The dying priest was about to be taken, from the Religious house where he lived, to a Live –in hospice where he would be prepared to leave this life and meet his Maker. Fifteen priests, the House managerial staff, the housemaids and the Mexican Sisters who lovingly cooked for him, did his laundry and prayed for him, were all gathered in the house chapel awaiting his arrival so that we could all, in the ancient and moving language of the Catholic Church say “Good bye and Godspeed.” Most of us would never see him again.
The silence was thick. Perhaps profound, certainly meaningful, in the face of Death, the inevitable. No one made a sound. No one moved. We were all engrossed in our own thoughts and feelings. Some one we knew well and for whom we had varying affection was dying . Each of us knew that we all would follow him—quickly or over a long period of time. But we would follow hm.
Finally, he was wheeled into the Chapel and positioned so that he could face us. He lifted his pale, pain stained face and said “Good morning”. That was all but, in those words, it was as if he spoke his gratitude for such genuine and heartfelt presence in the face of his coming encounter.
The presiding priest, vested in alb and stole, reminded us of St.James and his instruction to have the priests of the Church pray over the sick one and anoint him with oil. We were invited to lay our hands upon our sick brother and all did. Priests, sisters, managers and maids in a deep and touching silence. No music. No talk. There was no need. Indeed, such accessories would be almost painful and certainly intrusive. The compassion, the support, the Presence of the Holy Spirit were palpable. The dying priest was given a tiny particle of the Blessed Eucharist as Viaticum or Food for the Journey. The ancient theology is obvious. It is the sacrament Itself Which basically provides the Care. The traditional insights of Opere Operato apply. The Sacrament, not the trimmings or adjustments to modernity, gives life and courage and strength. Jesus supplies us once more with what we need.
We heard the Church again come to the priest’s aid as the Presider said the final blessing:
“Lord Jesus, Christ, You chose to share our human nature to redeem all people and to heal the sick. Look with compassion on this Your servant whom we have anointed in Your name with this holy oil for the healing of his body and spirit.
Support him with Your Power, comfort him with Your protection and give him the strength to fight against evil. Since You have given him a share in Your own Passion, help him to find hope in suffering, for You are Lord for ever and ever Amen.”
He was wheeled out of chapel to meet the “transport” to his “End Point.” Most of us, though saddened, thought we had made a proper good bye! So, in fact, he moved out of our lives. The next Community encounter with him will be his funeral and burial. And on it goes until the next one of us goes. Most of us move amazingly quickly into the parameters of our own personal lives with our obligations and our needs. But so is the nature of existence.
“Out of sight, out of mind” is not necessarily a pejorative statement as it might be a descriptive one. Some years ago, probably the Paulist most widely viewed as our one true saint, Fr. John Buckley, was buried in the crypt below the great Church with proper liturgical pomp and correctness. The right things were said. The appropriate gestures were made. Due respect to his holiness was observed. Then the local community, very large at that time, went into lunch. There was not a single indication of grief or remembrance of the saint. It was as if a job with its requirements was well done and safely tucked away in the “completed file.” His name was never mentioned. Light laughter, political debate, sports talk filled the room. Was it a form of the “Irish Wake” whereby the verbalization of deep feelings is buried under the false fronts of bravado and excessive masculinity? Is it a denial of the fear of Death? Was it that the Saint’s fate was self evident (being with God hic and nunc) there was no need for concern, only certitude? It is at once mephitic and cloying. One can be grateful for the Catholic custom of devoting the month of November to remembrance of the “Poor souls” in Purgatory! How easy it is to forget!
But there is probably another factor involved which is subtle and very powerful. Perhaps instead of contemplating how we say good bye to the dead, it might be more sagacious (or honest) to wonder how we say good bye to life as we leave it ourselves. Perhaps, that is the true underlying dynamic in all the silence and denial and tears. Perhaps, the real question is how does one deal with death? Perhaps, the question really is: How do I live my life in the present moment? Perhaps, I should second guess the common wisdom and live not that “they” might speak well of me after I die but that I follow , within appropriate boundaries, the joys that God places in my own lap and not some one else’s. Perhaps, we should revisit old St.Irenaeus with his joyful admonition. To be fully human and fully alive is the best way to please God. Maybe that is the way to live so that one may die well and see the Face of God.
It would be fun to discuss this viewpoint with Hilaire Belloc who pretty much knew it all! Remember his gleeful little insight?
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shinie
There’s laughter, dancing and good red wine
At least I have always found it so
I have a bias.. Being Catholic is a great way to live but when it comes to dying there is no contest. It is the best way to make one’s good byes.