Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Death Becomes Us

Father John J. Lombardi

Ever have an out of the body experience? You will, one day. Read on…

My uncle lie dying in Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the only thing I could think of , came down to this, after all those years of theology in the seminary, and in one of the most prestigious, healing hospitals of the world with all that technology-- the Divine Mercy prayer: "Jesus, I trust in You. " My aunt, Uncle Stache's wife of over fifty years, Aunt Aggie, prayed that prayer too. He died shortly afterwards…Don't' forget the Divine Mercy of Jesus.

Steve Becker, a friend, lay dying in his Baltimore bed, his body contorted by pain after years of diseases, paralysis and immense pain. What was he doing through all this-complaining? No, he was offering up his suffering, he said barely moaning, for souls. He died a few months later…Offer up your suffering-and helping dying persons-to transfer their tribulations-for others.

At a wake service I once heard the niece of the deceased say: I was thankful for that one last opportunity before she died to say 'I love you'"…Don't wait till it's too late.

This is November, the Month of All Souls, a good time to think of death and dying. The natural world around us is slowly dying-the trees are losing their crimson and golden leaves; animals begin hibernating; the sun goes down earlier; people retreat inside their homes. Dying and death is disseminating all around us.

I still remember it well. The voice of that German theologian, Fr. Walter Kasper (now Cardinal in Rome), who spoke at our Catholic University seminary Mass in the mid 1980's, thundered in his homily: "In the end, we will all die." Crash. Finality. That's it. He said it like a good Germanic existentialist.

Sr. Marietta, a Franciscan sister, recently spoke at Sr. Joan Maener's Wake Service (pastoral life director of nearby St Anthony's Church at the foot of Mary's Mountain). She said that everyone wants peace here on earth, and yet we do not have it; everyone wants perfect love here on earth, and yet that, too, is fleeting. Yet these are our deepest longings-we are made for love and peace. We know, though, as Catholics and Christians that only God can give these fully and that we will only have perfect peace and love in and thru Him, in Heaven. There's only one thing separating us from God, Sister said, and that is death--something we are all afraid of. This is natural, she said, and it is human to fear death But, with the strength of one another and courageous people like Sister Joan who "crossed over the threshold"-we can gain in strength, desirously ready to meet God after death. Herein lies a perplexing paradox: death to Catholics is at once beautiful and sorrowful. Death is, on the one hand, entrance to Eternal Life (the Beatific Vision is our deepest longing) and it is also a punishment for Original Sin. We have both a fascination with death yet also fear the finality of it.

Just this past week, with Halloween (really: All Hallow's Eve of All Saints Day) countless children dressed up as scary skeletons: they, too are fascinated with death. We humans have a receptive/repulsion attitude towards death-perhaps because latent within our blood, we think (consciously or not) both of the punishment of sin and also the possibility of Blissful Vision.

There's "mystical death," too, to think about. Translation: die daily, in giving yourself self away, becoming selfless, dying to self so as to rehearse for the Final Curtain Call, knowing that the little steps make the Big Step easier, more natural and even desirous. Think of the selfish-self as a entrapping-container and, in dying to it, you are liberated from one selfish container unto another and, infinitely, you are eventually liberated: your souls is released, unsheathed from imprisonment though prayer (your True Desire is God), good works of selflessness (you think of the other, not self), through sacrifices (uniting soul to Christ's sacrifice), through crosses (be on the Cross with Him), through suffering (stripped of all false pretenses you realize what truly counts). These all are like spiritual scalpels which liberate the soul from self. We pray in the Liturgy recounting Jesus' Death: "Dying you destroyed our death; Rising You restored our life." There is only one way out-and it is through…death.

I think I got a kind of enlightenment recently when visiting a funeral home of a suddenly-deceased person: a visitor to the deceased said mater-of-factly: "Gotta accept the Will." Not fatalism, but faith: Simply Surrender. God is Providential Father and God supplies and directs and Wills all even when we don't understand with our impish intellects. It was freeing when I heard this man's comment. I hope I hear it resonate in my soul when my loved ones die. Abandonment to the Divine Will.

One time while visiting a deceased person's family a little girl, upon seeing the body of deceased, began crying. A couple people tried to console her-as we all should. I overheard one of the adults say: "It's okay to cry…" Yes: to mourn the sting of death and to wring out the heart's passion in love is a noble thing: Jesus Himself wept at the death of His friend Lazarus. So: let it out, weep; allow the body and soul to breathe-forth in mourning, for we were originally made for Eternal Life before Original Sin entered the world.

I just got an inquiry about praying for the dead. The writer asked is it theologically sound to pray for someone who died decades ago? Well, good question, related to the next…Whatever happened to Purgatory? Many people think it doesn't exist, or that anyone who dies should be immediately be canonized-or that "Everyone goes to Heaven-right away". Purgatory is a healing reality and hopeful doctrine. It teaches that those who die in a state of grace, although who still have sins and punishments attached to their souls and who are not yet perfect (I.e.-just about everyone!), can still be cleansed in the "final purification," and be aided by our prayers-no matter how long after their death. As a matter of fact, many mystical visions (private revelations) of saints relate that many souls in Purgatory are awaiting our compassionate prayers. Just think: it is never wrong to pray for a person-- "just in case" -even no matter how long after they died.

Msgr Steven Rohlfs said on All Souls Day that Purgatory is a consoling, hopeful doctrine. It means, he said: "God isn't done with me yet." He can still perfect us in the afterlife. Msgr said, also, that when we die we will face the particular Judgment: right at the moment of death we will be judged and we will also see ourselves the way God see us (don't blush). And, even though we didn't correct what we should have, God will, compassionately, and that we will be able to more fully experience the joyful bliss of Heaven after this. He said: as we love our sins more than God sometimes in life, God will repair this. This is the Final Purification.

Sometimes at the Grotto Office we get a call-"Can we spread ashes at the Grotto" (or somewhere else)? Catholic teaching is that no, you cannot. To preserve the proper dignity of the body-even though cremated (which the Catholic Church now allows) the ashes should be properly interred at a cemetery plot (not in your home) to keep the integrity and proper respect of the body (all in one place and not spread about, no matter the good-intentioned). Also, this allows people to venerate the loved one in a proper way, in a place, and the spreading of ashes would disallow this. There is, then, an importance of burial (Catechism of the Catholic Church: paragraph 2300). We need, as humans, to honor persons who have died, in their full integrity, and so communicate to others that spreading of ashes, however well-placed is not proper for Christian families. In this Month of all Souls, pray for the dead, honor them, make sacrifices for them, participate in the Passion, Death and resurrection of Jesus-and prepared yourself for dying, death…and resurrection.

"Out of body experiences," you ask? Well, yes, we will all have this. You see, at Death, our souls will be separated from our earthly bodies and either ascend to Heaven, be purged in Purgatory, or descend to Hell. Which out of the body experience are you prepared for?

How to Respond…

Be prepared: Sister Joan died suddenly. Her sisters and all were shocked at the untimliness of her death. We never know when death will visit us-"Lady Death" as St Francis of Assisi called it. Semper paratis: Always prepared is a Coast Guard motto (and of the Boys Scouts, too). So: make a confession soon. Do good works. Show mercy and loving kindness to others. Live in the Light of Christ now. Stop delaying, keep from straying. Don't postpone your preparation for Eternal Life.

Thank God for Divine Mercy: This Gift of the Lord and the Church is a beautiful devotion bestowed upon us from Pope John Paul II-learn about St Faustina's Message of the Lord's Love for all of us sinners, and the return we all should make of conversion and Christina living, entrusting ourselves to His Divine and Sacred Heart: Jesus: I trust in You!

Mediate upon the Four Last things: These are-Death (we will all surely die-"think of your last end, O man," is an esteemed Catholic saying); Judgment (this is our "Final Report Card"--given according to our life's Faith and works); Heaven (= Eternal Bliss-unending happiness with Jesus, the Virgin Mary and all the saints); and Hell (eternal separation from God and loved ones). All these realties can be turning points for our conversion deeper into Jesus Christ, and may aid us through this fleeting, captivating Vale of Tears to remind us of final realties and What Really Counts.

Visit a Cemetery: Let's face it, this isn't always a "fun thing" to do. But it is a work of Mercy. Go and pray at a loved one's plot, or anyone's for that matter, and assist them with your prayers. Thank God for the blessings God gave you through the gift of that person.

Assist the dying: give reverence and compassion at someone's death bed. Remember: the soul of the dying person is attentive (acute and activated probably more attuned than you know) and desirous of help and comfort. Pray gently with them and invite them to: forgiveness, love and Jesus. This is the most important thing in the world you can do for that person-to help them out of this world-to Eternal Life.

We are called to Love the Lord with all our heart, mind, strength and soul (St Mk. 12:28ff). Let us pray that God purifies all those in the Afterlife of inordinate love of others instead of Him; not loving the Lord with all their strength; and ask the Lord's Mercy on those who did not give their souls to Him. In the Hebrews (7:23ff) St Paul says Jesus offered, once for all a sacrifice for us sinners. In the Mass we do not re-sacrifice Jesus; no, we mystically RE-PRESENT the Original Sacrifice of Jesus under new forms. Similar to gaining good sentiments and inspiring action form re-viewing a film re-present-but only more so in the Mass- we tap into, gain spiritual entry to Christ's Infinitely Accessible Sacrifice and Eternal Life.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi