About two hours before his 7:14 a.m. execution Monday, Timothy J. McVeigh asked for a Catholic priest, who administered to the Oklahoma City bomber a sacrament for dying formerly called Last Rites and described in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" as Anointing of the Sick.
The rite nearly always involves confession of sins and demonstration of remorse, said the Rev. Ron Ashmore, pastor of the Roman Catholic parish in Terre Haute, Ind., that includes the U.S. Penitentiary there. The rite was administered by an unidentified chaplain with the Bureau of Prisons.
McVeigh's apparent last-minute act of contrition seems to conflict with his public attitude -- throughout his trial and during his last days -- that the 1995 bombing he masterminded was a military action against an enemy, the U.S. government. The killings, though regrettable, were necessary, McVeigh said, and he neither apologized nor admitted wrongdoing.
After receiving the rite, McVeigh had the opportunity to tell the 10 survivors and victims' family members outside the death chamber -- plus nearly 250 watching on closed-circuit television in Oklahoma City -- that he was sorry for what he had done and to ask forgiveness. He never did.
"We face in Tim the mystery of good and evil in a human being," said Ashmore, who met with McVeigh several times during pastoral visits to the prison and exchanged letters with him. "In the end, we will never understand totally."
McVeigh chose not to request a spiritual adviser as one of the six witnesses to his execution. But around 5 Monday morning, he accepted the warden's offer to meet with a priest, according to his attorney, Rob Nigh Jr.
At 6:15, the chaplain entered the holding cell, Bureau of Prisons spokesman Dan Dunne said yesterday. An unspecified number of staff members remained in the room for security reasons but stood back "to afford as much privacy as possible," Dunne said.
Officials initially had said McVeigh received the sacrament after being strapped to the gurney in the death chamber.
The "seal of the confessional" prevents the priest who administered the sacrament from talking specifically about what occurred between him and McVeigh. But the fact that an anointing sacrament took place at McVeigh's request is significant, said Ashmore, pastor of St. Mary Margaret Catholic Church, where certificates of McVeigh's anointing and death will be filed.
"This means he stood before God and in some fashion said, 'I am sorry for all the sins of my life,' " the priest said. "The sacrament is celebrated in a state of grace. There has to be some willingness to acknowledge our sinfulness before God."
Ashmore and other priests said the rite for a person about to be executed typically includes three steps: some form of penance and absolution; the taking of Holy Communion; and an apostolic pardon from the priest commending the person to God.
Because the priest entered the holding cell about 45 minutes before McVeigh entered the death chamber, there was time for the chaplain "to do what he chose to do," Ashmore said. During emergency situations, such as an automobile accident, where a victim may die within minutes, a priest might deliver a shortened version of the sacrament, he said.
One of the most critical elements is the prayer offered during the anointing of oil on the forehead and hands: "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."
Did McVeigh hypocritically orchestrate priestly absolution for a horrible crime, or was he sincere in facing his final judgment?
That's a question between McVeigh and God, said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, head of the Washington Archdiocese. "The Lord has given us the sacraments as a sign of His mercy. But the sacraments are not magic. They depend on the interior disposition of the individual who was receiving them."
Some are concerned that McVeigh, by asking for a priest shortly before he was executed, found a way in his last hours to "waltz scot-free into Heaven," said the Rev. Bill Parent, director of priestly vocations for the Washington Archdiocese.
"We [priests] always err on the side of generosity, especially when we know it's somebody's last chance," said Parent, who has performed dozens of sacraments for the dying but never for a condemned prisoner.
"If the person is [asking for the sacrament] in bad faith, they have an additional sin to answer for: sacrilege," Parent said. "I can't stress enough there is no such thing as a free ride. No one escapes God's justice."
The Catholic Church still teaches that most souls go through a state of purification, called Purgatory, before entering eternal life with God, Parent said. If McVeigh acted in bad faith, he will answer for it in Purgatory, he said. "We believe Timothy McVeigh will face not only the Lord Jesus Christ, but the 168 people he killed."
Whether McVeigh acted sincerely, if in fact he did ask forgiveness for the bombing, is a matter between him and God, said the priests interviewed for this story.
All said they would like to have seen McVeigh make a public confession after the anointing rather than remain silent on the gurney, his stare defiant through death. But no one can judge whether he was right or wrong in not doing so, they said.
"It has to be tremendously stressful knowing you are going to lose your life in a few minutes," McCarrick said. "It's hard to say what the person is aware of, able to say, able to think. . . . All that we know is that a human being who did a terrible thing is about to lose his life because of it."
Ashmore said his "educated guess" is that McVeigh believed that anything he said just before his execution "would not be listened to, so the best thing to do was to remain silent and let people be healed [as] he was being healed of his sinfulness."
Staff writer Lois Romano contributed to this report.