Timothy McVeigh is in heaven now, his parish priest believes. Some theologians, however, are not so sure.
Shortly before Monday morning's execution, the man who killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing received the Catholic sacrament of the anointing of the sick, or the last anointing, which includes prayers of repentance and forgiveness.
The fact that McVeigh had asked for the sacrament, which until Vatican II was known as last rites, is proof enough that he was sorry for his sins, said the Rev. Ron Ashmore of St. Margaret Mary Church in Terre Haute, Ind.
“I personally feel he is in heaven,” Father Ashmore said in an interview with The Blade.
“You have to be open to the Lord's forgiveness to ask for that sacrament. It begins with the rite of repentance,” he said.
Father Ashmore, who knew McVeigh better than any other clergyman, described him as “a very spiritual person.”
Dr. Geoffrey J. Grubb is not as certain of McVeigh's spiritual fate.
A Catholic theologian who heads the religious studies department at Lourdes College in Sylvania, Dr. Grubb said the sacrament of the anointing of the sick “is not the way reconciliation happens.”
“The sacrament of anointing, going back to the Council of Trent in the 16th century, does have some connection to the forgiveness of sins, but not so much that it replaces the sacrament of penance,” he said.
Speaking broadly, Dr. Grubb said Catholicism teaches that admission to heaven requires that a person “is moved by faith, and then accepts baptism. You're initiated into the church with baptism, confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist, and then you live a life consistent with that initiation. Salvation comes by a gift from God.”
He compared a lifelong sinner who makes a deathbed plea for forgiveness to someone who never runs or jogs suddenly deciding to enter a marathon.
“If someone lived a horrible life, when they got to their deathbed, they probably would not be capable of true repentance,” Dr. Grubb said.
In most cases, the person who receives the last anointing requests the sacrament of penance and the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, church officials said, but Father Ashmore said he could not disclose whether McVeigh received them.
The Rev. Michael Billian, chancellor of the Toledo Diocese, said that although the anointing of the sick can be performed separately, most people facing death ask for the other sacraments as well.
“Generally, when they want to be anointed, they want to be fully reconciled to God,” Father Billian said.
The sacrament of the anointing of the sick, which is also called the last anointing, involves forgiveness of sins, salvation from the Lord, and being raised up to eternal life, Father Ashmore said.
“First of all, to say `anointing,' we use oil, but what we're talking about is the anointing of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “We stand before God, totally open to Him, presenting our life in its entirety, with its good and with its bad, and we ask his forgiveness in all that we've done that was wrong.”
Dr. Christopher Shannon, associate director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, said McVeigh's request for the sacrament “shows that he takes his relationship to the church seriously.”
But Dr. Shannon said the sacrament “is distinct from penance or reconciliation or the Eucharist.”
He cautioned that it is “very difficult and wrong to try to guess the state of McVeigh's soul.”
Similarly, Dr. Grubb said “it is impossible to speak about the situation of an individual before God. Only God knows and that person might know - he might not because of our ability to lie to ourselves.”
McVeigh, who had been brought up a Catholic, received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick from a priest who serves as a chaplain in the U.S. Bureau of Prisons system, but who was not from Terre Haute, according to Father Ashmore, who added that he doubted McVeigh knew the priest.
A priest can skip to the essential part of the sacrament if necessary, according to Father Ashmore and the Rev. Tom Quinn, spokesman for the Toledo Diocese. But even under the most extreme conditions, if the recipient is conscious, he must respond to the prayer's call for repentance with an “amen” and then ask God to forgive his sins.
Father Ashmore read what he called “the heart” of the liturgy for the sacrament: “`Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you as you approach death with the grace of the Holy Spirit,' and the person says `Amen.' `And may the Lord who frees you from all sin save you and raise you up.'”
The Rev. Michael Baxter, an assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, agreed that the anointing of the sick could result in reconciliation with God because it “involves confession and a true expression of sorrow and penance, and a firm purpose of amendment, or changing one's life.”
While that could be enough to clear the way for someone to enter heaven, Father Baxter said, there may be another step involved. “We believe in purgatory where one is purified of one's sins before entering into God's presence.”
McVeigh never publicly apologized or asked for forgiveness for his crime, but that would not be necessary in order to be forgiven by God, Father Baxter said.
The Rev. Verity Jones, a Terre Haute minister whose brother-in-law was wounded in the bombing, said she hopes McVeigh is in heaven.
“It is my deepest hope and conviction that Timothy McVeigh is in heaven with God,” said Mrs. Jones, senior pastor of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). “I don't believe God ever gives up on us. Perhaps at the moment of death, there is some profound reconciliation that we don't understand.”
Some family members of the bombing victims may find it hard to accept the thought of McVeigh being in heaven, but Mrs. Jones said “I'm not sure any of us deserve to go to heaven.”
She expressed “great sympathy” for those victimized by the bombings, but people who resent the prospect of McVeigh's salvation are only hurting themselves, Mrs. Jones said.
“The hope for him to suffer is motivated by the desire for revenge, and revenge can never heal us. Revenge gets in the way of even our own reconciliation with God. And when we act out revenge, we are getting in God's way.”
Father Ashmore said he first met McVeigh when the prisoner and 19 other death-row inmates were transferred in July, 1999, to the federal prison that is five minutes from his Terre Haute church.
“The prison is within our Catholic boundary and all the Catholic prisoners are seen as members of our parish,” Father Ashmore said. “Their records are kept here. Tim is a baptized Catholic, so his death would be recorded here.”
As a substitute prison chaplain, he met with McVeigh at least twice a week and corresponded by mail.
“We got to know each other. We would laugh, talk, joke,” Father Ashmore said. “It was comfortable. He would talk with me. I consider him a friend, although friendship is probably too strong a word because friendship takes time.”
He said McVeigh, while growing up in Pendleton, N.Y., was baptized and confirmed Catholic and had been an altar boy.
“He had his roots. Many people of his age drift away from the church and don't practice. ... But often they come back when they're married and have children, when they're more settled in life. Tim didn't have that chance.”
McVeigh, who was 33 when he was executed by injection, “didn't do those things that we visibly see as Catholic in his latter years, but what is in a person's heart is not always evident by his external actions,” Father Ashmore said.