Death comes to us all. The famous and the anonymous. The great and the small. Men and women. Young and old. Rich and poor. The learned and the ignorant. Believer and unbeliever. No one is exempt from death.
We live at a time in human history in which those who are healthy seek to avoid any discussion of death--and try to prolong life by engaging in the worship of the cult of the body, while a lot of those who are ill or dying believe they have the "right" to kill themselves, to destroy what God had ordained to last until they took their last breath on His terms, not theirs. And this is to say nothing of the 40 million children in the past thirty years who have never been permitted to take their first breath, whose lives have snuffed out barbarically by killers masquerading as doctors providing "health-care" to women in abortuaries. Yes, ours is both a culture that avoids death--and imposes it upon the innocent by the millions. Quite a paradox.
Many people, including a lot of believing Catholics, fear death. That is why it is important to recall during this month of November, which is dedicated to remembering the Poor Souls in the Church Suffering, Purgatory, that each of us is supposed to be ready to face the moment of our own particular deaths every single day. For none of us knows when we will die. None of us knows when some drunken driven might veer into our path or when we might suffer some massive heart-attack without any warning whatsoever. Each of us, therefore, is called to meditate on the four Last Things every night before we go to sleep. Yes, our Lord wants us to think about the readiness of our soul to stand before Him in Judgment.
A lot of Catholics today labor under the misapprehension that everyone is going to Heaven. But this is not the case. Our Lord told us that people go to hell. This is no contradiction of His mercy and His love. Not at all. Indeed, it is proof of the fact that the Triune God so respects human freedom that He will not impose Himself upon a person in death if that person has not chosen for Him in life. Minimally, a person needs to make a perfect act of contrition at the moment of death, absent the final sacraments, to express sorrow for his sins. Each human being chooses where he or she will spend eternity. And those choices end at the moment of death. That is why our Lord wants us to reflect on the state of our souls every single night.
Many people pay a great deal of attention to their physical appearance, sometimes spending hour after hour in front of a mirror each day. Very few people, relatively speaking, examine their consciences on a daily basis or meditate on the four Last Things. What will matter when we die is not how frequently we dyed our hair or how firm our abdominal muscles were when we breathed our last; what will matter when we die is how pleasing our soul is in the sight of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Death - First of the Four Last Things
Death is therefore the first of the four Last Things that we need to think about each night. Our faith tells us that the fear of death is misplaced. "O death, where is thy victory? Death, where is thy sting? Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ conquered the power of sin and death on the Holy Cross by the shedding of every single drop of His Most Precious Blood. The Cross is the passageway to His Easter victory. There is nothing to fear from physical death as long as we are in a state of sanctifying grace, for a person who dies in a state of final penitence is assured of spending all eternity before the glory of the Beatific Vision in Heaven (after making satisfaction for the punishment due his forgiven mortal sins and his unforgiven venial sins in Purgatory, if he has not made satisfaction here in this life).
We must be prepared at all times to die. One of the prayers we should say each morning at the beginning of our day is to plead with God to spare us from a sudden and unprovided for death, that is, a death without the sacraments (Anointing of the Sick, Penance, the Eucharist as final viaticum). We must recognize that any moment of every day could be our last here on earth. We may not have the thirty or forty or fifty years ahead of us that we think we do. As our Lord recounted in the parable about the man building a barn for all of his grain, "Fool, this very night your life will be demanded of you."
Each of us must live as though this day will be our last, all the while fulfilling the obligations imposed by our state-in-life to plan for the future. We must understand that we are exiles here on earth, that our true home is in Heaven, a place we must consciously seek to enter by cooperating with the graces won for us on Calvary. The point of life is to die a holy death, to love God here so as to possess Him for all eternity.
Judgment/Purgatory - Second of the Four Last Things
Judgment, the second of the four Last Things. Each person experiences what is called the Particular Judgment at the moment of death. It is called "particular" because it relates to an individual soul. Each of us will see himself or herself as he or she truly is in the light of Divine Justice and Mercy. Every one of our actions, every thought we ever had, every word we every uttered, every moment of time we spent here on earth--everything about us--will be seen against the perfect measure of Jesus Christ Himself. Did we love ourselves more than we loved Him? Was our love of self so disordered that we died in a state of enmity with God? There will be no battery of attorneys to represent us. No psychologists will be offering excuses for us. We will stand before the Triune God with the totality of our life's choices.
There will be a General Judgment on the Last Day at the end of the world. No "new" judgment is rendered at that time. The particular judgments of everyone who has ever lived will be made manifest to everyone else. There will be no secrets on the Last Day at the General Judgment. The General Judgment will be the time when everyone can see the perfect Justice and Mercy of God, how He was willing to forgive us erring sinners until the moment of our dying breath--and how many sinners chose to resist the promptings of the Holy Spirit to love God and express sorrow for their sins when they died. (If love of God is not a sufficient motivation to try to live a life of holiness, a way to reach that motivation is to realize that everything we have ever done will be known to everyone at the Last Day.) Our bodies will be raised up and reunited with our souls, with the elect going body and soul into Heaven and the damned going body and soul into hell.
A soul who dies in a state of sanctifying grace is assured, as mentioned before, of entering Heaven. It may have to be after a period of expiation in Purgatory; but the souls in the Church Suffering are assured of their salvation. Purgatory ends on the Last Day. Heaven remains, the third of the four Last Things.
Heaven - Third of the Four Last Things
Heaven is a reality. It is where all of the elect, having been perfectly reconciled to each other in Christ, will spend all eternity as a community of love giving thanks, adoration and praise to the Triune God. It is the only place where human beings will be truly happy as it is our true home. And while not everyone will appreciate the glory of Heaven equally (those who loved God more here on earth will appreciate Him more in Heaven, although there will be no envy on the part of those in Heaven who have loved Him less. Such souls will be as happy as they are capable of being, but not as happy as those who loved God more perfectly while during their earthly life), everyone will be in the Divine Presence with Mary, St. Joseph, the Apostles, all of the angels and saints--and all of our family members and friends who persevered to their own deaths in a state of sanctifying grace. The possession of Heaven should be our singular goal in this life; it is why were created, and why we were re-created in the baptismal font.
Hell - the Last of the Four Last Things
The damned go to hell. Hell, like Heaven, is eternal. It is the fourth of the four Last Things. Those who have died as enemies of God, those who have refused to repent of sins, those who have sought to do satan's bidding in this life in various and sundry ways choose to go to hell on their very own. They are subjected to everlasting hellfire--and are deprived of the very purpose of human existence: to gaze upon the glory of the Beatific Vision for all eternity. There is no escape from hell. And the principal torment of the self-centered souls who choose to go there is being deprived of the happiness that could have been theirs if only they were humble enough to seek out God's mercy and to admit their need for His forgiveness.
We have been given the gift of the Catholic faith by God so that we can view life--and death--through the eyes of faith. In this month of November, dedicated to the poor souls, we need to invoke our Lady, who we ask to pray for us now and at the hour of deaths in the Hail Mary, that we may have the desire and the ambition to seek Heaven by meditating more reflectively on the four Last Things every night we are alive.
Some Special Souls who meditated on the Four Last Things
Indeed, death has come to several people in the past year I have been privileged to know.
Monsignor James E. Collins died in late February of this year, just shy of his ninetieth birthday. Monsignor Collins was a curate at Saint Aloysius Church in Great Neck at the time I entered Kindergarten at Saint Aloysius School in 1956. He had been there for seventeen years, coming there immediately after his ordination by the famous Archbishop Thomas Molloy, the long time ordinary of the Diocese of Brooklyn, distinguishing himself as a very good shepherd of souls. The then Father Collins was in charge of altar boys, taking special care to help them learn the rubrics of the Traditional Latin Mass, which was then the only Mass in the Latin rite. Almost to a person, the parishioners of Saint Aloysius were very disappointed when Father Collins was not named to succeed Monsignor Vincent Baldwin as pastor in 1961 upon the latter's consecration as the first auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which had been created in 1957 following the death of Archbishop Molloy. After a two year stint in Garden City, New York, Father Collins became pastor of Saint Dominic's Church in Oyster Bay, New York, in 1064, and stayed there as pastor until his retirement at the age of seventy-five in 1987. Our family became reacquainted with Father Collins a year later, when we moved from Great Neck to Oyster Bay Cove. And although I was "exiled" from Long Island for seven years (between 1973 and 1980), I would occasionally drop in at Saint Dominic's to say hello to him.
I returned to my beloved Oyster Bay in 1980 after being hired to teach at Nassau Community College, becoming very involved in the life of Saint Dominic's, especially in the religious education program. Father Collins (who was not named a monsignor until shortly before his retirement) had held the line against extraordinary ministers and demanded that each of his priests distribute Holy Communion at the Sunday Masses. His pastoral work continued after his retirement, and some believe that he regained a zeal for priestly things that he might have permitted to have been eclipsed somewhat by his administrative duties as pastor. He continued to celebrate Mass at Saint Dominic's until health problems slowed him down last year. He helped to form the souls of many children, and I was privileged to have been one of them.
Another person whose death touched me greatly was Mrs. Lois Pusateri. The beloved and devoted wife of Sam Pusateri, a real-estate agent in Dubuque, Iowa, Lois was an indefatigable defender of the Faith. She and her husband worked tirelessly in behalf of no-exceptions pro-life candidates for public office. They were strong supporters of the restoration of the Traditional Latin Mass, driving about twenty-five miles or so west of Dubuque each Sunday to attend the archdiocesan indult Mass at the Basilica of Saint Xavier in Dyersville, Iowa. I met Sam and Lois at the National Wanderer Forum in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1994 that I was given the responsibility of planning. And we renewed our acquaintance during the Buchanan campaign in 1995-1996.
Sam and Lois worked tirelessly in behalf of Patrick Joseph Buchanan. They proved themselves to be adept political organizers. So much so that Dubuque County was solidly in the Buchanan's camp just prior to the February 12, 1996, caucuses. Alan Keyes thought that he could dent Buchanan's strength in Dubuque County and chose it to be the venue to make his personal pitch before caucus attendees. Sam and Lois caught wind of what Keyes was up to and informed Terry Jeffrey in campaign headquarters in Des Moines on the day of the caucuses as to what was happening. Upon arriving in the headquarters after driving 200 miles from a campaign stop in behalf of Pat's in Sioux City, Terry told me to get back in my car and drive the 240 miles to Dubuque, where I would represent Pat against Keyes in the caucuses. Indeed, I even passed Keyes's motorcade on Interstate 80 en route to Dubuque late on the afternoon of February 12.
Well, the Pusateris had done their work well. The crowd needed little convincing to support Pat, who won Dubuque County overwhelmingly. Strangely, though, the results from Dubuque County, which were phoned in to an election service based in New York, were never included in the vote totals released by the Iowa Republican Party. Pat Buchanan finished in second place behind Bob Dole in Iowa. However, the failure to include Dubuque County's totals prevented Pat from finishing first. This caused Jim Condit, Jr., of Cincinnati, Ohio, who was campaigning for Pat himself in Iowa, to investigate vote fraud. The Pusateris aided him greatly.
Lois was a Catholic lady, who understood the importance of imaging our dear Blessed Mother. She was a devoted mother to her children (indeed, one of her daughters married a man named, get this, Perry Mason!). And she was a loyal friend, who found time to send e-mails to ask after her friends even after she had suffered several health setbacks in recent years. She will be very missed. And while we pray for her soul, her prayers, whether from Purgatory or Heaven, will be very powerful. She was quite prepared for the sudden death that took her on August 29, 2002.
Dolores Aaron was the sister of longtime Catholic activist William Conlon. She faithfully attended my talks and lectures given on Long Island over the last sixteen years or so. She had such a great love of the Faith, volunteering her time to teach religious education in the parish of Father Robert Mason, Our Lady of Lourdes in Massapequa Park, New York, and was a regular at the indult Masses offered by the Diocese of Rockville Centre. She died at the age of 70 in September. Her brother Bill responded as any good Catholic should: with prayer, understanding full well that we must be prepared at all times for a sudden death.
Also added to the prayer list for the faithful departed were the souls of Michael Treacy, the father of one of my former students from Nassau Community College, who had suffered for years with Parkinson's disease, and Ralph Pepe, a physical education teacher and coach at Oyster Bay High School, who later became an administrator in the district's middle school. Both men distinguished themselves as Catholics who took seriously the formation of their families and their salvation of their own souls.
Last but certainly not least, I must mention the soul of a man I never met, Walter Matt, who I now understand was right in his decision to stay with the Traditional Latin Mass when he founded The Remnant. God is very merciful to give us erring sinners just long enough to live to understand the stupidity we exhibited earlier in our lives. Walter Matt helped many people to see things clearly. His courage and integrity will serve as inspirations for traditionally-minded Catholics for years and years into the future.
Each of these recently deceased persons meditated upon the Four Last Things. So must we. For we choose where we will spend eternity. It is good to put Last Things first in our daily lives. And it is good to remember that the Poor Souls will be so very grateful to us for your remembering them faithfully every day in our own prayers, especially by having Masses said for them and by praying (by name) for them before the Blessed Sacrament.
Our Lady, Queen of Mercy,
pray for the souls of the faithful departed.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
May their souls - and all the souls of the faithful departed - rest in peace. Amen.
Thomas A. Droleskey, Ph.D.
For past columns in The DAILY CATHOLIC by Dr. Droleskey, see Archives