It’s been a while since there’s been enough room in the Bulletin for a ti morceau, but we’re still dealing with the Church’s funeral rituals. Death is vitally important to all people, of course, not just Catholics, but our Church knows from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition not only what to believe but also how to deal with it.
One part of the Church’s worship that is little-practiced nowadays can still be very important at times. Did you know that both the Order of Pastoral Care of the Sick, and the Order of Christian Funerals contains special prayers and liturgical rites to be prayed when death is near, on the occasion of death itself, and when the faithful gather in the presence of the body of one recently-deceased?
Perhaps it’s because the suddenly-sick so often now are whisked away in emergency vehicles to hospital settings, and those lingering in terminal illness are placed in long-term hospice care, but it’s been my experience that fewer and fewer opportunities like these are being taken. Still, believers ought to join together, first merely to be present to those close to death and to each other at such an important time in life, and then, second, at these times to invoke God’s grace. As one Church text puts it, “Christians have the responsibility of expressing their union in Christ by joining the dying person in prayer for God’s mercy and for confidence in Christ” (RAPCS, no. 213). What is more, it can be particularly comforting for an ordained minister of the Church – that is, a priest or deacon – to be present at such moments and by his leadership direct the faithful’s attention despite their quite proper emotions and other concerns. There is a natural human anxiety about death, but prayerful discipleship notices and imitates Christ in His suffering and dying. Even if the dying person is not aware of what’s going on – and we should not be too quick to judge this to be so! – the family and others who are gathered draw consolation and strength from shared presence and prayers.
To gather at the time of death and then to pray expresses faith in that most essential focus of our faith, something called the Paschal Mystery: true and valuable life for us comes only through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. While our participation in the Eucharist, which renews and recreates the Lord’s paschal sacrifice is the Church’s usual “peak moment” realizing this (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, arts. 1322-1419), it by no means is the only one!