It’s a privilege to accompany a dying person. Whether it’s a peaceful or painful death is not the issue. It’s a privilege to pray with, listen to, comfort or just be present with a dying person. We need not be scandalized by the indignities of a failing body. We will face the same fate. So we must patiently “do unto others” as we would have others “do unto us.” A Christian ought to understand this: death and the stench of death are the wages of Adam’s sin and every sin thereafter. Pleasure and the blossoms of youth are fleeting. “Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine….” They are relics of a shipwreck, said G.K. Chesterton. We ought to be grateful to God that a few barrels of wine have washed up on the shore of this savage desert island. But where sin and the wages of sin abound, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20). Hence, a Christian doesn’t resent suffering. Nor resent God. Death, we know, is a mystical moment – for the dying person and the loved ones. Christ died to conquer death – our death.
Once upon a time, people would gather around a deathbed and attentively keep vigil to see if the dying person would have a vision, say something prophetic or utter a final message. I recall reading a memoir, written by an ancestor about a century ago, of a relative’s death in New Orleans. The diary said that the eyes of the dying person seemed fixated on a sight beyond time. The dying woman uttered a joyful groan and smiled when her soul departed. The attending priest, wrote the diarist, surmised that she had a vision of someone in Heaven. Of course, we can never be totally sure of what’s going on. But there’s something to be said for attentively reading the ambiguous gestures and words of a dying person. Interrupting death’s musings with nonsensical comments like, “Oh, come on ma’! When you’re better, we’ll order out Chinese,” or “When you’re up and at it again, grandpa, we’ll head to the beach house.” The dying person will not be convinced. “Guess what, dad! Apple came out with a new iPad!” “Hey grandma, Missy got a new poodle!” Stop it. You’re only annoying your dying loved one, if they’re paying attention. Be quiet. Be present. Listen attentively. Death is a solemn moment. It can teach us how to handle solemnity. As in a liturgy, perhaps there’s cryptic wisdom in death’s musings and awkward silences. If you listen, you may detect the beginnings of their judgment, or their Purgatory. Their mind may wander through past events or regrets, or express desires for God, or reconciliation, or lament the world’s evils and injustices. The person might worry about undone tasks or ordinary things that were on their mind. When they go on like that, we need not make too many comments. Rather, do this: Tell the dying person that we’ll give everything over to God. And then say the Rosary and the Litany of Saints. Without a doubt, this will console the dying person.
Dying can be painful. For some, the mind doesn’t seem lucid or penitent at all, but more like hallucinating. To be sure, this is not necessarily an indication of anything unholy or of the soul’s lack of concern for God. Rather, it may just be that the Holy Spirit is not revealing anything on the psychological or physical level. A person in ICU or hospice may be hooked up to tubes and wires and a mask so that there’s no opportunity for them to say or do anything aloud, even if they could. A person suffering from a painful condition may just groan or be too weak to even murmur. That’s OK. The graces that God gives a dying person need not be apparent. We should accept these difficulties as providential, as we comfort the dying person to the best of our ability. These experiences conceal God’s hidden Wisdom. It’s disconcerting to look at wires and masks strapped to a fading loved one. The loss of appetite, the embarrassment and stench of incontinence, and the need to be cleaned by a nurse can add to grief. But these are graced moments that God offers us to purify our own souls and perfect our patience and charity. For us, it’s God’s painful lesson in “letting go.” We’re not in control. When death finally comes, at the time of God’s bidding, it can be as much a relief as a grief. It’s a disconsolate paradox for us who remain, leaving us impervious to comforting words. If grieving loved ones ask “Why?” in times like these, it’s usually best to say little, or better yet, nothing – except for reciting the Rosary and the Litany of the Saints.
If the dying person is Catholic, call a priest. Don’t wait until the last minute. Believe it or not, the priest is bound by the Laws of Physics, and the Laws of Traffic, and cannot get from “there to here” in a flash, like in Star Trek. Moreover, your request is probably not the only thing preoccupying him when you call. So call him in advance. Also, it’s best for a terminally ill person to make a Confession while still lucid, if possible. Even if the dying person is not lucid or cannot speak, the priest can just tell them to privately acknowledge their sins and ask God’s forgiveness as he gives them Absolution. After giving Absolution, the priest should give Apostolic Pardon, which may be recited by him in these words: “By the authority granted me by the Apostolic See, I grant you a full pardon and remission of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That’s an indulgence given by the Church, via the priest, to a dying person who is in a state of grace. If the dying person is properly disposed, the need for purgatory is remitted. Then, the dying person should receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. If the person can swallow, the priest can give them Last Holy Communion, known as Viaticum (which means, in Latin, “I go with you”). Then, we must let the dying person go, notwithstanding the care that we are obliged to give them. Death is something that only they can do. Bid them farewell by making a cross on the forehead. Only Christ can accompany the soul when it leaves the body. Christ died for them. Let Him take it from there. He will accompany them through the tunnels of death into the Light of the Father’s Face and the Truth of Judgment.
I recall a man cancerously laying on his deathbed, yellow skin clinging to his bones. His face was mean as a demon. He told me to go away because “God would never forgive” his sins. He defiantly shouted, “I’m going to Hell!” “Would you like to confess your sins?” nervously replied my newly ordained soul. He growled as I asked everyone to leave the room. He confessed. He was anointed. He took Communion. Two days later, I visited him. He firmly gripped my hand. Defying his frailty, he awkwardly sat up and said, “I don’t know why I waited sixty years to confess my sins. I’m going to Heaven.” He let go of my hand and fell back onto his pillow. Peace! It’s amazing what a few rites, clumsily cited by a nervous junior priest fumbling through a little green book feebly entitled “Pastoral Care of the Sick,” can do. The man died a day or two later.
From the priest’s perspective, giving the Last Rites reminds him of what his priesthood is really about. That’s been my experience. Death reminds me that I’m not a wizard, magician, charmer, soothsayer, psychoanalyst, activities director, entertainer, pop speaker, celebrity, pageant officiator or whatever else this world faithlessly expects me to be. I don’t have half the “charismatic gifts” that some people think every priest should have. In short, I’m not an alchemist. I can’t change lead into gold, either in fact or in metaphor. I can’t squeeze blood out of turnips any more than Christ could work miracles in the town that lacked faith (Matthew 13:58). But I can get you to Heaven, should that be of interest. I can change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. I can make the Pascal Mystery present at Mass. I can forgive sins confessed in earnest. I can send souls to Heaven when they die. Those are the advantages of Apostolic Succession and the Keys of Peter. A college student once asked me, “If you weren’t a Catholic priest, what would you be?” “A Druid,” I replied. I would content myself by doing sorcery under an Oak. It’s perhaps the only thing I could get away with besides the Catholic priesthood.
Suffice it to say: I can put God in your mouth and forgive your sins, as only another priest can forgive mine. I can give you the Holy Spirit, if you’re up for it. I can get you to Heaven, if you’re willing. I can prepare you for Sacraments, which really do give grace. As one who shares in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, I can save your soul and body. That’s the only competence I can guarantee because it’s the infallibility of Jesus Christ. The dying man, who at first said he was going to Hell and then said he was going to Heaven, experienced this first-hand. Aside from Mass and Confession, a priest’s best work is at the deathbed. Quite frankly, I’ll be grateful to God if another priest comes to my deathbed to absolve my sins, give me Apostolic Pardon, anoint me and give me the Body of Christ. After receiving the Last Rites, I hope to hear a priest – any priest – say these words, from the rites of Commendation for the Dying:
“Go forth, Christian soul, from this world in the name of God the almighty Father, who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon you, go forth, faithful Christian. May you live in peace this day, may your home be with God in Zion, with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, with Joseph, and all the angels and saints.”