SERMON XLIV. FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST. – ON THE PRACTICAL DEATH, OR ON WHAT ORDINARILY HAPPENS AT THE DEATH OF MEN OF THE WORLD.
” Behold, a dead man was carried out, the only son of his mother.” LUKE vii. 12.
IT is related in this day’s gospel that, going to the city of Naim, Jesus Christ met a dead man, the only son of his mother, who was carried out to be buried. “Behold, a dead man was carried out.” Before we proceed further, let us stop at these words and remember death. The holy Church directs her ministers to say to Christians every year, on Ash Wednesday: “Memento homo quia pulvis es, et in pulverum reverteris.” Remember man, thou art but dust, and into dust thou shalt return. Oh! would to God that men had death always before their eyes; if they had, they certainly should not lead such bad lives. Now, beloved brethren, that the remembrance of death may be impressed upon you, I will this day place before your eyes the practical death, or a description of what ordinarily happens at the death of men of the world, and of all the circumstances attending it. Hence we shall consider, in the first point, what happens at the time of the last illness: in the second point, what happens when the last sacraments are received; and, in the third, what happens at the time of death.
First Point. What happens at the time of the last illness.
1. I do not intend in this discourse to speak of a sinner who had always lived in habitual sin; but of a worldling, who is careless about his salvation, and always entangled in the affairs of the world, in contracts, enmities, courtships, and gaming. He has frequently fallen into mortal sins, and after a considerable time has confessed them. In a word, he has been a relapsing sinner, and has generally lived in enmity with God, or, at least, has been generally perplexed with grievous doubts of conscience. Let us consider the death of such persons, and what ordinarily happens at their death.
2. Let us commence at the time at which his last illness appears. He rises in the morning, he goes out to look after his temporal affairs; but while he is engaged in business, he is assailed by a violent pain in the head, his legs totter, he feels a cold shivering, which runs through every member, a sickness of the stomach, and great debility over the whole body. He immediately returns home and throws himself on the bed. His relatives, his wife and sisters, run to him, and say: “Why have you retired so early? Are you unwell ?” He answers: “I feel sick. I am scarcely able to stand; I have a great head-ache.””Perhaps” they say, “you have got a fever.””It must be so,” he replies, “send for a physician. ” The physician is immediately sent for. In the meantime the sick man is put to bed, and there he is seized with a cold fit, which makes him shiver from head to foot. He is loaded with covering, but the cold continues for an hour or two, and is succeeded by a burning heat. The physician arrives, asks the sick man how he feels; he examines the pulse, and find he has a severe attack of fever. But, not to alarm him, the physician says: You have fever: but it is trifling. Have you given any occasion to it? The sick man replies: I went out by night a few days ago, and caught cold; or, I dined with a friend, and indulged my appetite to excess. It is worth nothing, the physician says: it is a fulness of stomach, or more probably one of these attacks which occur at the change of season. Eat nothing to-day: take a cup of tea; be not uneasy; be cheerful; there is no danger. I will see you tomorrow. Oh! that there was an angel, who, on the part of God, would say to the physician: What do you say? Do you tell me that there is no danger in this disease? Ah! the trumpet of the divine justice has, by the first symptoms of his illness, given the signal of the death of this man: for him the time of God’s vengeance has already arrived.
3. The night comes, and the poor invalid gets no rest. The difficulty of breathing and headache increase. The night appears to him a thousand years. The light scarcely dawns when he calls for some of the family. His relatives come, and say to him: Have you rested well? Ah! I have not been able to close my eyes during the entire night. O God! how much do I feel oppressed! Oh! how violent are the spasms in my head! I feel my temples pierced by two nails. Send immediately for the physician; tell him to come as soon as possible. The physician comes, and finds the fever increased; but still he continues to say: “Have courage; there is no danger. The disease must take its course. The fever which accompanies it will make it disappear.” He comes the third day, and finds the sick man worse. He comes on the fourth day, and symptoms of malignant fever appear. The taste on the mouth is disagreeable; the tongue is black; every part of the body is restless; and delirium has commenced. The physician, finding that the fever is acute, prescribes purging, bloodletting, and iced water. He says to the relatives: Ah! the sickness is most severe; I do not wish to be alone. Let other physicians be called in, that we may have a consultation. This he says in secret to the relatives, but not to the sick man on the contrary, not to frighten him, he continues to say: “Be cheerful; there is no danger.”
4. Thus, they speak of remedies, of more physicians, and of a consultation; but not a word about confession or the last sacraments. I know not how such physicians can be saved. Where the Bull of Pope Pius the Fifth is in force, they expressly swear, when they receive the diploma, that, after the third day of his illness, they will pay no more visits to any sick man until he has made his confession. But some physicians do not observe this oath, and thus so many poor souls are damned. For, when a sick man has lost his reason, of what use is confession to him? He is lost. Brethren, when you fall sick, do not wait till the physician tells you to send for a confessor; send for him of your own accord; for physicians, through fear of displeasing a patient, do not warn him of his danger until they despair, or nearly despair of his recovery. Thus, brethren, send first for your confessor call first for the physician of the soul, and afterwards for the physician of the body. Your soul is at stake, eternity is at stake; if you err then you have erred for ever; your mistake shall be for ever irreparable.
5. The physician, then, conceals from the sick man his danger; his relatives do what is still worse they deceive him by lies. They tell him that he is better, and that the physicians give strong hopes of his recovery. treacherous relatives! barbarous relatives, who are the worst of enemies! Instead of warning the sick man of his danger (as is their duty, particularly if they are parents, children, or brothers), that he may settle the accounts of his soul, they flatter him, they deceive him, and cause him to die in the state of damnation. But, from the pains, oppression, and restlessness which he feels, from the studied silence of friends who visit him, and from the tears which he sees in the eyes of his relatives, the poor invalid perceives that his disease is mortal. Alas! he says, the hour of death is come; but, through fear of giving me annoyance, they do not warn me of it.
6. No; his relatives do not let him know that he is in danger of death; but because they attend to their own interest, about which they are more solicitous than they are about anything else, they bring in a scrivener, in the hope that the dying man will leave them a large portion of his property. The scrivener arrives. Who is this? asks the sick man. The relatives answer: He is a scrivener. Perhaps, for your own satisfaction, you would like to make your will. Then is my sickness mortal? Am I near my end? No, father, or brother, they say: we know that there is no necessity for making a will; but you must one day make it, and it would be better to do it now, while you have the full use of all your faculties. Very well, he replies; since the scrivener is come, and since you wish me to do it, I will make my last will. The scrivener first asks the sick man in what church he wishes to be buried, in case he should die. Oh! what a painful question! After choosing the place of his interment, he begins to dispose of all his goods. I bequeath such an estate or farm to my children; such a house to my brother; such a sum of money to a friend; and such an article of furniture to an acquaintance. O miserable man, what have you done? You have submitted to so much fatigue, you have burthened your conscience with so many sins, in order to acquire these goods; and now you leave them forever, and bequeath them to such and such persons. But there is no remedy; when death comes we must leave all things. This separation from all worldly possessions is very painful to the sick man, whose heart was attached to his property, his house, his garden, his money, and his amusements. Death comes, gives the stroke, and separates the heart from all the objects of its love. This stroke tortures the sick man with excruciating pain. Ah, brethren! let us detach our hearts from the things of this world before death separates us from them with so much pain, and with such great danger to our salvation.
Second Point. “What happens at the time in which the sacraments are received
7. Behold! the dying man has made his will. After the eighth or tenth day of his illness, seeing that he is daily growing worse, and that he is near his end, one of his relatives asks: “When shall we send for his confessor? He has been a man of the world. We know that he has not been a saint.” They all agree that the confessor should be sent for; but all refuse to speak to the sick an on the subject. Hence they send for the parish priest, or for some other confessor, to make known to the dying man his danger, and the necessity of receiving the last sacraments. But this is done only when he has nearly lost the use of his faculties. The confessor comes; he inquires from the family about the state of the sick man, and the sort of life which he led. He finds that he has been careless about the duties of religion, and, from the circumstances which he hears, he trembles for the salvation of the poor soul. Understanding that the dying man has but a short time to live, the confessor, first of all, orders the relatives to leave the room, and to return to it no more. He then approaches and salutes the sick man. The latter asks: “Who are you? I am, replies the confessor, the parish priest, Father Such-aone. Do you wish me to do anything for you? Having heard that you had a severe attack of illness, I have come to reconcile you with your Creator. Father, I am obliged to you; but I beg of you for the present to let me take a little rest; for I have got no sleep for several nights, and I am scarcely able to speak. Recommend me to God.
8. Knowing the dangerous state of the soul and body of the sick man, the confessor says: We hope that the Lord and the most holy Virgin will deliver you from this illness; but, sooner or later, you must die. Your illness is very severe. You would do well to make your confession, and to adjust the affairs of your soul. Perhaps you have scruples of conscience. I have come on purpose to calm the troubles of your mind. Father, I should have to make a long confession; for my conscience is perplexed and burdened with sin. At present I am not able to do it. I feel a lightness in my head, and I can scarcely breathe. Father, we will see about it tomorrow, at present I am not able. But who knows what may happen? Some attack may come on, which will not leave you time to make your confession. Father, do not torment me any longer. I have said that I am not able; it is impossible for me to do it.
But the confessor, who knows that there is no hope of recovery, feels himself obliged to speak more plainly, and says: I think it is my duty to inform you that your life is about to close. I entreat you to make your confession: for, perhaps, tomorrow you shall be dead. Why, father, do you say so? Because, replies the confessor, so the physicians have said. The poor dying man then begins to rage against the physicians, and against his friends. Ah! the traitors have deceived me. They knew my danger, and have not informed me of it. Ah! unhappy me! The confessor rejoins, and says: Be not alarmed at the difficulties of making your confession: it is enough to mention the most grievous sins which you remember. I will assist you. Be not afraid. Begin at once to tell your sins. The dying man forces himself to commence his confession; but his mind is all confusion; he knows not where to begin; he tries to tell his sins, but is not able to explain himself. He feels but little, and understands still less, what the confessor says to him. O God! At such a time, and in such a state, worldlings are obliged to attend to the most important of all affairs the affair of eternal salvation! The confessor hears, perhaps, many sins, bad habits, injuries done to the property and character of others, confessions made with little sorrow and with little purpose of amendment. He assists the dying man as well as he can, and, after a short exhortation, tells him to make an act of contrition. But, God grant that he may not be as insensible to sorrow as the sick man who was attended by Cardinal Bellarmine. When the Cardinal exhorted him to make an act of contrition, he said: Father, do not trouble yourself; these things are too high for me; I do not understand them. In the end, the confessor absolves the dying man; but who knows if God absolves him?
9. After giving him absolution, the confessor says: Prepare yourself, now, to receive Jesus Christ for your viaticum. It is now, replies the sick man, four or five hours after night; I will communicate in the morning. No: perhaps in the morning time shall be no more for you; you must at present receive the viaticum and extreme unction. Ah, unhappy me! the dying man says; am I then at the point of death? He has reason to say so; for the practice of some physicians is, to put off the viaticum till the patient is near his last, and till he has lost, or nearly lost, his senses. This is a common delusion. According to the common opinion of theologians, the viaticum ought always to be administered when there is danger of death. It would be useful here to observe, that Benedict the Fourteenth, in his fifty- third Bull (in Euchol. Grace., . 46, ap. Bullar, tom. 4), says, that extreme unction may be given whenever the sick man”labours under a grievous illness.” Hence, whenever the sick can receive the viaticum, they can also receive the sacrament of extreme unction. It is not necessary to wait, as some physicians recommend, till they are near the agony, or till they lose their senses.
10. Behold! the viaticum arrives, the sick man hears the bell. Oh! how he trembles! The trembling and terror increase when he sees the priest coming into the room with the holy sacrament, and when he beholds around his bed the torches of those who assisted at the procession. The priest recites the words of the ritual: “Accipe frater viaticum corporis Domini nostri Jesu Christi qui te custodiat ab hoste maligno, et perducat in vitam æternum. Amen.” Brother, receive the viaticum of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, that he may preserve you from the wicked enemy, and that he may bring you to eternal life. He receives the consecrated host upon his tongue: the priest then gives him a little water to enable him to swallow it; for his throat is dry and parched.
11. The priest afterwards gives the extreme unction; and begins by anointing the eyes while he says the following words: “Per istam sanctam unctionem, et suam piissimam misericordiam, indulgeat tibi Deus, quidquid per visum deliquisti.” He then anoints the other senses the ears, the nostrils, the mouth, the hands, the feet, and the loins, saying: “Quidquid per aditum deliquisti per odoratum, per gustum et locutionem, per tactum, per gressum, et lumborum delectationem.” And, during the administration of the extreme unction, the devil is employed in reminding the sick man of all the sins he committed by the senses by the eyes, the ears, the tongue, the hands; and says to him: After so many sins can you expect to be saved? Oh! what terror is then caused by every one of those mortal sins, which are now called human frailties, and which, worldlings say, God will not punish! Now they are disregarded; but then every mortal sin shall be a sword that will pierce the soul with terror. But let us come to what happens at death.
Third Point. What happens at the time of death.
12. After having administered the sacraments the priest departs, and leaves the dying man alone. He feels more terror and alarm after the sacraments than before he received them; for he knows that his entire preparation for them was made in the midst of great confusion of mind and great uneasiness of conscience. But the signs of approaching death appear: the sick man falls into a cold sweat; the sight grows dim, and he no longer knows the persons that attend him: he has lost his speech, and can scarcely breathe. In the midst of this darkness of death he continues to say: “Oh! that I had time, that I had another day, with the use of my faculties, to make a good confession!” For, the unhappy man has great doubts about the confession which he has made: he feels that he was not able to excite himself to make a true act of sorrow. But, what time? what day? “Time shall be no longer.” (Apoc. x. 6.) The confessor has the book open to announce to him his departure from this world. “Profiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo.” Depart, Christian soul, from this world. The dying man continues to say within himself: “O lost years of my life! fool that I have been!” But when does he say this? When the scene is about to close for him; when the oil in the lamp is just consumed; and when the great moment has arrived on which his eternal happiness or misery depends.
13. But behold! his eyes are petrified; his body takes the posture of a corpse; the extremities, the hands and feet, have become cold. The agony commences; the priest begins to recite the prayers for the recommendation of a departing soul. After having read the recommendation, he feels the pulse of the dying man, and feels that it has ceased to beat. Light, he says, immediately the blessed candle. O candle! O candle! show us light, now that we have health; for, at the hour of death, thy light shall serve only to terrify us the more. But already the breathing of the sick man is not so frequent; it has begun to fail This is a sign that death is very near. The assisting priest raises his voice, and says to the poor man in his agony: Say after me O God, come to my aid; have mercy on me. My crucified Jesus, save me through thy passion. Mother of God, intercede for me. St. Joseph, St. Michael, the archangel, my holy angel-guardian, and all ye saints in Paradise, pray to God for me. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus and Mary, I give you my heart and my soul. But behold the last signs of death; the phlegm is confined in the throat; the dying man sends forth feeble moans; the tears rush from his eyes; finally he twists the mouth, he distorts the eyes, he makes a few pauses, and at the last opening of the mouth, he expires and dies.
14. The priest then brings a candle to the mouth of the dead man, to try if he be still alive: he sees that the flame is not moved, and thence infers that life is extinct. He says: Requiescat in pace. May he rest in peace. And turning to the bystanders, announces that he is dead. “I hope,” he adds, “he is gone to heaven.” He is dead, and how has he died? No one knows whether he is saved or damned; but he has died in a great tempest. Such is the death of those unfortunate men who, during life, have cared little about God. “Their souls shall die in a storm.” (Job xxxvi. 14.) Of every one that dies it is usual to say that”he is gone to heaven.” He is gone to heaven if he deserved heaven; but, if he merited hell, he has gone to hell. Do all go to heaven? Oh! how few enter into that abode of bliss!
15. Before the body is cold he is covered with a worn out garment; because it must soon rot with him in the grave. Two lighted candles are placed in the chamber; the curtain of the bed on which the dead man lies is let down, and he is left alone. The parish priest is sent for, and requested to come in the morning and take away the corpse. The priest comes; the deceased is carried to the church; and this is his last journey on this earth. The priests begin to sing the”De profundis clamavi ad te Domine,” etc. The spectators, who look at the funeral as it passes, speak of the deceased. One says: “He was a proud man.” Another: “Oh! that he had died ten years ago!” A third: “He was fortu nate in the world; he made a great deal of money! he had a fine house, but now he takes nothing with him. ” And while they speak of him in this manner he is burning in hell. He arrives at the church, and is placed in the middle, surrounded by six candles. Tho bystanders look at him, but suddenly turn away their eyes, because his appearance excites horror. The Mass is sung for his repose, and after Mass, the”Libera ;” and the function is concluded with these words: Requiescat in pace May he rest in peace. May he rest in peace, if he died in peace with God; but, if he has died in enmity with God, what peace what peace can he enjoy? He shall have no peace as long as God shall be God. The sepulchre is then opened, the corpse is thrown into it; the grave is covered with a tombstone; and he is left there to rot and to be the food of worms. It is thus that the scene of this world ends for each of us. His relatives put on mourning; but they first divide among themselves the property which he has left. They shed an occasional tear for two or three days, and afterwards forget him. And what shall become of him? If he be saved, he shall be happy for ever; if damned, he must be miserable for eternity.