What does it mean to die well? The end, it’s inevitable for all of us. When, we don’t know. How, we don’t know. Where, we don’t know. But we know it’s coming.
St. John Vianney, the French curé d’Ars, once said: “If we were required to die twice, we could jettison one death. But man dies once only, and upon this death depends his eternity.”
In other words, while walking this journey on earth, we must never take our eyes off the ultimate reward — life with God — and we must never lose sight of what it takes to get there. We do, after all, only get one death.
One supposes this must have been a constant consideration in recent years of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who retired to a life of solitude and prayer in 2013 at age 85. What was there left to do but to prepare to die well?
His preparations, though, had been lifelong. In his spiritual testament dated more than 16 years before his death, Benedict reflected on his life, and on those whom he had encountered, with gratitude. He gave thanks to God. He asked for the forgiveness of those he may have wronged. He asked for our prayers. And he took one last opportunity to point people to the truth.
“Stand firm in the faith! Do not be confused!” he urged. “For 60 years now, I have accompanied the path of theology, especially biblical studies, and have seen seemingly unshakeable theses collapse with the changing generations, which turned out to be mere hypotheses … I have seen, and see, how, out of the tangle of hypotheses, the reasonableness of faith has emerged and is emerging anew. Jesus Christ is truly the Way, the Truth, and the Life — and the Church, in all her shortcomings, is truly His Body.”
In his final statement on earth, Pope Benedict was determined to do what he did best: demonstrate how to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He led with gratitude, sought reconciliation with his fellow man, underscored the importance of prayer, and taught the Faith. Through that witness and that teaching, he sought to do what every disciple is called to do: to bring others to Jesus Christ. This is dying well.
In a talk on St. Thérèse of Lisieux in April of 2011, Pope Benedict reflected on the final words of the saint, uttered on her deathbed on Sept. 30, 1897, when she was just 24 years old: “My God, I love you!”
“These last words of the saint are the key to her whole doctrine, to her interpretation of the Gospel. The act of love, expressed in her last breath was, as it were, the continuous breathing of her soul, the beating of her heart,” Pope Benedict said. “We too,” he added, “with St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus must be able to repeat to the Lord every day that we want to live out of love for Him and for others, to learn at the school of the saints to love authentically and totally.”
He must have meant what he said, because his own final words beautifully and poignantly echoed the Little Flower’s: “Lord, I love you.”
What does it mean to die well? It is to follow the greatest of commandments spoken by Our Lord and lived out by those who sought to be like Him: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength (and) ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mk 12:30-31).
Should we succeed in that, we too might find that, when our time comes, our own focus is right where it should be: expressing our love of God. This is dying well.
Gretchen R. Crowe is the Editor-In-Chief of OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.
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