The Handbook of Indulgences § 28 states:
“Priests who minister the sacraments to the Christian faithful who are in a life-and-death situation should not neglect to impart to them the apostolic blessing, with its attached indulgence. But if a priest cannot be present, holy mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis, at the approach of death, provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross is recommended in obtaining this plenary indulgence. In such a situation the three usual conditions required in order to gain a plenary indulgence are substituted for by the condition ‘provided they regularly prayed in some way.’”
The Sacraments Preceding the Apostolic Pardon
Usually, the priest begins the Last Rites with the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation by hearing the dying Catholic’s sacramental confession and giving him sacramental absolution: § 1449 “God, the Father of mercies, Through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Through this Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation the dying Catholic is restored to God’s friendship, which we call “the state of grace.”
After the dying Catholic is restored, if necessary, to the state of grace, the priest can administer the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. In this sacrament the priest says, § 1513 “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” It confers § 1520 “strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age” as § 1523 “preparation for the final journey.”
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is ordinarily a sacrament of the living, which means we have to be in the state of grace to receive it fruitfully. However, if the priest is unable to hear the dying Catholic’s confession, the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation operates as a sacrament of the dead, which means it restores a Catholic in the state of mortal sin (separation from God) to the state of grace (friendship with God).
The Apostolic Pardon
The Apostolic Pardon, also called the Apostolic Benediction, is a very special indulgence given by a priest to a Catholic approaching death. A special faculty allowing it is granted to the bishops, who in most cases delegate it to their priests. The conditions are the dying person’s invocation of the Holy Name of Jesus at least mentally, willingness to accept all his sufferings in reparation for his sins, and submission entirely to the will of God.
EWTN explains that, “The focus is on the remission of temporal punishment due to sin.” The Apostolic Pardon remits all temporal punishment due for forgiven sins. Because it is applied at the point of death, the Catholic goes into eternity completely cleansed of temporal punishment:
By the faculty given to me by the Apostolic See, I grant you a plenary indulgence and the remission of all your sins. In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Apostolic Pardon is ordinarily given after the dying Catholic receives the Sacraments of Penance and Anointing to assure that he is in the state of grace, his sins are forgiven. The Apostolic Pardon remits temporal punishment due for forgiven sins. The Church applies it at the point of death, which means there is no unfinished sin or punishment that needs purgation as the dying Catholic enters eternity. Objectively speaking, he therefore goes straight to heaven.
Father Zuhlsdorf emphasizes the extreme importance of the Apostolic Pardon. Every priest should use it regularly, but not all priests know it. Johnette Benkovic calls it a lost treasure. Father Jeff tells a wonderful true story about how God waited for him to administer the Apostolic Pardon.
The Apostolic Pardon has a long, long history. This is how it was done in the centuries before Vatican II.
Viaticum: The Last Sacrament
Viaticum is a Latin word that means “with you on the way.” It comes from via the way, ti you, cum with.
“Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you” 1 Kings 19:7.
§ 1524 In addition to the Anointing of the Sick, the Church offers those who are about to leave this life the Eucharist as viaticum. Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of “passing over” to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection, according to the words of the Lord: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father.
§ 1525 Thus, just as the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist form a unity called “the sacraments of Christian initiation,” so too it can be said that Penance, the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist as viaticum constitute at the end of Christian life “the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland” or the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimage.