Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
This weekend, the Church concludes her 2017 Year of Grace as we celebrate the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. We will also conclude the month of November, the month dedicated especially to the holy souls in purgatory. The Gospel for this weekend reminds us once again of our final destiny. We are meant to be with God eternally. However, unfortunately, many souls will be lost and fail to achieve the full purpose of their creation and their recreation in the order of grace. They will be among the vast number of goats, as it were, who failed to recognize Jesus Christ present to them every day. In contrast, we come to Mass each week to hear the words of Christ once again teaching us how to live His very life within our own. Our life in Jesus would be incomplete if it were not for the fact that He gives us the supreme gift of our life: His own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in Holy Communion.
The readings and the end of our current liturgical year are both reminders that we are only pilgrims in this world. We are passing through with a purpose in mind. We are hopefully accomplishing God’s works each day. Part of our life’s work, as paradoxical as it may seem, is to prepare ourselves well for a holy death in a state of grace. Rather than being a morbid thought, the “Church encourages us to prepare ourselves for the hour of our death. In the litany of saints, for instance, she has us pray: ‘From a sudden and unforeseen death, deliver us, O Lord,’” and St. Joseph himself is the patron saint of a happy death (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1014). Each time we pray the Hail Mary, we ask our Blessed Mother’s intercession especially for us at the moment of our passing into eternal life.
How we prepare for our death, in fact, reflects how we live our daily life. There is an intimate connection between the two. A person who fails to safeguard his soul each day by following Jesus’ life and remaining connected to Him through His Catholic Church will be most unlikely to take the necessary steps to protect his soul as he enters into eternity. The common understanding that it does not matter how a person lives because everyone is going to heaven is the grave, mortal sin of presumption. This presumes God’s mercy. Such presumption, however, fails to understand what God’s mercy involves. Many people think that God will forgive them of anything that they do because He is merciful without requiring any genuine sorrow, contrition, amends, or conversion on their part. They fail most seriously in understanding this weekend’s Gospel regarding the division of the sheep from the goats. God is a merciful and forgiving Father, but His forgiveness and mercy are not empty, hallow acts. They are meant to move and change us for the better; in short, they are meant to change us to be like Him. We move from natural goodness to supernatural holiness and perfection by God’s grace in an ever deepening conversion over our lifetime.
The idea that all people will enjoy eternal blessedness with God is nothing more than silly nonsense, on the one hand, based on an empty foundation which many people believe simply because it is repeated often enough and because it requires no change on their part. On the other hand, this notion of presumption is spiritually deadly because it fails to prepare souls properly for their passing from this life into the next. The vice of presumption ought to be replaced, therefore, with the virtue of final perseverance. This virtue keeps our final goal in mind—our eternal salvation—and the means in which to attain that goal. Thomas a Kempis’ (1380-1471) words are as relevant today as they were in the fifteenth century: “Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience…Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow…” (The Imitation of Christ, 1, 23, 1 as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, footnote 587).
Kempis’ statement rings true. How do we keep a quiet conscience, as he teaches? We do this by following what the Church herself has practiced in her saints for two thousand years and in which we all have the same access. We persevere in living in imitation of Christ daily through prayer, first and foremost. The greatest prayer we have, of course, is the holy Sacrifice of the Mass! Every Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, we renew once again our life in Christ by receiving His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Nothing else takes priority over the Mass on Sunday (or the Saturday vigil). Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and devotion to the Blessed Mother, especially in the daily Rosary, are also ways that we keep connected to God’s life in us. We practice the moral virtues by choosing what is good over much of what is popular and morally base, unfortunately, in today’s world. As Christians, we are expected to elevate the world and not succumb to its cravenness. Otherwise, we contribute nothing to the world’s goodness in God but instead continue its moral permissiveness and devolvement. We practice works of charity, especially the corporal works and spiritual works of mercy. As we hear in the Gospel, the criteria for our eternal union with God will be whether we put into the practice the life of Christ among our neighbors through our sacrifices and self-denial. Note the order of priorities: we have to know Christ first through His Church, His teachings, and His sacraments, and then we go out and live what we have first received from Him. Otherwise, our actions are simply social work that anyone can do without necessarily having the proper motivation: to serve Jesus Christ in the person standing before us immediately. That is the hallmark difference between a secular and a spiritual work. We also practice the various devotions that have been communicated in private revelations. The nine first Fridays devotion of the Sacred Heart and the first Saturdays devotion of reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary are two among many such pious and worthwhile spiritual practices advancing our salvation.
When the day comes for us to give an account before God, we pray for the grace of final perseverance in which our moment of death will have us remaining in a state of grace. The Anointing of the Sick, or the sacrament of the departing, is the final seal that fortifies a person spiritually against discouragement, temptation, and anguish that may often accompany a person’s final end. The Anointing unites a person’s immediate suffering in a unique way to the Passion of Christ by configuring that soul to the redemptive action of Jesus. This sacrament is also meant to provide peace as the Church prays with them and through them as these souls prepare to enter God the Father’s house. It is fitting, therefore, that the final Holy Communion a person receives is called Viaticum—food for the journey. When the Apostolic Pardon is also given by the priest, the Church releases that person from all the temporal punishments due to the person’s sins (Confession accompanies the final sacrament) which thereby releases them from the suffering of purgatory.
The words of one of the greatest preachers of the Catholic Church, Bishop Jacques-Benigne Bossuet (1627-1704) in his work, Preparation for Death, appropriately conclude the month of November: “My God, I abandon myself to you. My fear is that I many not abandon myself completely to you through Jesus Christ. I put the Cross of your Son between my sins and your justice. My soul, why are you sad, why do you trouble me? Hope in Him, say to Him with all your power: ‘My God, you are my salvation. The time is approaching when faith is to turn into vision. My Savior, I believe. Help my unbelief. Sustain my feebleness. I have nothing to hope in from myself, but you have commanded me to hope in you. I rejoice when I hear them say that I shall go into the house of the Lord. When shall I see you, my One and Only God? My God, my strength, my life, I love you. I rejoice in your power, in your eternity, in your goodness. Soon, in a moment, I shall be able to embrace you. Take me to yourself.’”
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler
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