It is the reason the Catholic Church offers the sacrament of last rites, to fortify souls with the sacrament of penance, anointing of the sick, and viaticum — Holy Communion as food for the eternal journey. Likewise, accounts of deathbed victories, such as those that follow, can serve as powerful food for thought and inspiration among the faithful — and for those open to the truth.
Home From the Range
Dan Burke understood the importance — and the possibility — for a deathbed conversion as he watched his once-strong father slip ever closer towards death this past April. As the president and COO of EWTN News and the president of the Avila Foundation, Burke has dedicated his life to helping people to come to know Christ or to know him more fully. Yet his father was still unconvinced and unbaptized as he lay dying.
Born in 1940, Arthur (Art) Burke was a self-made man in industrial construction, retired by age 45, and a friend to all. Religion did not interest him, however. A “crutch,” he once called it. Art was the quintessential Marlboro Man — rugged and living on a ranch in Montana, he drove a dirty Chevy pickup, dressed in flannel shirts and smoked. It was the smoking that ultimately did what a broken collar bone a few years earlier did not even do — forced him into the hospital. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) was taking Art’s life.
Dan was raised by his mother in Judaism. After his parents divorced, he came to Christ at age 20, but did not come into the Catholic Church until 2005, at 40 years old. Out of seven siblings, only he and his sister Linda, who died years ago at 35, had a relationship with Jesus.
“Does it trouble you that I don’t believe what you believe?” Art had once asked his son, Dan recalled to the Register.
“You are a good man but that does not solve the problem of sin,” Dan shared. “That’s why Jesus came; to give us hope and to reconcile us to God to pay the price from our sins, to set us free.” On his father’s deathbed, Dan repeated the message and told him: “I believe in heaven and hell, and I want to see you in heaven one day. I want you to see Linda again. Our sin separates us from God. This is why Jesus came. He lived a perfect, sinless life and was crucified to save us from our sins. Dad, do you want your sins to be forgiven?”
“Yes, I do. How do I do that?” his father replied.
“Just ask. Pray: ‘God, please forgive me of my sins.’”
Art repeated this prayer slowly, three times — each time with greater intensity: “God, please forgive me of my sins.”
Previously, Art had refused to see a priest, but at that moment he agreed to be baptized. Given the uncertainty of how long he had left, it qualified as an emergency baptism. Dan filled a cup with water and while pouring it on his father’s head, he pronounced, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Wow!” Art declared.
“That was a miracle,” Dan’s brother David, also at the bedside, said. He had tears streaming from his eyes. “There was so much peace. I can’t believe that just happened.”
Upon waking from a nap a few hours later, Art asked in his rugged voice, “Dan, does this mean I am a Catholic now?”
Dan smiled and told him: “Yes, Dad, you’re a Catholic.”
He then arranged for a local priest to visit. Art was confirmed and received his first Communion and the anointing of the sick. He chose St. Christopher as his confirmation saint — the only saint he knew because his wife, Lily, a fallen-away Catholic, had once given him a St. Christopher medal.
Art lived another two weeks. During that time, he reported often seeing St. Christopher, who taught him the Catholic faith. “I believed him,” Dan said. “He was lucid until the end.”
Art listened intently with his arms open wide when Dan and his wife, Stephanie, and family prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet over him. “That was pretty neat,” he said.
When Jesus appeared to St. Faustina, as the Polish saint wrote in her diary, he taught her the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and asked for it to be prayed especially for sinners and the dying, saying: “Write that when they say this chaplet in the presence of the dying, I will stand between my Father and the dying person, not as the just Judge but as the merciful Savior” (diary, 1541).
At Art’s funeral, Dan said he felt great joy. “He’s more available than he ever has been in my life,” he said.
A Fallen-Away Comeback
Carolyn Klika’s father, Edward Wojciek, a fallen-away Catholic, lay dying of liver cancer in January 2000 at the age of 82.
Carolyn is a mother to five adult children, heads up the welcoming committee at St. Matthew’s in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a certified marriage life coach. When Carolyn was 6 years old, her father left their family, which included an older brother and sister, and they saw him only once or twice a year afterwards. Her mother, Dorothy, had received an annulment; but she never remarried. After reading the writing of St. Francis de Sales, Dorothy sought to lead a devout Catholic life from the time Carolyn was 2.
Love of Christ in Action
Dorothy took her ex-husband in at the end of his life because he had no one else. “I can’t believe that your mom would do that!” Edward had told his daughter.
“Dad, that’s not just mom,” she said. “That’s the love of Christ working through her.” Carolyn was 39 by then. Mother and daughter had prayed for Edward’s conversion for decades. “I learned the lesson of forgiveness and mercy when I saw my mom being merciful to my dad over and over,” she explained. Her mother brought a hospital bed into her bedroom to care for him. Carolyn and her siblings lived nearby and helped.
“Dad, we have not really talked about this, but we know you are going to die soon,” Carolyn said one day. “Are you ready? Do you know what’s going to happen when you die?”
“Yes, I’m going to go to hell.”
“Dad, are you okay with that?”
“No,” he said in a deeply sad voice.
“Dad, I’ve [basically] spent my entire life without you; I do not want to spend all of eternity without you, too. There’s no need for that. All you have to do is ask God to forgive you. Be humble, and go to confession.”
“Well, honey, I’ll do whatever you want me to do,” he finally said.
A priest was called in. He came into the bedroom and closed the door. Carolyn considered that her father’s soul now hung in the balance between heaven and hell. “I have no power. I have to submit fully to God,” she thought as she lay face down on the dining room floor with her arms extended out in the shape of a cross. In that moment, she experienced a profound glimpse of hell: a dark, terrible place without hope.
“Jesus, have mercy!” she cried and prayed. “I claim his soul for Christ!” She kept praying until the priest opened the door and invited her and her mother in to pray.
“A new person was there,” Carolyn said. “The look on his face was beautiful, like an innocent child. I was convinced that my dad was right with God.” She told him, “Dad, for the first time, you are truly my brother in Christ!” Carolyn added, “We prayed with him, and he was able to receive Communion three or four times before he died a few days later.” He passed away right after Dorothy finished praying a Divine Mercy Chaplet at his bedside. “We knew the race was won and the struggle was over,” Carolyn said. “It was the most amazing experience of my life.”
Faith in Order
Although Marge Steinhage Fenelon’s childhood had been filled with pain due to her mother’s mental and emotional struggles, she begged God for mercy on her mother.
Fenelon is the author of many books, including Forgiving Mother: A Marian Novena of Healing and Peace, and is a Register contributor. As the youngest of three much older siblings, when Marge was 15 and her father died, she turned to the Blessed Mother and the Church for comfort. Her mother, to the contrary, had left the Church.
“I came to see my mother as a child of God,” she explained. “That was the turning point for me that opened the path for forgiveness.” Understanding the promise of God’s mercy through the devotion Jesus gave to St. Faustina, Marge prayed tirelessly, “Oh God, have mercy on her!”
“I understood the magnitude of Divine Mercy and desperately wanted that for my mother,” Marge explained. She prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and the Rosary many times and often called on the Blessed Mother. “The Blessed Mother was the only Mother I had ever known,” she said. “I knew her motherly love, and I wanted that experience for my mother.”
But it seemed her prayers had no effect on her mother’s spiritual state. “Up until my last visit with her, my mother refused any sort of prayer or sacrament, so when she died, I was heartbroken and worried about her salvation,” she said.
But a few days later, Marge received good news from a nursing home staff member. “I was informed that a priest had visited her and administered last rites after all,” Marge said. “It was proof that one must never give up hope.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.
Learn more about the Divine Mercy Chaplet at EWTN.com/devotionals/mercy/.