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At the hour of our death: in the face of impending death Catholics have faith tools to ready them. (practicing Catholic).

"ONE NICE THING ABOUT BEING CATHOLIC," a friend remarked the other day, "is that there's always something specific to do in moments of crisis."

The greatest crisis we may meet in life is death--especially in a society obsessed with denying that we ever do. For despite advances in medical technology, sudden death greets us at every turn: car wrecks, random shootings, natural catastrophes.

Earlier cultures taught that the manner in which one faces death is as important as how one lives. While modern secular culture offers medical brochures and support groups to face this mystery, Catholicism provides a spiritual dimension.

Catholicism has always offered many ways to meet death with dignity, giving meaning to its chaos and dissolution. From earliest times, different cultures looked to a friendly saint to lead them into paradise. For the ancient Celts, it was Saint Michael, as expressed in the Death Blessing: And be the holy Michael, king of angels, / Coming to meet the soul, / And leading it home, / To the heaven of the Son of God.

Other cultures chose the triad of Jesus, Mary, and especially Saint Joseph, patron of a "good death." In her poem "La Muerte" the Hispanic poet Pat Mora addresses a skeletal folk art figure of Death in her Santa Fe church: You don't scare me ... / I see people walk around you, / their mouths open like yours. / May your unblinking eyes remind them / of the horror: an unholy death. / Let me bless myself to scare away / the thought. Not like my parents' death. / Their glowing souls slipped right into / the waiting hands of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

One traditional prayer that gives sudden death structure and meaning is the Act of Perfect Contrition, a medieval formula in which love for God moves a sinner to repent of sin, ask forgiveness, and promise not to sin again. In one of its most common texts, it says: O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, known and unknown, ... most of all because my sins have offended Thee, my God, Who art all good in Thyself and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.

I was introduced to the drama of this prayer by the story of Passionist Father Godfrey Holbein, martyred in China. On April 24, 1929, Holbein and two other Passionist priests were traveling to relieve missionaries in Yuanchow, Hunan Province when they were ambushed by bandits. Held at gunpoint, Holbein quietly told the Chinese converts accompanying them, "Make an act of perfect contrition." Even in his terror, a convert named Peter recalled his catechism lesson: "Perfect contrition comes from the love of God; it is the sorrow which we have for our sins because they have offended God.... An act of perfect contrition is essential to save our souls, when, being in danger of death and in a state of mortal sin, we cannot go to Confession."

Just as the dying seek reconciliation with loved ones, each youth silently asked God's forgiveness. During the distraction of a mule kicking a cursing bandit, Holbein said swiftly and quietly, "I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Before fainting, Peter witnessed Holbein's two fellow priests being shot in the head. He did not see Holbein's execution or the disposal of the bodies down a 60-foot mine shaft.

God forbid the reader should ever face an earthquake, gang shooting, plane hijacking, or other hazard common to our time. But should the occasion arise, a prayer most easily recalled for comfort in the face of death is the "Hail Mary."

I regret that during my conversion to Catholicism in the 1970s no one taught me the basic Catholic prayers, nor instructed me in how to make a good death. Are today's new Catholics better prepared? I hope so.

For as unfashionable as faith witness may be in public, a crisis can enable Catholics to inspire others who lack a faith tradition. We have tools with which to meet death--an instinctive sign of the cross and the soothing murmur of a familiar prayer: Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

PAMELA EDWARDS, author of Catechizing with Liturgical Symbols (Resource Publications).
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Author:Edwards, Pamela
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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