At every funeral I celebrate, I spend a good portion of the sermon urging everyone, including myself, to be more intent on preparing for death and judgement. I remind the assembled of Jesus’ numerous parables on this theme. I remind them that no one loves them more than does Jesus, and yet no one issued more warnings of judgment and Hell than He did. I do this at funerals because the overwhelming majority of people I see there do not attend church at any other time. I feel that I have to take advantage of the opportunity to wrest them from the sin of presumption that is so prevalent today.
Indeed, the sin of presumption seems to be at an all-time high. This is due to many factors in the world where sin is minimized or declared of little import. Even within the Church, due to the error of “universalism” (the belief that most (if not all) people will go to Heaven), a view almost completely contradictory to Scripture, few people are earnest in preparing for death and judgment. This is tragic. While we shouldn’t run around in a panic, we ought to have a lot more urgency in working for salvation. We can do this through daily prayer, frequent Confession and Holy Communion, holy fellowship, and reading/studying Scripture and Church teaching. We must practice the virtues learned in these holy sources and consistently seek the Lord’s grace and mercy.
It is foolish to fail to do this, to put it off day after day. St. Alphonsus Liguori makes this point beautifully and powerfully in his classic work Preparation for Death. He writes,
What would you say of the man who put off his preparation for a trial on which his life depended, till the day of the trial arrived? Would you not stigmatize as a fool the general who should not begin to lay in a supply of provisions and arms, till the city is besieged? Would it not be folly in a pilot [of a ship] to neglect till the time of the tempest to provide the vessel with an anchor and a helm? Such is the folly of a Christian who neglects his conscience till death arrives …. The Lord called the virgins foolish who wished to prepare their lamps with the spouse came (Preparation for Death, 8th Ed., edited by Stephen Winchell, p. 91).
And yet this is precisely what most people do. Too many are busy pursuing lesser things such as career, money, and worldly possessions. Meanwhile, death and judgment, which are both more important and more certain, get little attention. Even comparatively frivolous things like sports, television, and gossip are often given more passion and priority than preparing to die well and in God’s favor. People tend to maximize the minimum and minimize the maximum.
According to the Lord, this is the very definition of foolishness. And yet most assume that either they will be able to repent in a flash as death approaches, or that God doesn’t really care about all the things He said He cares about.
There is no basis in Scripture for the idea that last minute repentance or pleas will win the day. In the “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” as well as in almost every similar parable, those excluded from the Kingdom (who hear the Lord say, “I know you not”) all protest and lament loudly. Some of the passages speak of wailing and grinding of teeth as the damned depart into outer darkness or into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Why is this so? Why does God disregard such pleas? Don’t those pleas represent proper repentance? If they do, then why does God seemingly ignore them?
St. Thomas Aquinas provides some insight:
A person may repent of his sin in two ways: in one way, directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of sin directly who hates sin as such; and repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sin directly, because consent in the malice of sin remains in them. But they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin. The damned still will wickedness but shun punishment. And thus indirectly they repent of the wickedness committed (Summa Theologica, Sup. 98. Art. 2).
It would seem that their repentance is not a proper repentance from sin, but rather represents more of a regret at the consequences. It is impossible to enter Heaven while still loving sin. Their repentance is not sufficient to grant the healing necessary to enter Heaven.
St. Alphonsus gives us an insight as to why direct repentance (i.e., the repentance of one who hates sin as such) is unlikely to be found suddenly at the moment of death:
It is necessary at death to hate sin, and to love God above all things. But how can he, then, hate forbidden pleasures who has loved them to till that moment? … It is for this reason that God is deaf to their cry … (Preparation for Death, 8th Ed., edited by Stephen Winchell, p. 92).
This is perfectly sensible. Most are simply not able to shift their desires 180 degrees in a moment. The Lord warns that if our desires at the time of our death are not for God and the values of His kingdom, it is highly unlikely that we will have a sudden change of heart. Further, when we die, our disposition either for or against God is forever fixed. The wicked do not depart wailing and grinding their teeth because they suddenly hate sin and love God and holiness. No, they wail due to more selfish motives, such as the fear of punishment. They hate the consequences, but not the sin.
Consider well these admonitions from two great saints, which speak directly and clearly against the presumptiveness and foolishness of our age. Get to work while there is still time. Tell everyone you love to set his or her house in order before the day of reckoning. Do not delay your conversion to the Lord!
11 Replies to “On the Need to Be More Urgent in Preparing for Final Judgment”
Monsignor: Thank you for the reference to St. Alphonsus’ book. I am very interested in reading it, and found access to a free copy online.
I came back to the Faith many years ago in my late 20’s (and I am now 60 something) and began the long journey back to God. Yes, I knew after my confession I would not go to hell if I were to die, because I did my level best to confess completely with true contrition for my past sins. But I also knew I had to reform my life, and that has been a work I have been at since.
This past Lent I took time to do a “life confession” that took over an hour. It had been on my mind to do this in case there were some unconfessed sins from my past, though I wasn’t aware of trying to hide anything from Our Lord. My overall intention was to better prepare for death. I wanted very much to makes sure there were no sins hidden at the back of my life’s closet, so to speak – things I didn’t want to bring forward and confess.
In any case, I thank you for this reminder. I would like now to try to avoid purgatory completely, and am thinking of how to do that. I hope I will gain some insights by reading St. Alphonsus’ book.
Well said Monsignor! Perhaps you could also address at some time “imperfect” (because I dread the loss of Heaven) and “perfect” (but most of all..you who are good and deserving of all my love) contrition. The former, at first glance, seems insufficient for salvation according to Saint Thomas. Please keep up the good work!
At age 74 and emerging from a potentially life-threatening illness, I am eager to smooth out the ribbon of my life while there is still time. Excellent post, Msgr. Pope. Thank you.
Father, I’m a little confused. What’s the difference between indirect pentance and imperfect contrition?
I think the distinction that Thomas makes regards the fact of consequences, not the foreseeing of consequences as is the case with imperfect contrition. Thomas says in the quote that they still will wickedness but shun only the consequences. Hence they do not have contrition, for they will the sin.
It is good to hear that you urge those at funerals to take heed. How many pastors ever do? I pray daily not only for the Holy Souls but also for all those facing death and dying for the grace of sincere repentance and trust in God’s mercy but even I have been thinking that imperfect contrition would suffice – I just did not really reflect enough, because what you write is perfectly clear. The consequences are just too awful to contemplate in our current situation.
It used to be thought that difficult times would turn most people to God but when evil becomes so prevalent, unrelenting and fierce I fear it does just the opposite and hardens hearts against God or else stirs them to reject the thought of a God who would make any demands on them. Yes, the error of universalism has taken hold of most.
Thank you for speaking of this.
Words cannot express what your faithful witness to the Truth means to us. Yours is the true mercy. You are in my prayers. God bless you.
Another excellent column, Monsignor. You are a holy man from whom I have learned much.
I would add only the following: the importance of performing works of mercy. You mention the need to “practice the virtues learned in these holy sources.” But I think we should mention one virtue as especially relevant to our salvation: we are called in a particular way to love. To quote St. John of the Cross, “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” Or to quote our Lord in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, “Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:45-46).
Of course, the works of mercy include the spiritual works of mercy. One of my favorite quotes of Pope Francis is:
“When, in the evening of life, it shall be asked of us what we did to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, equally shall it be asked of us if we have helped people to set their doubts aside, if we have committed ourselves to welcoming sinners, admonishing them or correcting them, if we have been able to combat ignorance, especially in relation to the Christian faith and the good life.”
But I feel the Lord’s command to perform corporal works of mercy with love has a special priority.
The Corporal Works of Mercy:
feed the hungry
give drink to the thirsty
clothe the naked
shelter the homeless
visit the sick
visit the imprisoned
bury the dead
The Spiritual Works of Mercy:
counsel the doubtful
instruct the ignorant
comfort the afflicted
bear wrongs patiently
pray for the living and the dead
Great post. A spiritual director once told me to meditate on my death at least once a month. At that time it was a scary thought. Now it has eased the thoughts of that moment and in many ways made that moment a longing. I am a sinner, but Purgatory is God’s mercy. A priest once said that once our souls leave this world it will run to Purgatory out of knowing God’s love for us.
Wonderful post Father, as always.
I remember reading a comment related to an interview with a priest from either WW1 or WW2. When asked about deathbed conversions and the like, he said that in his experience, such things were rare. “As we live, so do we die.”
I have to wonder whether those who do not give to God that which is his due perhaps really don’t believe in Him fully? At times, my practice falters perhaps due to spiritual sloth, but I still have a firm belief and set myself straight again. Nothing is more terrible than being lukewarm.
When I first converted/reverted to the faith after 25 years an atheist, I had the pleasure to read Jesus Shock by Peter Kreeft. In this short book he said that if we truly believe and think about how wondrous our faith really is, we should be shocked into changing our life. I think about that frequently.
It is refreshing to hear you preach the real doctrines of the Church instead of saying what people want to hear. I just went to one of these funerals where it is assumed the deceased parent is sleeping until he meets Jesus, in addition to mixing in a bit of eulogizing to make the family “remember” him.
Here’s my concern. If we believe the Church’s teachings on sin, hell, and purgatory, isn’t it natural to be very concerned about our loved ones who act as “cultural” Catholics, don’t go to Church, don’t pray, don’t really believe in the Catechism unless it matches their personal ideas, practice contraception, etc. As you wrote, if there’s no easy out at the end, aren’t they all at serious risk of (not so say almost garanteed) going to hell? Purgatory can help one become more perfect before meeting Jesus, but it’s not the destination for the unfaitful who don’t repent and live as if God and the Church are just social constructs related to birth, marriage, death, and occasional days off (Christmas, Easter). They’ll tell you they work hard and take care of their families, but the bible says even the unjust do the same.
Isn’t Jesus correct in saying that few will be saved, especially in today’s Catholic world where must of the baptised live a wordly, almost godless life?
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