Contemplating the Reality of Death

Animals die; insects die; plants die; and, yes, humans die—but only humans are rationally aware of that fact. This is because the human person is the only creature made in God’s image and likeness. Only the human person is called to Eternal Beatitude—Heaven for all eternity. The human person comes from God and is called to return to God. Simply put, we are made in God’s image and likeness to share, after this earthly life, in a life of eternal communion and happiness with Him.

It is important to have a healthy, realistic view of death. From a merely temporal point of view, this includes having your life insurance up to date, having your funeral arrangements in place and expenses covered, preparing a legal will (as well as a “living will” that reflects the Church’s teachings on end-of-life issues), and so on.

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But what about having a healthy view of the reality of death from a spiritual point of view? In other words, how about the state of your soul? Is your soul spiritually ready for its separation from the body? For example, have you made a good, sound examination of your conscience recently? Do you do so daily? When was the last time you went to the Sacrament of Confession? Have you confessed any and all known mortal sins? Are you sincerely striving to overcome any vice or habit of venial sin you may have acquired? Do you go to Mass regularly and receive the Eucharist worthily?

We will discuss all these topics in more detail in the last chapter, but here the point is that when it comes to the reality of death, we can easily get caught up only in the temporal realities of life, which are doubtless important, and forget about the spiritual realities of life. At the end of the day, damnation due to mortal sin is more important than snagging the ideal burial plot.

To help us understand more fully the spiritual reality of death, we can do no better than to examine some of the sayings and teachings of holy men and women that have been handed down through the centuries:

  • “Nothing is more certain than death; nothing more uncertain than its hour.” (St. Anselm)
  • “Happy are they who, being always on their guard against death, find themselves always ready to die.” (St. Francis de Sales)
  • “Of this at least I am certain, that no one has ever died who was not destined to die at some time.” (St. Augustine)
  • “Death is no more than falling blindly into the arms of God.” (St. Maria Maravillas de Jesus)
  • “Live so as not to fear death. For those who live well in the world, death is not frightening but sweet and precious.” (St. Rose of Viterbo)
  • “To the good man, to die is gain.” (St. Ambrose)
  • “It is His breath that is in us, and when He wants to, He will take it away.” (Pope St. Clement I)
  • “Think often of death, so as to prepare for it and appraise things at their true value.” (Bl. Charles de Foucauld)

For a theologically sound synopsis on the subject of human death, one needs to look no further than the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which provides a synthesis of what Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium teach us on the subject. Here are some of the more pertinent passages that bring forth three important truths regarding death:

Death is the end of earthly life. Our lives are measured by time, in the course of which we change, grow old and, as with all living beings on earth, death seems like the normal end of life. That aspect of death lends urgency to our lives: remembering our mortality helps us realize that we have only a limited time in which to bring our lives to fulfillment. (1007)

Death is a consequence of sin. The Church’s Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of both Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man’s sins. Even though man’s nature is mortal, God had destined him not to die. Death was therefore contrary to the plans of God, the Creator, and entered the world as a consequence of sin. “Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned” is thus “the last enemy” of man to be conquered. (1008)

Death is transformed by Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, also himself suffered the death that is part of the human condition. Yet, despite his anguish as he faced death, he accepted it in an act of complete and free submission to his Father’s will. The obedience of Jesus has thus transformed the curse of death into a blessing. (1009)

This is the symbolism of the three-time pouring of water at Baptism: the initiation of death in and with Christ. This may seem dark or morbid, especially at an infant Baptism, but it is actually incredibly beautiful. This death is not “death” as popularly conceived, with the Grim Reaper taking us to eternal nothingness; rather, it is the death to ourselves that allows us to be fully alive in Christ. And so, if we die in a state of Christ’s sanctifying grace — that is, with no mortal sin on our soul that we have not confessed and repented for — then our physical death literally completes this dying with Christ begun in us at Baptism. Physical death completes our full incorporation into Him, in and through His redeeming act of dying for us on the Cross. What a beautiful and consoling teaching of our Catholic Faith!

Knowing this, the Catechism makes it even clearer to us that in death, God calls the human person to Himself. This is a truth of which St. Paul was keenly aware:

In death, God calls man to himself. Therefore, the Christian can experience desire for death like St. Paul’s: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). He can transform his own death into an act of obedience and love towards the Father, after the example of Christ. (1011)

The Catechism also quotes some of the saints who understood the truth that physical death, in a state of sanctifying grace, completes our incorporation into Christ. Consider especially this powerful statement from St. Ignatius of Antioch, who in his Letter to the Romans expressed a strong intuition of his impending martyrdom: “It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to reign over the ends of the earth. Him it is I seek — who died for us. Him it is I desire — who rose for us. . . . When I shall have arrived there, then shall I be fully a man.” That is, once he arrives in Heaven, he will be fully alive in accord with his human nature as he was always meant to be: living in communion with God for all eternity.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Fr. Menezes’ The Four Last Things: A Catechetical Guide to Death, Judgment, Heaven, and HellIt is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press. 

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Fr. Wade Menezes is currently the Assistant General of the Fathers of Mercy and has served as Director of Vocations and Director of Seminarians for the community. Fr. Wade has also served as the Chaplain-in-Residence at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Alabama. Both the Monastery and Shrine are affiliated with EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network. Fr. Wade has been a contributing writer for The National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic Faith and Family, Pastoral Life, The Catholic Faith, Lay Witness and Christian Ranchman publications. Several homiletic series of his have appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, an international journal for Priests. Fr. Wade has also been a guest on various episodes of EWTN’s “Mother Angelica Live” and “Life on the Rock” programs during which he discussed such topics as the sanctification of marriage and family life, vocations, and the Sacred Liturgy. He has also hosted several televised series for EWTN, which have covered such topics as the necessity of the Spiritual Life, The Four Last ThingsThe Ten Commandments of Catholic Family Life, and The Gospel of Life vs. the Culture of Death. He is also the host of the EWTN segment series “The Crux of the Matter” and “The Wonders of His Mercy.” Fr. Wade's many theological and doctrinal presentations have been featured on EWTN Radio, Ave Maria Radio, Guadalupe Radio Network, Covenant Network Radio, Catholic Broadcasting Northwest, and Voice of Virtue International. He is the author of two books: The Four Last Things: A Catechetical Guide to Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell and Overcoming the Evil Within: The Reality of Sin and the Transforming Power of God's Grace and Mercy; both books are available from EWTN Publishing.  Fr. Wade is also the Host of EWTN Global Catholic Radio's "Open Line Tuesday" which airs every Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. EST.

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