elderly_wheelchairIn the Gospel from this past Sunday the Lord spoke of us giving away all we had to come and follow him. TO many that sort of talk seems crazy and we wonder how we can ever do it. But in fact we WILL all do it, as we finally die to this world and have our only treasure in Heaven.

As a priest it has been my privilege to accompany many on their final journey as they prepare for death. Some have gone quickly, others have lingered for years in nursing homes. From a pure worldly perspective, death seems little less than a disaster and a cause for great sadness. But from a perspective of faith there is something “beautiful” going on.

I know you may think it bold that I describe it this way, but in the dying process something necessary and beautiful is taking place. It is born in pain but it brings forth gifts and glory if we are faithful.

In particular I see two scriptures essentially fulfilled in many who are dying.

I. And Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). When I walk the halls of nursing homes I behold a rather astonishing thing: Men and women who raised families, ran businesses, protested bravely in the Civil Rights Movement, fought wars, gave sage advice to their children, commanded respect in their workplace and communities…, most of these have become like little children.

Some can no longer walk, some need to be fed, some cry and need consolation, some hold dolls, many wear diapers, some can no longer talk, many need constant care. “Ah, how tragic,” the world says. But an increasing part of me sees a beauty, for they are changing and becoming like little children. A kind of innocence is being restored, and a complete dependence, without which they may never make it to heaven. Now their status as little children is fully evident and they become humble enough for heaven.

Painful but beautiful, very beautiful.

A very dear friend of mine died a few years ago. Catherine had been the Pastoral Associate and business manger of the parish of my first pastorate. I depended on her for practically everything, and she knew just about everything, having been at the parish for over 50 years. Rather suddenly, she came down with a rare and aggressive form of Alzheimer’s disease. Within six months of diagnosis she no longer remembered anyone. And yet there was a childlike joy that came over her. She had a favorite doll she hugged close and when I would walk in the room she would light up. She no longer recognized me as far as I could tell but she loved company. And she would sing, without clearly understood words but it seemed a kind of childlike nursery song.

A remarkable thing to see. Here was a woman I had so thoroughly depended on now in such a state. But she was happier than I had ever seen her. She had become like a little child, and it was clear that God was preparing her for heaven. That was a gift, though a painful one.

And another great gift was this: Almost to her last day, she never failed to recognize Jesus in the Eucharist. Long after she had stopped recognizing anyone else, she still received communion with great devotion. She might be humming or looking around, but as soon as I reached in my pocket for the pyx, she stopped, looked and made the sign of the cross and folded her hands. That was years of training and faithfulness. It was a beautiful testimony of her undying faith in the Eucharist and her last lesson to all of us.

II. There is only one thing I ask of the Lord, this alone I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life and gaze on the beauty of the Lord within his temple.(Psalm 27:4)

Now I suppose most of us who are still healthy and reasonably active would have a hard time really praying this prayer absolutely. The fact is we want a lot of things: a pay increase, creature comforts, good health, we want for the project we are working to go well, and yes, somewhere in all that, God too and heaven, but later. You understand, heaven can wait.

And yet how obtuse our desires can be. It’s really quite strange to want anything more than God and heaven, but, fact is, many struggle to want God more than the things of this earth. Somehow God has to gently purge us of earthly desires so that, little by little, all we want is Him.

And here too the dying process is so important and beautiful. Little by little in life we give back to God our abilities, our health, many of our loved ones. And finally we are led to that place in our dying days when we are given the grace to give everything back.

I remember my father saying to me in his final weeks, “I just want to be with God.” I heard my grandmother say that too, and many other I have accompanied on their final journey, “I just want to be with God.” And they meant it too. It wasn’t a slogan now. They had given everything back, their treasure was now in heaven. They had sold all they had for the “pearl of great price.” Now they could sing the words of the old spiritual: “You may have all this world, just give me Jesus.”Indeed, they had sold, given away, everything they had, and now they were ready to follow Jesus.

For just about all of us it will take the dying process to get us to the place where we too can say, “There is only one thing I ask of the Lord, this alone I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life and gaze on the beauty of the Lord within his temple.”

And so there it is, the “beauty” of dying. It is a strange and painful beauty to be sure, but it is beautiful nonetheless. In an age of euthanasia that sees no purpose, no value in the dying process, we do well to behold and proclaim its strange but true beauty. We ought not fail to recognize the dignity of the dying who fulfill scripture as they make their final passage.

Surely we grieve, but through faith we also perceive a strange and wonderful beauty.

One of the finest hymns about dying was written by Henry F. Lyte in 1847. He wrote this as he approached his own death from tuberculosis:

  • Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
  • The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
  • When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
  • Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
  • Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
  • Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
  • Change and decay in all around I see—
  • O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
  • Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
  • Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
  • Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
  • In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
  • 24 Responses

    1. Will says:

      I have had occasion to argue with Protestants and secular materialists about the dignity of suffering and death. My reply is “Christ gave beauty and meaning to every single aspect of human life, especially in His death. Not only did He die to forgive sin, He also (almost as a bonus) rose again as “the First Fruits of them that sleep.”

      My favorite song concerning death is from Messiah “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” taken from Job and St. Paul:

      “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God; For now is Christ risen from the dead, the First Fruits of them that sleep.”

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9ed77LTM0Y

    2. Linda Sansouci O.P. says:

      Thank You for sharing this beautiful truth !

    3. theresa says:

      What a beautiful article! As I watch my parents & inlaws age it has been very sad & I have been struggling with the way the “world ” and most family members view their current state. It is tempting to feel that it is all about “quality of life” while I know that it’s all about salvation. Thank you for putting into words what I’ve been trying to understand.

    4. edracruz says:

      Yes, indeed, Monsignor. Death is the total healing we all long for. In death, at last, we can touch the hem of HIS garment and be truly and be fully healed. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the House of the LORD forever. Amen.

    5. Steve M says:

      My first experience with a loved one passing was my Grandfather. I was young and pretty scared what it would be like. He had already passed when we arrived at the hospital but the minute I walked into the room I knew that he was not there anymore; that he had gone to God. What a gift from my Grandpa. I have been with three of my loved ones when they passed. The hardest moment of my life was my daughter. Every part of my “humaness” was screaming that someone has to stop this but the Holy Ghost was telling me that this was beautiful and all about our love for each other and that we were together. Dying with dignity is not about picking when he happens to me. It is about the loving presence of those around the person who care for and support the person throughout the time.

    6. Jim J. McCrea says:

      Because of my challenges with schizophrenia over the past 30 years, I have been stripped of my youthful dreams for happiness.

      That has forced me to turn completely to God.

      In God there is a real peace, happiness, and joy – it is not merely a subjective satisfaction or a compensatory position, but there is real “substance” – substantial being that is itself peace and happiness, not merely a feeling of peace and happiness.

      By trials and tribulations, God is stripping me more and more – I am learning more and more that He alone is sufficient, not only to provided and protect but to give complete fulfillment.

    7. Vijaya says:

      What a wonderful reflection. Yes, it’s about letting go of here so we can get to heaven.
      Thank you.

    8. RichardC says:

      That is a beautiful hymn. I think suicide rates almost always go way up in places that legalize euthanasia. Bad laws have bad effects that go beyond the letter of the law. Legalized abortion/artificial birth control may well be the reason birthrates have plummeted. That is, people who wanted to raise a number of children, just for reason they couldn’t explain even to themselves, didn’t. That is my opinion.

    9. Pedro says:

      I’m very afraid of death. I sometimes think that, as we say in Spanish, there is no more wax than that burning. But other times I feel my late father supporting me.

      How difficult is life!

    10. Nina says:

      I had the privilege of being present at the deathbed of my father in 2009. I never witnessed a death before. I am one of 8 children and most of us were able to be there, with several of the grandchildren as well. We were all praying the rosary together and, as we got to the fifth mystery, Dad’s breathing slowed down. As we prayed the “Hail Holy Queen” it got fainter and fainter. There is no question that he WAITED for us to finish the rosary before taking his last breath. He was in hospice and had been unresponsive for a day and a half, but there was no mistaking that he was somehow alert to the rosary being prayed. Dad had asked me to lead the prayer “when the time comes” – how much more beautiful could that moment have been for us – my Mom, silbings, and the grandchildren present?! There is MUCH beauty in the transition from life to death for those with faith! I think all the grandkids learned something very important that day. Thank you for this post, Monsignor.

    11. Larry Peterson says:

      Dear Msgr. Pope: That was absolutely BEAUTIFUL. As an EM I visit nursing homes and there are so many elderly who have, in fact, returned to childfhood and need constant care and guidance. I never looked at them in relation to the gopel reading of “become like little children—“. Now it is all so beautiful to see. I have a very close friend and his 61 year old wife has Alzheimer’s as you described. She is at the 1st or 2nd grade level and he has to be with her 24/7. It is a magnificent love story to watch him care for her and bring her to Mass. I will never look at the two of them in the same manner again. She has taken that journey back and I know she will finish it shortly. But your article has taken the sadness out of watching them and given me a slight glimpse of heaven. God bless you–

    12. Jamie Reynolds says:

      Today we seem to have two contradictory views on dying. Many want the decision on death – including the specific power to die at a certain time – to be under their control. Yet, many want death banished from their own families – hiding elderly family members in nursing homes and hospitals, where paid staff witness both the pain and the beauty of death.

    13. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

      Most of us intend to live forever or die trying.

    14. Cajetan says:

      Monsignor, you are very correct in this treat ‘ on the beauty of dying’ and as a matter of fact, you have given a deeper value to negate the myopic view of death as the worst thing a man can witness. Yes we must be like little children before going back to God, may God grant me such time of thorough preparation for coming back to Him. AMEN!!!

    15. [...] On the “Beauty” of Dying – Msgr. Charles Pope, Archdiocese of Washington [...]

    16. ANNE says:

      The very best thoughts I have read on growing older!! Thank You! I am exactly like that “rich young man” who has never been able to give everything up to follow Jesus. I will read this quite often to remind myself that growing older can be a beautiful path for those of us who still hold on to this world’s delights.

    17. Annette Strachan says:

      Speaking to Martha, `Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” ‘ JOHN 11: 25-27

    18. Barbara says:

      I am grieving the recent deaths of my parents whondied within three months of each other.. I was experiencing a very difficult moment when I came across this post. Thank you. It has brought me strength and consolation. I recognize my parents final days in what you wrote and believe your words and insight were inspired by the Spirit.
      Eternal rest grant to them oh Lord and may Perpetual Light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithfully departed rest in peace. amen.

    19. Kathy Kalina says:

      Oh, Monsignor;

      Thank you so much for this post! As a hospice nurse, “last things” are before me every day, and witnessing the birth into eternal life of hundreds of people makes my fear decrease and my faith grow. I see a final illness as a great gift, however painful; a time of preparation and an opportunity to really own our faith.

      Our contraceptive culture leads many to try to control the timing of death, and I am asked regularly to “ease” someone out of this life. The other night, my daughter talked to her youth group about “euthanasia.” One of the kids asked, “Why does it matter? They’re going to die anyway.”

      She answered, “So are you!”

      The only tragedy is the loss of a soul.

    20. Anne Marie says:

      Monsignor, this teaching that you have written is a great confort for me. Over a month after my beloved SO/boyfriend of many years, David has taken his journey to go home to God, The article itself has helped me to be less afraid of dying and to help me begin once again my own indiviual spiritual renewel. That passage from Psalm 27 was also a blessed help.

    21. Jennifer Moeller says:

      Wow, as a Catholic hospice CNA, this article really hits me where I live! I think I may have to print this out to re-read during difficult shifts. Thank you for giving me some great perspective.

    22. Karl P says:

      Monsignor Pope,
      Prophetic and beautiful thoughts. Your post comes on the birthday of my Father, who has been battling cancer for a number of years. Please pray for him and our family as we all grow through this journey. God Bless you.

    23. Kevin says:

      PRAY FOR MASSACHUSETTS! Assisted suicide is on the ballot. Pray that it is defeated!

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