Facing Death as a Catholic: We Who Remain

holy saturdayOne of my favorite scenes in Return of the King is Sam and Frodo sitting together as Mt. Doom erupts around them. When Frodo says, “I am glad you’re with me Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things,” my heartstrings are always tugged because Frodo is reaching for the soul friendship. Love ‘till death. Boundless loyalty despite suffering and sacrifice because love is sacrifice. But, what about after death?

When the veil is pressed aside to admit a dearly departed friend, we remain without their companionship. Since leaving college, I have only passingly flirted with death but have never faced him dead on in an intimate experience. I have, however, lost family members and friends along the way to sickness and tragedy.

Seemingly, the hardest part to face was always the funeral and the days that followed without the loved lost. Without their faces in front of us we feel they are irretrievably lost. As Catholics, we must remember that all of our faithful departed are still with us in the Mystical Body of Christ.

We all have our individual coping mechanisms for trying times like death. One I have encountered lately for confronting the death of a loved one is somewhat troubling. When a friend or family member passes away, whether it is from sickness, age, or tragedy, one of the first responses I hear is “At least they are in Heaven,” or “They are an angel with God now.”

The second is far easier to clear up than the first so I will tackle it first. We cannot be angels. Ever. In paragraphs 328-336 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is clear that angels are a separate, spiritual creation by God at the dawn of Creation.

St. Augustine is quoted in paragraph 329 and explains that the word ‘angel’ describes their office or work as servants and messengers of God and does not explain their nature which is ‘spirit.’ In other words, we won’t suddenly be carrying God’s mail when we die.

Additionally, men are separate creations from angels. Paragraph 343, “Man is the summit of the Creator’s work, as the inspired account (Bible) expresses by clearly distinguishing the creation of man from that of the other creatures.” Men are created in the image of God, which is something angels do not share with us despite their angelic intelligence and will.

If you are curious about angels, I would recommend Dr. Peter Kreeft’s book Angels (and Demons): What do we really know about them?It is a straight forward book of 100 questions and answers about angels and demons.

Now, the first remark, “At least [insert name of departed] is in Heaven.” I find this sentiment to be the most troubling and saddening. Even more so, that misguided statement is usually followed by a request for prayers for the dead. Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, you have to wonder why someone in Heaven would need prayers.

We say things like this for one reason and one reason only: To make ourselves feel comforted and consoled. Saying our loved ones are in Heaven does not automatically send them to Heaven unless your loved one is a canonized saint. (In which case, my apologies.) We also cling to these sorts of emotional sentiments because we struggle with the concept of Hell as a real possibility for anyone we love, much less ourselves. Hell is a hard truth. But, it is a possible reality we must face.

I propose to you, dear reader, two prongs of attack against this uncomfortable truth and its relation to death. The first, more difficult and simpler at the same time, is to hold fast to one another in love by not abandoning one another to sin.

Three actions are helpful in aiding our loved ones, and ourselves, against sin. First, pray for your loved ones often. We often underestimate the power of prayer or prefer some concrete, real world action. Praying for others simultaneously keeps you in a closer relationship with Christ by helping you offer difficulties and desires to His will and helps you remember that you are not alone in the struggle.

Second, love with patience and humility. Do what you are able to for as long as you’re able, but remember we each have our own failings and crosses. Friendship calls us to aid our loved ones even in matters that are uncomfortable or ones we would rather leave unspoken.

Thirdly, acknowledge that both ourselves and our loved ones can and do sin against God and others. Our culture has lost much of its sense of sin and the consequences of sin. For many, personal thoughts and actions are just that, personal.

Moral relativism runs rampant causing many to assume no one really sins unless they commit a truly unspeakable act. This acknowledgement of sin will benefit us when confronting death, ours and others’, by reminding us we need God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness to attain eternal life.

The second prong focuses on our part at the end of someone’s life. What are we to do when death is imminent for a loved one? The first word that springs to mind is comfort. Let’s go with it. The definition I will use, however, is comfort in the knowledge of the life to come.

We may be unwilling to compel those dying to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick, especially if they have been away from the Church. It is a necessity though. Paragraphs 1033-1037 of the CCC affirm Hell’s existence. 1033- “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

St. Cyprian compels confession to avoid this permanent state when he wrote in To Demetrian, “Let no one either by sins or by years be [prevented] from coming to the acquiring of salvation. To him who still remains in this world no repentance is too late. The approach to God is open [and]…easy. Although you entreat for your sins at the very end and sunset of…life…pardon is granted to him who confesses.”

We do not aid our loved ones by telling ourselves at a loved one’s death everything will be fine because they were really a good person. Good people make mistakes. If we love them and our goal for them is Heaven, help them to face death with God not against Him. Christ defeated death for us.

Mother Church has a remedy for the distress we may feel at the end, the Anointing of the Sick. 1520 CCC tells us that one of the graces we receive in this sacrament is peace and courage in overcoming serious illness or old age, and we are forgiven our sins. Usually, this sacrament is celebrated along with Reconciliation and the Eucharist because “the Eucharist should always be the last sacrament of the earthly journey, the ‘viaticum’ for ‘passing over’ to eternal life.” (1517 CCC).

Once our loved has departed this life we need not abandon them. Only God knows where a soul will go, but that does not mean they are beyond our help. 1032 CCC – “From the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified they may attain the beatific vision of God.”

This assistance can be in the form prayers, almsgiving, indulgences, and works of mercy on behalf of the departed in Purgatory. And, Purgatory is not a place to be taken lightly. St. Augustine wrote in his Exposition on the Psalms,

“‘Neither chasten me in your hot displeasure’ (Ps. 37:2)… so that you may cleanse me in this life, and make me such, that I may after that stand in no need of the cleansing fire, for those ‘who are to be saved, yet so as by fire’ (1 Cor. 3:15). And because it is said, ‘he shall be saved,’ that fire is thought lightly of. For all that, though we should be ‘saved by fire,’ yet will that fire be more grievous than anything that man can suffer in this life whatsoever.”

In the words of Fr. Robert Barron, to love is to will the good of another and then do something about it. When we assume the departed are in Heaven, we are not willing their good but our own, our own peace of mind. Praying, having Masses said, and other actions of faith for the benefit of the departed is love.

My departed friends were steadfast in love. Why should I forget their friendship in death, as much as it may pain me to remember them consistently? We can find solace in praying for our loved ones by allowing Christ’s grace to help us help them.

Michael is a Texan living in self-inflicted exile as he finishes his PhD. in the history of early modern Britain. After completing his undergraduate degree at Baylor (Sic 'em!!), he decided his faith life needed re-evaluating and reinvigorating. He quickly realized that spiritual growth is a life long affair and not a quick fix. This created a thirst for a deep knowledge of the faith and a desire to share every nugget with others who may benefit. Michael is addicted to movies and books and enjoys quality time with friends and family.

Filed under: » » »