From a Sudden and Unprovided Death, Deliver Us

How does the Church particularly help us make provision for death?

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, “Extreme Unction,” 1846
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, “Extreme Unction,” 1846 (photo: Public Domain)

This week is five weeks since Ash Wednesday. Thirty-five days have now passed since we received ashes as a sign of our mortality. 

Over these past five weeks, we have also reflected on our inexorable orientation to being, our orientation to good, and the course of our lifetimes as the space within which we define ourselves, with God’s grace, for eternity. Last week we specifically focused on why death is the moment that makes (or breaks) us.

If death is that defining moment, we should also focus on how the Church seeks to prepare us for that moment.

While death and its experience has not changed, the human circumstances in which death occurs have. Once upon a time, death typically occurred in a family setting. Today, more often than not, death often occurs in clinical and medical settings. Once upon a time, death was not just an individual but a family experience. That latter dimension has been badly eroded.

Catholics have always prayed to be delivered “from a sudden and unprovided for death.” Because death is so self-defining, we want to be prepared for it. That, of course, first means reckoning with the reality of death as part of life as we know it, rather than trying to hide it or shove it under the carpet. We should pray every day to be saved “from a sudden and unprovided for death,” particularly to St. Joseph as the patron of a good death. One cannot hope for a better death than St. Joseph had, conducted from this side of death by the arms of Jesus and Mary into the arms of the Blessed Trinity.

How does the Church particularly help us make provision for death? The Church does so specifically through three sacraments: Penance, the Sacrament of the Sick and the Holy Eucharist. They should be the last sacraments we receive.

First, Penance. As the Sacrament of the Sick and the Eucharist are “sacraments of the living,” i.e., sacraments whose reception presupposes being in a state of grace, the person preparing for death should first receive Penance, being reconciled to God and neighbor. This is obviously true with regard to mortal sin, but the sacrament of Penance also exists to help us grow in holiness, this sacrament helps us be ever better prepared for that distinctive, final encounter with God.

There is a good piece of advice in the old Confraternity of the Precious Blood Missal: “Each confession should be made as if it were the last one in our life.” 

Second, the Sacrament of the Sick. Vatican II’s reform of the sacraments emphasized that this sometimes forgotten sacrament is not one for the dying but for the sick. “Extreme Unction” is the Sacrament of the Sick, those who by age or chronic condition as well as immediate circumstances suffer the effects of illness. 

In comparison to the past, when the priest was called for the “Last Rites” as someone was in their last agony, the Church today strongly encourages those who, by reason of age or chronic condition suffer the effects of old age or illness, to receive this sacrament. The Sacrament of the Sick is not just for those about to die but also a sacrament of healing. Like the Eucharist, however, one should be receiving the Sacrament of the Sick only in a state of grace, i.e., when one is unaware of being guilty of any mortal sin, which should first be confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

Finally, the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Communion is the “last sacrament” any Catholic should receive. This last Communion in life is “Viaticum,” food for the way. As Jesus reminds us in John 6, the Eucharist is the Bread of Life that resounds to everlasting life, without which “you will have no life in you.” This last sacrament, then, is the encounter with Christ sacramentally in this world to prepare for one’s encounter with Christ face-to-face in the next world. 

So, we should resolve several things:

  • Do I understand and pray for the “last sacraments” as God’s final gift in my life?
  • Do I have the number of my parish (there is sometimes an emergency number for “sick calls” listed in bulletins) among my phone contacts?
  • Have I discussed with my family my desire for them to ensure these sacraments are available to me (particularly since there were some strange denials of access during COVID-19)?
  • Do I keep sacramentals in my home, especially a cross, holy water and blessed candles — once standard elements, especially to accompany the sick and dying? The image of Divine Mercy?
  • For older relatives, have I inquired about how to sustain their sacramental lives? Some parishes typically arrange for the priest to come — often around First Fridays — for Confession and Communion. Other parishes often provide for priests or other extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist to bring Communion to the sick or homebound on Sundays.
  • If I am healthy and mobile, do I notice any older or sicker or immobile people around me who might benefit from the offer of a ride to church on Sundays?

These three last sacraments are also often accompanied by the Church’s gift of a plenary indulgence. Indulgences, of course, are not magic: a plenary indulgence demands detachment from sin, and such perfection — even from our “daily faults” — is indeed demanding, but God is perfect. We want, therefore, to avail ourselves of all the gifts the Church generously wants to offer its sons and daughters for their entry into their eternal home.

In his love, God provides us with invaluable and indispensable sacramental help for our way out of this world. That sacramental tempo should simply be a normal outgrowth of the sacramental praxis that guides one’s entire life. As Lent comes to an end, how have I planned for this stage of my life?

Finally, because our Lenten reflections are incorporating the truth of death into our spiritual lives, we should consider providing for ourselves after death. The Church has the tradition of “Gregorian Masses,” i.e., 30 Masses offered on 30 consecutive days for a deceased person. This pious tradition dates back to Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century, who ordered 30 Masses to be celebrated for a deceased monk. The deceased man later appeared to a fellow monk after the last Mass was celebrated to say he had been delivered from Purgatory. 

Because it is often difficult for parishes to arrange for the celebration of 30 Masses in a row, many missionaries, religious orders and religious associations often assume responsibility for Gregorian Masses. An internet search will disclose many of them with whom you can arrange now for such Masses to be celebrated after your death. They send a card, to be kept with your most important papers, that your next-of-kin simply needs to mail back notifying them of your death and the community will then celebrate the Gregorian Masses on your behalf. 

As you consider the almsgiving you still want to perform this Lent, why not arrange for your own spiritual welfare now and involve your family in your own spiritual future? Why leave this to chance or the beneficence of others, who may not even think of having Mass celebrated for your repose? Having spent this season on the meaning of life and death, these last days of Lent are an appropriate opportunity to take a permanent step towards your spiritual future. Why not do it now?

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

Don’t Wait to Cram for Your ‘Final Exam’

“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)