The editorial of the month

The editorial of the month by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

Whether or not we have had the privilege of being at the bedside for a holy death, what the term means is well understood: that a soul departs this world in peace and in the good graces of the Church. A holy death is that final act of surrender, sometimes after much suffering, as a soul goes serenely, joyfully, even eagerly across the threshold of time and eternity.

For those of us saying goodbye, the experience is not wholly sad. Certainly we mourn the loss of someone we love and whose company we enjoyed for perhaps our whole life (in the case of our parents, the ones to whom we owe our life). At the same time, deep down we are happy that our loved one has completed his or her earthly journey. We commit our loved ones to the mercy of Jesus, trusting that he will lead them to a better place—a place we hope to be ourselves one day.

A less final but related human experience is the mixture of sorrow and joy parents feel when a child leaves the nest to go to college, to marry and move into a new home, or to enter seminary or a convent. While parents undoubtedly miss their son or daughter, love enables them to be happy for their child. Love makes us consider another’s good as if it were our very own.

The reciprocity of love

If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, Jesus says in the Gospel at Mass on May 17. Though spoken on the eve of his Passion, he was preparing his disciples for the moment he would return to the Father. Thus the Church places this text before us year after year in the days leading up to the Ascension.

Our Lord knows the disciples are afraid and thinking only of themselves: “What will we do when the one we love and call our friend is gone? How can we go on without him?” In telling them to rejoice in his return to the Father, Jesus is lifting their attention off their present sorrows and their fear about the future. To adapt the words of a beautiful prayer from the Missal, Jesus desires that “amid the uncertainties of this world, their hearts may be fixed on that place where true gladness is found.” Although he will no longer be present among them in the same way—visibly and sensibly—the disciples must learn to love him for his sake and find their own happiness in contemplating his divine glory.

What they should also realize, though, is that this love is a two-way street, for Jesus has made their good his own as well. As a divine person, Jesus is always in a state of glory; he is never separated from the Father. So when Jesus says he is going to the Father, he is speaking of the fact that he will bring his humanity—the humanity he shares with us—into the heart of the Blessed Trinity. Jesus is making room for us and our humanity to be with God, to be united to God. We can therefore anchor our hearts and our hopes in heaven as we continue to make our way through life. Jesus assures the disciples: My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. He even reminds them: I am going away and I will come back to you.

Additionally, Jesus explains, I will no longer speak much with you, for the ruler of the world is coming. He has no power over me, but the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded me. As I read it, our Lord is bracing their hearts by saying: “I am telling you now the ruler of the world is going to wage a fierce but ultimately vain war against me. Though you will not hear the sound of my voice much longer, when you fear that I am absent from you, remember I have given you a share in my heavenly peace. Through your perseverance in faith and love the world will learn of my love for the Father and his love for me.”

Final words

The graces that come as a soul prepares to meet God are precious and powerful. Among family members, old wounds may be acknowledged, words of regret and forgiveness exchanged and reconciliations made—sometimes after decades of tension and division. And the most touching words are often said by the dying in their final moments. Devoted widows and widowers are known to express the hope of being reunited with a spouse. Some make sweet and tender exclamations: “I want to be with Jesus and Mary!” For one who has returned to the sacraments after many years, it may be “I feel so much peace” and a sigh of relief.

I often think about what a gift it was that I was studying in Austria when Pope John Paul II died. I and the other students traveled immediately to Rome when we heard the news. As we made our way through the long line to enter Saint Peter’s Basilica, where his body was lying in state, there were both tears of sorrow and songs of joy. The man who had declared himself Totus tuus, Maria—totally yours, Mary—was now entirely in her hands. Though I was of course not among those who heard his final words on April 2, 2005, they have been widely reported: “Let me go to the house of the Father.”

This month, which we dedicate especially to Mary, we are sure of her prayers and her love, especially in the midst of our trials and when we feel that God is silent. Especially in the rosary and at Mass, we entrust ourselves and our loved ones completely to Jesus and his mother, who prays for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, that we too may go to the house of the Father.