By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

Monday, May 30, 2016

Learning Again How to Die

The month of May draws to a close. In the Catholic tradition, this month, together with October, is a time to highlight our devotion to Mary, the Mother of Our Lord. Yet this is a tradition with an importance that overflows the bounds of Catholicism to confront with hope and meaning the troubling trends of our society.

Mary's universal significance was brought home to me simply and directly by the prayer of a priest last November. We were together with many fellow pilgrims on a journey to the Holy Land. Among the sites we visited was the Church of the Dormition, the place honouring Mary's "falling asleep" in death and subsequent Assumption - body and soul - into heaven. At that place we prayed together the "Hail Mary", which ends with this petition to her maternal intercession: "...pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." Afterward, the priest told me that he found himself spontaneously praying to Our Blessed Mother that she "teach us how to die!"

I knew right away what he meant. In Canada we are having to deal with the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia. This represents the adoption of a new and frightening approach to death. What have always been considered grave evils and sins against the love of God - suicide and the intentional killing of the innocent - are now being normalized and held up as good in response to human suffering. Clearly, we have forgotten how to die. This amnesia gives rise to the presumption that we can pre-determine the time and method of our death, and effect it on our own terms.

The Catholic tradition speaks unhesitatingly of a "happy death" or a "good death". In fact, the Church has for centuries prayed for this at night prayer to conclude each day: "May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death (in Latin: perfect end)." God makes our death "happy" or "good" when we allow him, by his mercy, to prepare us for that moment. This preparation is not to be understood as occurring only "at the last moment" but also as unfolding throughout our entire lives.

This means that, if we have forgotten how to die, it is because we have, first of all, forgotten how to live. The life God creates and intends for us is lived fully only in loving relationship with him. Mary serves as the perfect model of such a life. When we allow this love, revealed in Christ and poured out in the gift of the Holy Spirit, to take root in our hearts and blossom through prayer, obedience, worship, witness and charity, then we grow in the life that God wills for each of his creatures - we truly live. Living rightly and fully means surrendering with trust to God's saving will and purpose at each moment and in every circumstance. The moment of death is no exception. Indeed, death is the final act of surrender to God and of trust in his love. We give expression to this trust by allowing it to occur at a time of God's choosing, not our own. Such a death is, truly, a happy one. It is the exact opposite of one used as a final expression of self-assertion and self-determination.

Mary, our Mother, do, indeed, we pray, teach us how to die by teaching us first how to live.