Back in the 50s when I was in the Navy during the Korean conflict, I came to know an interesting psychiatrist who ran a therapeutic clinic in California for the treatment of men who returned from Korea with what was then called “battle fatigue.” It was often a combination of anxiety, depression, emotional upset, and even psychosis brought on by their experiences in combat.
The doctor was a Catholic, and he noticed that among his patients there was a much smaller percentage of Catholics than among the general population and the armed forces. He wondered why, so began to investigate the phenomenon. He came to the conclusion that the reason why Catholics were less affected by combat than others was that we are made more aware of death than others. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our religion keeps before us quite constantly the inevitability of death and the need always to be ready for it whenever it comes. Outside the Church, that is not as true. In fact, some people avoid talking about death at all and try to avoid all of its accompanying elements, like funerals, terminal illness, the aging process, etc.
Every time we say the “Hail, Mary,” for example, we ask Our Lady to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” We might not advert to those words very deeply, but they work their way into our subconscious. We pray for the dead at every Mass; we hear the words of Jesus read to us with regularity in the scripture readings in which he warns us to be ready, since we don’t know the day or the hour when death may come for us. After the “Our Father” at every Mass, we speak of waiting “with joyful hope” for the coming of our Divine Lord. Death is not fearful for us, especially for those who live with a good conscience, who have devotion to some of the saints in heaven, and who love God and await the happiness of heaven. Each year we celebrate All Souls Day, we gain indulgences for the dead, we have Masses celebrated for them, we are familiar with the practice of administering the Last Sacraments to the dying. We call Holy Communion given in that state “Viaticum,” which means in Latin “with you on the journey.” Jesus comes in the Eucharist to be with the dying person on his or her journey into eternal life—a beautiful preparation for the transition from this life to the next.
Let us think of the doctor’s insight and realize how fortunate we are to have the consolations of our holy faith as we find death approaching. We might remember the wonderful words of Cardinal Manning, an elderly English bishop who was asked on his deathbed, “How do you feel?” He smiled and said, “I feel like a schoolboy going home for the holidays.” Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God Bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.