One of the sweet things about being a priest is being able to minister at a person’s deathbed. The veil between this world and the next is very thin at that point, and you can see so much. When I say you can “see” so much what I mean is that so much is revealed. At that point the person who is dying is usually very vulnerable and open. Their worldly facade is fading. Their accomplishments and pride are forgotten. They realize that all the stuff of this world will soon be left behind.
Often the person is quietly sleeping. The family is gathered around and there is no response as the last rites are given. On the other hand, sometimes the process is very conscious. More than once I’ve been called to visit a man or woman who has called the parish office specifically because they know they are dying and they want to see a Catholic priest.
So I once made my way to a small apartment in a not so good part of town. I was admitted to find a man in his sixties with a haggard expression gasping for air. Call him Ralph.
“Are you a Catholic priest?”
“It’s about time. I’ve been calling all around town for the last three weeks trying to get hold of a Catholic priest.”
“I’m sorry. It looks like you’re pretty sick.”
“Yep. I’m dying. Doctor says only a few more weeks. They can’t do anything for me.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Lung cancer. It’s my own damned fault. I couldn’t give up smoking,”
“Uh huh. Why haven’t you seen a priest up til now?”
“I was in the hospice and when I asked they sent some old guy around wearing a blue shirt. That made me suspicious so I asked him and he said he was a Methodist. I told him to get lost. I want a Catholic priest. So off he went and a few days later I asked again and they sent some woman around wearing one of those shirts priests are supposed to wear. I knew she wasn’t a Catholic priest, so I told her to get out and go find me a Catholic priest.”
“Why didn’t you send for your parish priest? What church do you go to?”
He laughs, then starts coughing. Coughing really bad. I think he’s going to cough his lungs up—what’s left of them. Finally he stops laughing-coughing and says, “Hell, Father I haven’t been to church for fifty years.”
“Then why start now?”
“Because the nuns told me when a Catholic is dying you’re supposed to call the priest. Right?”
“And I’m a Catholic and I’m dying so I called a priest. What next?”
“Well, are you prepared to make your confession and receive the sacrament of healing?”
“Is that the same as last rites?”
“Yes. Do you want to make your confession?”
“That might take a long time….” starts laughing-coughing again.
“I’ve got as much time as it takes.”
So I began to hear his sad old confession of a wasted life and tragic losses. There were tears on his side first, then on mine. I gave him absolution and promised to bring him communion the next day, and that communion was one of the sweetest things I can remember. He was like a little child. He had faith. In fact he had nothing but faith.
Then after communion and a blessing he lit up a cigarette. “You shouldn’t smoke.” I said. “Those things are going to kill you.”
He thought that was hilarious.
A week later his carer called and I went to see Ralph again. This time he was in bed in a darkened room. There were no family members there. He’d screwed his friends, alienated his kids and divorced his wife. He was alone.
I sat by his bedside. “Ralph, who is with you right now?”
“Nobody Father. Nobody, and it’s my fault. I admit it.”
I took out my rosary. “Do you remember this?”
“Sure. The nuns taught me to say the rosary.”
“That’s who is with you now. Mother Mary.” I give him the rosary. “You’re going to die soon, but I want you to hold on to this rosary as you go. She and your guardian angel will see you across the river. Are you good with that?”
He whispers, “Sure I’m good with that.”
Do you want me to say the prayers for passing?
He nods. I pray. He goes to sleep, and a few days later at his funeral his people are surprised to see a Catholic priest show up. Nobody knew Ralph was a Catholic. When I tell them how Ralph died there was total silence and reverence, and in some strange way Ralph, who was a pretty lousy Catholic in life, bore a radiant witness to Christ the King in his death.