There is a wise and wonderful editorial in this morning’s Guardian, which has warm praise for the Catholic Church. Read it here if you do not believe me. The writer puts his or her finger on a key point of concern in our culture, namely the way that death has been swept under the carpet, and the way the art of dying has been lost. A most suitable subject for Ash Wednesday.
At various times I have acted as a hospital chaplain or as a visitor at a hospice (sadly this is something I no longer do) and this has brought me into contact with a lot of people who were in the process of dying. You learn a lot about life and human dignity when you are with the dying. All of them, without a single exception, were people who died calmly, peacefully, indeed, serenely and happily, which was wonderful to see. I remember the very first dying people I ever visited in hospital: they were the sort of people who cheered you up with their radiant love of God and neighbour. It is some decades ago now, but I still remember them, and I particularly remember the way they so devotedly received Holy Communion in their hospital beds. Having known them gives me great existential confidence.
I really do not mind dying, or the prospect of death, having seen so many people go through it so happily. All I want when I am dying – I suppose I had better mention it just in case people don’t take it as read – is the presence of a priest, who will administer Holy Communion (if possible) and the Sacrament of the Sick. And I also want to hear the prayers for the dying, particularly the wonderful words of the Final Commendation, along with the Apostolic Pardon.
In case you do not know them, the Prayer of Commendation goes like this:
Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father, who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon you,
go forth Christian soul.
May you live in peace this day, may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, with Joseph, and all the angels and saints.
There is an alternative prayer that is just as good:
I commend you, my dear brother/sister, to almighty God, and entrust you to your Creator.
May you return to him who formed you from the dust of the earth.
May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints come to meet you as you go forth from this life.
May Christ who was crucified for you bring you freedom and peace.
May Christ who died for you admit you into his garden of paradise.
May Christ, the true Shepherd, acknowledge you as one of his flock.
May he forgive all your sins, and set you among those he has chosen.
May you see your Redeemer face to face, and enjoy the vision of God for ever.
The Apostolic Pardon, which confers a plenary indulgence, is as follows:
By the authority which the Apostolic See has given me,
I grant you a full pardon
and the remission of all your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, +
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I hear those words, which one day I hope to, I will be very happy to conclude my earthly journey.