Cardinal Justin Rigali on Preparing for Death

To download a copy of his September 6, 2011 letter to priests, which I mentioned in the conference on Christ Appeals to the Resurrection, please click below: 

Cardinal Rigali on Priests’ Preparing for Death

Here is an article I wrote about it on November 4, 2011 for the Anchor:

The Greatest Opportunity of Our Lives 

Death is the great contemporary phobia. Every November the Church seeks to help the faithful confront and overcome this fear.

We begin the month by focusing on heaven and the saints, which reminds us that death is not the end of life but, for those who live and die in Christ, merely a stage of it. On All Souls Day, we pray for all the dead whose presence in heaven has not been “certified” by canonization and who therefore may be in our need of purification through the prayerful solidarity of the communion of saints. This prayer for the faithful departed is a powerful reminder that heaven doesn’t come on the cheap, that all of us must be purified in this world or the next of everything in us that is not worthy of God. These considerations lead us to the third focus of November, which is to reflect upon, and prepare for, our own death so that our inevitable passing may truly be an eternally “happy” one.

Throughout the Gospel, Jesus tried to get us to acknowledge and prepare for death so that it may not catch us as a “thief in the night” (Lk 12:39). He confronted our fear of death head on and told us not to fear the temporary destruction of the body but only the eternal loss of the soul through sin (Mt 10:28). He sought to help us to prepare for death by teaching us how to store up for ourselves treasure in heaven and to live for and in his kingdom. And he indelibly illustrated all of these truths by the courageous, trusting way he himself died.

Preparing for death in imitation of, and union with, Jesus has been one of the characteristics of the Church since the beginning. We see it with St. Stephen’s echoing Jesus’ last words when he was being stoned to death. We notice it in St. Paul’s call for us to be crucified with Christ so that it is no longer we who live by Christ who lives in us by faith. We spot it in the famous call of Thomas à Kempis’ classic “The Imitation of Christ,” who forcefully reminds us, “In every deed and every thought, act as though you were to die this very day.” This is the way, he taught, that we will “learn to die to the world now” so that we may “begin to live with Christ.” Kempis’ spiritual wisdom, which has formed many saints over the last six centuries, is based on the insight that it is only when we realize that today may be our last day, taht we may not have the opportunity to punt the truly important things until tomorrow, that we begin to think clearly and get our priorities straight. We act differently toward people when we realize that today could be our last interaction with them. We begin to look at time differently and no longer wish to waste it on the various diversions with which we fill our lives. We’re not tempted in the same way toward the harsh word, or the impure thought, or the vengeful action, knowing that that might be the last thing we ever do. We begin to have a far deeper appreciation for prayer and the sacraments and the Church. We cease to sleepwalk spiritually and become fully alert to the meaning of every moment, though, word and deed.

At the beginning of September, two days before he would retire as Archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali wrote for the priests of his Archdiocese an extraordinarily beautiful meditation on Christian preparation for death. Full of faith in contrast to those filled with phobias, Cardinal Rigali called reflection on death an “uplifting” though “challenging” theme. Probably because of the attention given to the installation of his successor not to mention the general cultural preference to ignore thinking about death altogether, Cardinal Rigali’s truly profound thoughts have not yet gotten the attention they deserve. They are as spiritually useful for the faithful of Fall River as for the priests of Philadelphia.

“Preparing for death is the greatest opportunity in our lives,” Cardinal Rigali wrote somewhat provocatively. Rather than dreading death as the inexorable occasion in which our life will be taken from us, we can learn from Jesus how to make our death an act of supreme self-giving love. Sometimes we view the crucifixion as if Jesus suffered it passively, exclusively as a victim. Jesus, however, in foretelling his death, clarified that he was approaching it with full freedom, love and courage. “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus stressed. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down” (Jn 10:11, 18).

Likewise, all of us have been given by Jesus’ death and resurrection a similar power. “We have the possibility to rehearse our death,” Cardinal Rigali wrote, “not in its minute details—although saints have found this useful—but in the sense of accepting it in anticipation by an act of our will that will be consummated freely at the moment of our death and offered to the Father in union with the death of Jesus. We can indeed accept and anticipate by an act of our will the laying down of our life in union with Jesus!”

The rehearsing of our death in Christ each day is not meant to be a morbid exercise, but a life-giving daily encounter with the Father in which we entrusted ourselves to him through, with and in Christ. “The Father wills that we pass through death with His Son in order to live, not in order to die.” Cardinal Rigali declared. “Seen in this perspective, death is the moment to give all, to surrender all with Jesus and in union with His sacrifice. All of this can be anticipated by an act of our will, by an act of our love. When anticipated by an act of loving acceptance, death is an opportunity to say ‘yes’ to the Father, just as Jesus did; to say ‘yes’ with all our heart, as Jesus did.”

Because the anticipation day-after day in self-offering to God become a person’s fundamental “yes” to God, it is a daily moment of conversion and “a magnificent opportunity to be able to make up for every lack of love in our lives, for every lack of obedience, for every lack of saying ‘yes,’ for every sin that we have ever committed.” Presenting ourselves to the Lord each day in this anticipated death — which can be done both at our early morning offering of the whole day to God conscious that it may be our last day, or at night at our examination of conscience when we make our own Jesus’ words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46)— is the means by which we learn to say “yes” and offer ourselves in love to God throughout the day. And this self-surrender will bring, the Cardinal assured us, doubtless from personal experience, not sadness but “joy and peace and love in obedience.”

He says that this daily dying and rising with Christ is the best way to be freed of the fear of a sudden death, even if it should come today. “When the hour of death comes,” he noted, “we may not be conscious. It may come very suddenly, by reason of an accident, by reason of a heart attack; there are a million and one possibilities left to our imagination but this does not matter. The point is: the surrender will have been made thousands of times! The Father will understand that each of us had the power, which we exercised, the power, with His Son Jesus, to lay down our life freely, lovingly and definitively. Then there will be no obstacle to the consummation of our love. Life and holiness will be ours forever in the communion of the Most Blessed Trinity.” Death will therefore become the final renewal of our baptismal promises and the fulfillment of our self-offering with Christ to the Father in the Holy Eucharist. And the Father will be able to view our death as the “re-enactment” of the death of his Son and apply to us the “full salvific power of the cross and resurrection.”

Since preparing for death is the greatest opportunity in our lives, Cardinal Rigali stressed, “Now is the time to give all!” Let us take full advantage of this month of November to form in ourselves this habit of daily self-offering. Each day let us pronounce the definitive “yes” to God that we want to say at the moment of our death and for all eternity.