A Catholic bishop has called for greater recognition of the last rites as an “emergency service” in the wake of the brutal murder of Sir David Amess.
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury made the appeal after police turned away a priest who sought to administer the last rites to the Conservative MP for Southend West at the scene of the attack in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.
“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.”
He continued: “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.”
“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. May Sir David rest in peace.”
Fr Jeff Woolnough, parish priest of St Peter’s Catholic Church, Eastwood, went to Belfairs Methodist Church, where Sir David was holding a surgery for constituents, after he heard about the attack.
According to reports, a police officer outside the church relayed his request to enter the building, but the priest was not permitted to enter. He prayed the rosary outside the police cordon instead.
Police arrested a 25-year-old man, identified in the Press as Ali Harbi Ali, a British national of Somali descent, under the Terrorism Act 2000 and London magistrates have issued a warrant allowing them to detain him without charge until Friday.
Paramedics attended to Sir David, who was stabbed multiple times, for more than two-and-a-half hours before an air ambulance arrived to take him to a hospital.
In response to inquiries, Essex Police stressed that it was “of the utmost importance that we preserve the integrity of a crime scene and allow emergency services to tend to those in need.”
“A cordon is put in place to secure and prevent contamination of the area. Access into a scene is at the discretion of the investigating officers,” it said.
“This is a fundamental part of any investigation to ensure the best possible chance of securing justice for any victim and their family.”
Journalist Melanie McDonagh criticised the police’s decision not to admit Fr Woolnough to the crime scene.
“The most troubling element of the [Essex Police] statement is that the police wanted to ‘allow the emergency services to tend to those in need’. A priest is an emergency service,” she wrote in the The Spectator.
“In the case of Sir David, the priest was someone who could help see him into the next world, not just keep him in this one. You don’t have to share a belief in the efficacy of confession to go along with this; you just need a very elementary knowledge of and respect for the faith to refrain from standing between a confessor and a dying man.”
Another journalist, Tim Stanley, noted that according to the College of Policing, a professional body for the police in England and Wales, there is no national guidance on priests administering the last rites.
“The lack of a national policy on the last rites implies that whether or not a priest gets access to a dying person might depend upon circumstances (understandable, because one doesn’t want to impede the police from doing their job) — or else, which is far less forgivable, upon the religious literacy of the individual officer on duty,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph, calling the absence of guidelines “totally unacceptable”.
The Church helps to prepare Catholics for death by offering them the sacraments of reconciliation, the anointing of the sick, and viaticum (Holy Communion.)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “If circumstances suggest it, the celebration of the sacrament [of the anointing of the sick] can be preceded by the sacrament of Penance and followed by the sacrament of the Eucharist. As the sacrament of Christ’s Passover, the Eucharist should always be the last sacrament of the earthly journey, the ‘viaticum’ for ‘passing over’ to eternal life.”
Speaking in the House of Commons, Labour MP Mike Kane, a Catholic, suggested that politicians pass an “Amess amendment” guaranteeing priests access to those requiring last rites.
He said that Sir David “participated fully in the liturgy of the Church – he participated fully in the sacraments of the Church”.
“While I have the attention of those on the Front Benches [government ministers], 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.”
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