“Praised may You be, my Lord, through our Sister, Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape.” (Canticle of the Sun composed by St. Francis of Assisi,+1226).
Those who have lived or stayed for a while in Australia must have noticed that generally Australians focus heavily on life, and avoid talking about death. They are deeply concerned about the health and physical well-being of themselves and their children. A vast majority of them try not to broach the subject of death with close family members, finding it terribly uncomfortable or not wanting to upset their loved ones. Ironically, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a surge of death anxiety across the Land Down Under, making it even more difficult to keep wandering away from this issue.
Holy persons who embrace death with confidence, even joy, are truly able to stand apart. Hence, the more we know about the experience of the already considerable number of our canonized or beatified brothers and sisters, the greater progress we can make toward transforming the experience of death and grief from a horrifying event into a good or paradoxically happy one. Thus argues Fr. Michael Witczak, an associate professor of liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America.
Saint Thomas More (+1535), Chancellor of England, declined to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn. King Henry VIII viewed this as an insult and a sign that Thomas questioned his authority as Head of the Church and State. Despite a brilliant defense, he was convicted in fifteen minutes. Thomas was accused of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He was reportedly “merry” when he mounted the scaffold to face the executioner and uttered the immortal words: “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” I think all politicians should follow his example.
Saint Therese of Lisieux (+1897), the Little Flower, uttered these relevant thoughts: “It is not Death that will come to fetch me, it is the good God. Death is not the phantom or horrible specter that is presented in pictures. The catechism states that death is the separation of soul and body. That is all! Well, I am not afraid of a separation which will unite me to the good God forever.”
Saint Jose Luis Sanchez del Rio (+1928) is the newest Mexican saint who died as a martyr at age 14. While the godless socialist soldiers brutally tortured him with sharp metal blows, trying to make him shout “Death to Christ the King,” the boy remained calm and firmly replied “Long live Christ the King! Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe!” With every stab of their bayonets he cried out louder and louder “Viva Christo Rey!”
Saint Maximilian Kolbe (+1941) volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the German death camp of Auschwitz. Father Kolbe entered the starvation bunker with nine other men, where he spent a fortnight encouraging his fellow sufferers by praying and singing hymns. They went through dreadful days. Some drank their own urine, others licked the moisture off dank walls. At every inspection, when almost all the others were lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was either kneeling or standing in the center looking cheerfully in the face of the SS men. One of the guards remarked: “This priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him…” When all of the prisoners had died but Father Kolbe, a German named Bock gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid. When we remember this dauntless Franciscan priest, Jesus’ words come to mind: “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Another example of such abiding love and of a different approach to death is found in the story of Sister Stella (+1943) and her ten companions, Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, the martyrs of Nowogrodek. The German terror began in 1942 with the extermination of the town’s Jewish population which was followed by an escalation in Polish arrests and the slaughter of 60 people, including two priests. Several months went by and the life of 120 Poles was in the gravest peril. With one accord the sisters offered their lives to God in exchange for the lives of the imperiled lay people and of a local priest. It is known that Sister Mary Stella, at a meeting with Father Zienkiewicz, said: “My God, if sacrifice of life is needed, let them kill us and not those who have families. We are even praying for that.” It seems that the Lord graciously accepted their sacrifice since the planed execution did not take place. Some of the arrested were deported to forced labor camps in Germany while others were freed, but they all survived the war. Meanwhile, a year afterwards the religious community was summoned by the local Gestapo commander to report to the local police station, where they were held overnight. At dawn in a nearby forest, the eleven women were shot dead and buried in a common grave.
Saint Gianna Beretta Molla (+1962) was an Italian pediatrician and mother to four children. In the second month of her last pregnancy, she was diagnosed with a large fibroid. After examination, the doctor offered her three options: an abortion, which would preserve her life and allow her to continue to have children, but take the life of the child she carried; a complete hysterectomy, which would save her life, but take the unborn child’s life and prevent further pregnancy; or removal of only the fibroma, with the potential of further complications, which could preserve the life of her baby. Gianna chose to have only the fibroma removed, putting the chance to save the baby over the risk to herself. She requested that if there was a problem during the delivery, they should spare the child’s life rather than her own. Eventually, she gave birth to a baby girl but passed away just eight days later due to complications of the delivery. Just before her death she told her sister: “If you only knew how differently things are judged at the hour of death! […] How vain certain things appear, to which we give such importance in the world!” Gianna can be a heroic model of commitment to the life of her own child, defying the scandal of the easy-abort mentality of our day.
Blessed Chiara Luce Badano (+1990) was an Italian teenager who was beatified in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI. At age seventeen while she was playing tennis all of a sudden she experienced sharp pain. It turned out that Badano had bone cancer. As the disease developed, she faced numerous hospitalizations and intensifying pain. Despite this she often repeated: “For you, Jesus. If you wish it, so do I.” Once she confided in her close friend Chiara Lubich that medicine had laid down its weapons. She went on, saying that “with interrupting the treatments, the pains in her back have increased so I can scarcely move.” She often felt as if the pain were suffocating her. In the end Badano wanted to prepare her funeral: the songs, the flowers, the hairdo, the dress, which would be white, a wedding dress for her “wedding feast.” The last words she spoke to her mother were: “Be happy, I am happy!” Undoubtedly the shining witness of Blessed Chiara Luce Badano serves as a fine example to follow, particularly for young people who seek to avoid suffering at any cost.
In the context of the current pandemic, the testimony of the saints and blessed represents the highest, most trustworthy level of the sensus fidelium. Drawing strength from their intimate union with Christ and his Immaculate Mother, they all passed the test of faith, demonstrating that death is only a passage between the material world and the never-ending world of felicity.
“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11, 25-26)
Finally, may the words received from Jesus by a contemporary Polish mystic, Alicja Lenczewska (+2012), be a dire warning to all those who willfully neglect meeting Jesus in the afterlife. “Turning away from God, especially by definite break-up and rebellion against him, is suicide and deicide. It is killing what is divine in man and thus condemning oneself to eternal, terrible suffering, parallel to ripping out one’s heart.”