Back in 2003, shortly after the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia, I wrote this short article about the Catholic teaching on death. It was brought to mind this morning by a tragic event in our local Parish. Yesterday afternoon, Deacon Mike Mims lost his life in a helicopter accident. Though we did not know him in a personal way, he was obviously a man who knew, loved, and served God in this life. We know only the barest of facts from the tragic crash that claimed his life, but the circumstances suggest that the Deacon may have had some awareness of what was about to happen to him, and this gives us some hope, as I have explained in the article that follows. As we mourn the loss of his presence in our parish and we pray for the comfort of his family, we can also reflect on our own impending death.
“60 seconds of fear”
When I saw the headline declaring that the Columbia crew may have had as much as one minute knowing what would happen before their ship exploded, my Catholic mind sighed with relief. But this was not the response of the writer of the article, or of the world. Why is this? Is it because I am some sort of masochistic fanatic who wants others to suffer? Or is it because the world has little idea of the importance of those last sixty seconds before death.
Catholics have a habit of praying for a happy death. For a long time, growing up, I thought this meant a painless death, one with little suffering. But this is far from the truth. The truth is closer to what a good friend used to say: the best way to die would be on a plane you knew was going down sitting next to a priest. In the Catholic mind, a happy death is one in which we have the opportunity to meet death with a willing heart, and a recently cleaned soul.
Suffering is Good
It is common for the loved ones of those who have died to console one another with the fact that the deceased “didn’t suffer”, “went quickly” or “died in their sleep”. And in many ways these phrases can be comforting. No one wishes that a loved one will suffer. However, imagine that loved one has things in his life that he regrets but has never asked for forgiveness. Or perhaps he has behaviors and habits that turn him from God and he has stubbornly held onto them.
Let’s face it, none of us is without sin, and all of us have neglected our relationship with God in some way or another. It is only in this life that we can freely turn to God and ask for healing and forgiveness. Once we have died, our fate is sealed.
We all know that we will one day die, but seldom do we have a chance to know ahead of time when that will be. Most of us imagine, or at least hope, that we will die at a ripe old age, after those final years of contented retirement during which we spent a lot of time in contemplative prayer.
However, our death could come today, tomorrow, in ten years, 30 years…or in 60 seconds. Think of the great gift of one small minute when an untimely death comes upon us. In that sixty seconds I can quickly bring to mind the ways in which I have offended God, and ask him for forgiveness. I can recite the Act of Contrition—a perfect formula for getting right with God. I can even offer my suffering, both mental and physical, in reparation for my sins or for a loved one whom I will leave behind.
Sixty seconds could be enough to get me a free pass straight to heaven, without a moment’s lingering in purgatory. Not only should we thank God when others have had those final moments, but we should pray that we, too, have the gift of time to face death willingly, and with true contrition for our sins. And perhaps a little final suffering would come in handy…but only if necessary.
Dear St. Joseph, Patron of a Happy Death, pray for us