None of us like to be sick or injured ourselves, and it is painful when our loved ones are sick or hurt, especially when they are dying.
In faith and prayer, we know that in his compassion, Jesus suffers with the one who is dying and so, in watching a loved one die, we find ourselves like Mary at the foot of the Cross. He is with them in a special way in the sacrament of anointing of the sick, which should be requested whenever death is near, but is also available for any serious illness. Here, the loving and merciful hand of Christ our Savior is extended to touch the whole person, body and soul.
While we are certainly grateful for doctors and nurses, eventually all medical remedies fail no matter how great their skills. When death comes, when someone near and dear to us is suddenly ripped away, leaving a gaping wound in our own life, it can shake us as profoundly as an earthquake. It also places us before death’s arrogant claim to have the last word.
The presence of faith helps. It does not totally eliminate our sadness, but it does provide the blessed assurance that while medicine cannot save those we love or us, in the end, the Lord of Life can. He can bring real healing. He can make a reality the words, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
So it is to him we turn, both in preparing for death and after it comes, avoiding the sin of presuming that heaven automatically awaits us or our loved ones no matter what is said or done in this life. While the best preparation for death is a good life, we recall the thief on the cross who even in his last moments found salvation by contritely appealing to Christ’s love. Thus, we should pray for ourselves and encourage others who may be dying to open themselves to the tenderness and forgiveness of God. Then, when the last breath is taken, it is a “holy and pious thought” to pray for the departed “that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:45-46). This is the greatest charity we can do, the greatest sign of respect for their memory we can show: to pray for the departed, asking the saints to accompany them, and God who is rich in mercy to receive them.
We mourn – “blessed are those who mourn” – but we do so in the sure and certain faith that death does not have the last word. We shall be comforted. In the subsequent funeral Mass, we are poignantly reminded that “life is changed but not ended.” Faith in God is more powerful than death. Belief in God’s promise overwhelms the darkness even of cancer. As a people of faith, all of us can take courage and join in the refrain of Saint Paul: “Death is swallowed up in Christ’s victory. Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Yes, we feel the pain now but it is tempered by a more powerful, more enduring reality: By the power of Christ’s love, all things are made new, and even death is transformed to life.
We can pray with confidence because our bonds of communion with those whom we love are not broken in death. Their entrance into eternal life does not end their relevance to us. In a sense, by their passing on to glory, becoming one with God and in God, through the transcendent power of love, we too are somehow brought closer to him.
Often I have heard non-Catholics who participate in a Catholic funeral liturgy comment on its simple strength and majestic grace. We express our sorrow and loss, which is a natural human reaction to death. At the same time, we are aware that our sadness will one day give way to the bright promise of immortality. Thus we can console one another with the assurances of faith.
This is the second in a series. Also, the Archdiocese of Washington Department of Life Issues has compiled some helpful resources to aid you in your reflection on end-of-life issues.