In this reflection, let us consider our spiritual lives during this time of pandemic.
For our families whose loved ones died during this time of pandemic, we express our heartfelt sympathy and prayers. Our funeral rites are a great consolation and help us to express our love for those who have gone before us. When death visits a family it is difficult enough, but to be unable to have a proper wake or funeral Mass made this time even more difficult to bear. Now that we are once again able to celebrate Mass publicly, please consider contacting your local parish to arrange for a memorial Mass for your loved one. If doing so will be too difficult after so much time has passed, then consider having Mass offered for the repose of their soul. Our daily and Sunday Masses often have intentions for the deceased or the living.
It has been our Catholic custom to offer Holy Mass for the souls in purgatory to assist them in getting to heaven. St. Ambrose writes, “We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death, until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord.” St. Augustine recorded the dying wishes of his mother, St. Monica, in his “Confessions.”: “One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” A Mass intention can be easily obtained from your parish and Masses can be offered on a specific day or time. We also offer “unannounced” Masses; these intentions are not assigned to a specific day or time but are sent to our retired priests who offer these Masses privately. It is our custom to send a Mass card to the family when their loved one has passed away. We can bring the Mass card to the wake or mail it to them. To offer Mass for the repose of the souls of our deceased Catholics is an expression of our faith and our respect for the deceased and can bring great comfort to their family during this difficult time of loss. We know that when we die, we will see our Lord face to face, and any sins that need to be atoned for will take place in purgatory, where we will be purified and made worthy to enter heaven. Our prayers for the deceased are important because it is by these prayers that we assist them in their journey to heaven. The merits of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass are the most powerful aid we can offer them on this journey.
The time before our loved one’s passing is often stressful. While death can come suddenly and unexpectedly, there are situations in which we know that an illness is serious and life threatening. Please do not hesitate to call your parish priest during this time. The sacraments are such a consolation for the entire family during times of illness. We often hear it said that we never really understand something’s worth until we no longer have it. We know with even greater certainty now, having just lived through a time where we found ourselves without them, just how important the sacraments are.
Profound Encounters With the Dying
Throughout my many years of priestly ministry, I have been privileged to be at the bedsides of many who were dying. I have witnessed firsthand some remarkable encounters. There have been some who were angry and filled with fear; some did not want to receive the sacraments and asked me to leave. Their faces remain before me to this day and I pray for them often. But there have also been truly graced moments when the reception of the sacraments has brought great peace and consolation. The manner with which one faces death is often a reflection of their practice of their faith during life; those who have been faithful find great consolation in offering their last confession and in receiving the anointing of the sick with the apostolic pardon and Viaticum (the reception of Holy Communion for the last time). What a beautiful culmination to the life of a faithful Christian. This is what we refer to as a “holy death”—dying in the arms of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the prayer and hope of every faithful Catholic.
Remarkably often, when I visit patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and begin the ancient prayers of the Church, they surprise their family members by reciting with me the Our Father and the Hail Mary. So ingrained in their minds are those familiar prayers that even that horrible disease cannot erase them from their memory. Those who are anxious as death approaches often experience great peace after they receive the sacraments. Many times, families hesitate to call the priest because they don’t want to scare their loved ones in thinking that they may be dying. However, may I suggest that to help them prepare is a greater act of love. I know that I would want to “get my house in order” by making a good confession, receiving the sacraments, and perhaps expressing my love and gratitude to those who mean the most to me. Why would we deny this grace to those whom we love? Please don’t wait until the last minute to call your priest. We can be a tremendous help during this time. Call us!
Perhaps death is not near. Perhaps, despite age, infirmity or disease, life is prolonged. Sometimes our loved ones are homebound or in nursing care facilities. These faithful Catholics do not stop believing or practicing their faith. Being able to watch Mass and other devotions on television is a great consolation for them. However, the reception of Holy Communion is the greatest comfort. Call your parish and let them know that your loved one is homebound or in a nursing home. Your priest will happily visit with the sacraments. Traditionally, the first Friday of each month was spent in making “Communion calls” to the faithful who were unable to get to Mass. Receiving Holy Communion on First Fridays is one of the practices our Lord asked for to fulfill the promise He made to St. Margaret Mary when He revealed to her His Sacred Heart: “For those who devoutly receive Holy Communion for nine consecutive First Fridays, He would extend His mercy and the grace of final perseverance, that the faithful will not die without the sacraments and that His Divine Heart will be their safe refuge in their last moment.” (Our Lord made 12 promises to those who faithfully practice this devotion and they are a source of great consolation. Look them up online. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a powerful means by which we can strengthen our spiritual lives.) Many parishes are also blessed with deacons and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion who volunteer their time to bring Holy Communion and spend a little time to pray and visit with the sick in hospitals, nursing homes and at home. It is only right that when these good parishioners, who have been so faithful during their lives, can no longer get to church that the church comes to them.
Sacraments Are Important Milestones
First Holy Communions, confirmations, weddings and baptisms are all being celebrated differently than what we have been used to in the past. We are busy rescheduling canceled celebrations of these sacraments precisely because they are important milestones in our lives of faith. Make every effort to follow through with these sacramental encounters in the lives of your children and loved ones. I am afraid that, as years pass, we will encounter too many who never received these vital sacraments because they were canceled and their families never got around to rescheduling them. Please make the reception of the sacraments a priority in your family’s lives.
During the time of the pandemic, we found great consolation in the many devotions and sacramentals which our Catholic faith offers us to grow in our spiritual lives. Many finally had time on their hands to do the things that they never seemed to have the time to do before. Our Lady’s Rosary was a great comfort to so many during the period of isolation. How blessed were the hands that held the beads and prayed for the sick and the dying. The Rosary is a powerful prayer and a beautiful meditation on the life of our Lord and our Lady. Hopefully, many will continue to pray the Rosary for peace in our world, in our church, in our families and in our lives.
There was also more time for prayerfully reading the Bible and for other spiritual reading, especially the lives of the saints and the many spiritual classics that we are blessed to have in our Catholic library. Learning about our faith should not end once we have been confirmed but should be a lifelong program of study. There is always more to learn, and we should always seek to grow in our knowledge of our faith. I would encourage you to read more, listen to podcasts, go online to FORMED.org, which has a wealth of materials to enrich our minds and hearts with the truths of our Catholic faith.
During the pandemic, many families placed images of the Divine Mercy and our Lady on their front doors or in the windows of their homes. Reminiscent of the blood that marked the lintels and doorposts of the Israelites during the Passover of the Lord, these images proclaimed to the world and to the virus that these homes and all who dwell within belong to Jesus and Mary. It is not superstitious, as some might think, but rather a proclamation of faith: This is who we are; this is to whom we belong and we are safeguarded by their love and protection.
Holy water, although absent at this time from the fonts in our churches to prevent the spread of the virus, can be used to sprinkle our homes and our families, or to bless ourselves before leaving the home or before we go to sleep at night. It is a powerful sacramental that reminds us of our baptism, when we became children of God and heirs of heaven. It also protects us against evil and in times of temptation it is a great source of strength. Just fill a suitable container with regular tap water and ask your priest to bless it for you. Anyone can use blessed holy water to sprinkle your home or bless the members of your family.
Wearing a scapular is another popular devotion among Catholics. Our Lady gave the scapular to St. Simon Stock with this promise: “Take this scapular, it shall be a sign of salvation, a protection in danger and a pledge of peace. Whoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.” In addition to the scapular, the Miraculous Medal or a cross may be worn by faithful Catholics as an outward sign of our faith. Look up the scapular and the Miraculous Medal online for more details about their origin and use.
Lastly, I would ask you look around your home. Ask yourself this question: “If a stranger walked in here would they know that we are Catholic?” Our homes often display pictures of our loved ones or significant events in our lives. Are there pictures of the ones we are called to love the most? Is there a crucifix in your bedroom or in the common living space of your home? Are there pictures or statues of Jesus, Mary or other saints? They are members of our family as well. Shouldn’t they have a place of prominence on the wall or mantel? Surrounding ourselves with holy images helps us to be prayerful, to be holy. Our homes are “little churches,” and we have experienced this in a special way during our time of isolation. These images are important for the spiritual growth of our children as well. To be able to recognize in their home what they see in church will help them to make important connections between what we believe and how we live.
Before we know it, it will be that time of the year again. Please remember to display a nativity scene in your home at Christmas, and perhaps even place one outside. When you send out Christmas cards, make sure they depict the true meaning of the season, the birth of Jesus, and say “Merry Christmas.” We will not offend anyone! If we don’t say it, who will?
We have been through a truly rough time and we will continue to be cautious and prudent as we step into the future. Life will be different and unusual at times, but there is One who remains constant and the same: Jesus. Although our usual encounters with Him have been tested, distant or virtual, He has never left us. Our Catholic faith is a great anchor in the storms of life. Pray that your faith may increase. Do your part to make sure it remains strong and vital in your life and in the lives of those whose formation is your responsibility. Your church—your parish priests—are always available, always ready, always willing to help you along life’s journey, especially when it is most difficult. How often we see signs that read: “We will get through this together.” We know this, we believe this and we live this every day as we practice our Catholic faith. We will get through anything because we are one with Jesus and He is one with us, and because of Him we are joined to one another.