple of strokes before he died, which took away his ability to speak. Can one make a valid confession without being able to speak? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

I think you can all be at ease.  If the man received “Last Rites”, by which I think you mean that he was also anointed after being given the opportunity to confess, he was probably in pretty good shape to meet his Lord.

In normal circumstances, that is when a person is not dying, non-verbal communication is okay for making a confession.  If a person has to write something, or indicate only by signs, perhaps as responses to questions, that’s okay.  That is valid matter for the sacrament.

If a person is dying, however, it is possible to absolve the person even if he is unable to speak.  The priest can ask for some sort of non-verbal sign.  “Are you are truly sorry for all your sins? Do you love God and ask for His grace and mercy?  Nod your head… squeeze my hand… blink your eyes….”  Priests know what to do in these cases.

Even if the person cannot respond, the Sacrament of Anointing also has the power to forgive sins which the dying person cannot confess.

I think we all remember the moving scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with the priest finally gets in to see Lord Marchmain as he is dying. [I added a video clip, below.]

The last moments of life are mysterious.  It is hard to know what goes on during those last breaths between the soul and God.  I imagine that stupendous graces are offered.  We trust in His great mercy.

That said, dear readers, it is likely that most people die much as they have lived.

We develop habits throughout a lifetime.  We accustom ourselves to turn to God to ask for mercy or, on the other hand, not to think much about God at all.

Do not… do not… presume that God’s mercy will be given to you automatically, without you doing your part to prepare for your own death.

Do not be presumptuous.

We have this lifetime to prepare for the moment when we come before the Lord and receive His judgment.

Foster habits of prayer and of life which will make you more and more conscious of God’s love and mercy.

In our death, His justice we are going to get whether we want it or not.  But, in this life, His mercy is always there for the asking.

Listen, people.  You may die suddenly, in a place and time that you cannot anticipate.  Death can come from any direction and in any moment.  Read the papers and watch the news.  It is always somebody else… until it is YOU.

For good reason we Catholics have for centuries prayed in the Litany:

“A subitanea et improvisa morte… From a sudden and unprovided death, spare us O Lord.”

A sudden death can be a blessing. A sudden and unprovided death – death without recourse to the Sacraments – is a frightening prospect.

When it is your time, you may not be anywhere near a priest.  Got that?

Examine your consciences and, regularly, …


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, GO TO CONFESSION, Hard-Identity Catholicism, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. LarryW2LJ says:

    Although this is not directly related to the post, I have to offer this. Tomorrow will be the second anniversary of my Mom passing away. We were very fortunate that she was visited by a priest the day before she passed and also the next afternoon a few hours before she passed, she received the Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction as we used to call it). In both instances, she was already in a coma like state. She was not able to respond in a way that we were able to see; but on more than one occasion, I have been told that people who are in comas can still hear. If that is the case, then I am certain she responded mentally.

    My sister and I stayed with her until her last breath. I said the Divine Mercy chaplet on her behalf and we both recited the rosary. She passed peacefully, and for that I thank God, so much.

    My Mom, forever the pragmatist, insisted the following be printed on the prayer card that was given out at the wake, and I paraphrase….. “Please remember and pray for me, as I am not in Heaven yet. But with your help, and God’s grace, I will get there someday.”

  2. Titus says:

    “I think we all remember the moving scene in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with the priest finally gets in to see Lord Marchmain as he is dying. ”

    That was my first thought when I read the question. Then I saw that Father had thought the same thing. An excellent literary example.

  3. APX says:

    Our priest tells people to have two brown scapulars, one for in the shower, and one for when you get out in case you die in the shower. Wise advice considering my grandfather dropped dead of a heart attack in the shower.

    I suspect I will spend millenniums roasting away in purgatory after I’ve received instant canonization at my funeral, as no one will think to pray for me.

  4. amrc says:

    Here is an extraordinary promise given to St. Faustina by Our Lord which she relates in her Diary: “At the hour of their death, I defend as My own glory every soul that will say this Chaplet; or when others say it for a dying person, the indulgence [pardon] is the same (811).” *
    * quoted in “The Divine Mercy & Devotion,” Fr. S. Michalenko, MIC, Stockbridge, MA, 2006, p. 77

  5. Terentia says:

    When my father died, he had been silent for 2 days, eyes closed, not responding to us. His color was gray and he struggled to breathe. When the priest came in, Dad opened his eyes, smiled with great joy and did his very best to make the responses. He even tried to make the sign of the cross. As Father annointed him, the color returned to my father’s face and his breathing eased. He died 36 hrs later but his final moments were peaceful. I am forever thankful to Father Tom who got out of bed in the middle of the night to provide for my father and these many years later, Father Tom is still in my prayers.
    I am a hospice nurse and have been at many deathbeds. The saddest one I have ever seen, was a woman who died before I arrived. When I expressed my condolences to her daughter, she told me she knew her mother would die that day because she had been asking for a priest since early morning. The family did not call one and the woman died without the sacrament she so clearly desired. I prayed for her but it’s not the same. My hope is that, as desire for baptism is taken into account, so will her desire be. I went home that night and told my family that if I am sick or old and ask for a priest, they better call one.

  6. Priam1184 says:

    In line with others I would like to commend the excellent priests who took care of my mother during her last days. As to the content of Father’s post: I remember that great scene of a last Confession at the end of William Peter Blathy’s The Exorcist, the novel at least I cannot remember whether it was in the film or not.

  7. Infirmatur quis in vobis? inducat presbyteros ecclesiæ, et orent super eum, ungentes eum oleo in nomine Domini: et oratio fidei salvabit infirmum, et alleviabit eum Dominus: et si in peccatis sit, remittentur ei.

    “…et si in peccatis sit, remittentur ei.” If he is guilty of sins, they will be pardoned. The Anointing of the Sick is a wonderful Sacrament that we should have full confidence in to remit sins. Deo gratias!

  8. Ann Roth says:

    My mother in law passed away last month. She was not a Catholic. She was baptized as a child into the Presbyterian church but received no religious education or formation of any kind. I can honestly say that the saddest thing I have ever seen is someone approaching the end of their life without the benefit of faith; without knowing God’s love and mercy. I prayed for her conversion for years, and I prayed for it most fervently these last few months. We received no sign that she accepted God’s love. We can only hope that she did.

  9. Simon_GNR says:

    It’s good to have a reminder of what a great series Granada Television’s adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was! Surely a high point in British television: will it ever be equalled, let alone bettered?
    I believe no-one would make such a long series from a single novel these days, neither would they be so faithful to the book.
    Watching this scene reminds me to try to be sure to have a priest attend me when I’m approaching death. These words from St. Patrick’s Breastplate also come to mind: “Christ, protect me today against an untimely death…” May I leave this life penitent and in a state of grace.

  10. Long-Skirts says:


    Send me not roses
    Carafes of wine
    Send me your words
    Of love divine.

    Send me not jewels
    Encased in gold
    Send me your words
    My heart will hold.

    Send me not silver
    In purple so plush
    Send me your words
    Oh, make my face flush.

    Send me not silks
    Of shimmering dyes
    Send me your words
    Bring tears to my eyes.

    Send me not song
    I sleep close to death
    But send me your words
    For my very last breath.

  11. acardnal says:

    Thank God for the Sacraments . . . especially the Anointing of the Sick and Last Rites.

    I am grateful to God and have some peace of mind because I was able to arrange for a priest to visit my late father in the hospital to administer the sacraments before he died. (My father was married to a Lutheran and the marriage had been convalidated by the bishop…which was another thing I encouraged them to do!)

    Now, three of my four sisters are fallen away Catholics. They do not practice any religion. I should remind them periodically that they MUST call a priest when I am on my death bed!

  12. Cordelio says:

    Perhaps the greatest television ever.

    Charles’s narration after Lord Marchmain makes the Sign of the Cross is magnificent: “Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.”


  13. Matt R says:

    We need to live our lives so that we pray, hope, and don’t worry. Then we will be set straight at the end of our earthly sojourns in preparation for eternal life.

    To second what my mom said…to see my grandmother pass away was quite sad. From my perspective, it was like Hell as Joseph Ratzinger described it in Introduction to Christianity, being so self-sufficient as to cut out God and all others. But, God’s mercy is his greatest attribute.

    That’s a good idea, I’m going to have to get a second scapular for the shower.

  14. StJude says:

    I was holding my grandmothers hand when she passed. She was the most Godly woman I ever knew. It was the most beautiful moment of my life. We weren’t alone in that room when she died, an overwhelming love and peace over took that hospital room and took her soul. Changed my life, which I believe was her soul and God conspiring to do in her last moments. Her last seconds on earth was spent winning another soul for Jesus.
    God is real alright.
    Examine your conscience and go to confession… I want that when I take my last breath.

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  16. Ellen says:

    My mother died a year ago. The Sunday before she died, Father Josh came and heard her confession and gave her Extreme Unction. A couple of days later, she could not talk anymore and died. I am so happy that she was able to have the last sacraments and will now get off my lazy rear and say the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for her.

  17. teejay329 says:

    Oh, if we could all have such beautiful Last Rites…in Latin, nonetheless.

  18. Sonshine135 says:

    May I say that I was touched by your story. I believe your Mother is a person of great humility. I said an Ave for her. I would further add that she asked the living to pray for her in death, but when she does reach the gates of heaven, she will be praying for all of you. Peace.

  19. jaykay says:

    In regard to “subitanea et improvida mors”, I recently acquired a credit-card-sized “Catholic Identity Card” which I carry in a prominent place in my wallet. I got it from a Catholic Charity to which I subscribe and it’s provided by an organisation called “”. It says on the front: ” I am a Catholic. In the event of an accident or emergency please contact a Priest”.

    The reason I decided to carry it is that, here in Ireland these days, in the event of my ever having an accident and being rendered incommunicado, and even given that someone spotted the gold Miraculous Medal I wear (and didn’t think it was Kuan Yin), you couldn’t actually be sure that a Priest would be called. It’s like that now. Who’d ‘a thunk?

  20. MouseTemplar says:

    The Transalpine Redemptorists on Papa Stronsay Island offer a Purgatorian Archconfraternity membership both individually and for an entire family here:

    I have purchased year long enrollments as well as a perpetual enrollment for my own family to have Masses said for them, whether living or dead, by the monks here.

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