Rorate Caeli

CATHOLIC SURVIVAL GUIDE, Second Part - The Art of Dying Prepared: a Catholic Happy Death

Bona mors - a good, happy, death. A most Catholic concept.

Are Catholics supposed to panic regarding pandemics? Only if they are unprepared for their deaths, but they should avoid being so. While most Catholics are unfortunately not ordinarily prepared for their own deaths, moments like the present one (even if prompted by the media-driven mass panic characteristic of such moments) are very useful for the faithful to focus on the need to prepare their souls for death.

In this sense, moments such as the present one are a blessing. While often death catches us unprepared (though we as Catholics must pray for it not to be the case), when a dangerous new pathogen is among us, we cannot reasonably say, before the Tremendous Judge, "we didn't know any better." We did and we do know better, and what better time to get ready for a good death?

While Deacon Nick Donnelly's First Part to his Survival Guide (which we reposted just now) is dedicated to the burden of a life without regular access to the Sacraments (especially Penance and the Holy Eucharist), this second part is dedicated to preparation for a Happy Death:


A Catholic Survival Guide for COVID-19, Part Two

The Art of Dying Well (Ars Moriendi
and Prayers for a Happy Death (Bona Mors)

by the Rev Deacon Nick Donnelly

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has brought the prospect of death into much sharper focus for many of us. The illusion that we will live to an old age, that made death seem a far-distant threat, has been ripped away, leaving us to face the truth of our mortality. Some of us may well suffer critical illness due to contracting COVID-19, even life-threatening complications. The strict quarantine protocols to stop the transmission of the virus and protect healthcare workers means that we will most probably be deprived of the pastoral care of our priests at our deathbed.  This is a prospect that rightly concerns many of us at the present time.  We may feel a deep anxiety about being left alone to endure the tribulations of dying without our spiritual fathers.

In these circumstances, familiarity and practice of two traditional devotions will help us face death with greater peace of mind, calmness and composure enabling us to prepare to die with Christian hope. These two traditional devotions are the Ars Moriendi and the Bona Mors — the art of dying and prayers for a happy death. Even if we are young and healthy, we would all benefit from these two devotions that help us live life from the perspective of Eternal Life.

The Risen Christ transfigures death

Death is the dire consequence of our First Parents’ sin that expresses the ‘wrath and indignation of God’ (Gen 2:17; cf. Council of Trent’s Decree on Original Sin,1.) Death is also the baleful manifestation of our captivity to the devil who ‘has the power of death’ (Heb 2:14.) As St. Augustine explained:

“Wherefore we must say that the first men were indeed so created, that if they had not sinned, they would not have experienced any kind of death; but that, having become sinners, they were so punished with death, that whatsoever sprang from their stock should also be punished with the same death. For nothing else could be born of them than that which they themselves had been. Their nature was deteriorated in proportion to the greatness of the condemnation of their sin, so that what existed as punishment in those who first sinned, became a natural consequence in their children.” (St. Augustine. The City of God, Book XIII, Chap. 1)

For these reasons alone it is understandable why individuals have a natural dread of death; even if they are unaware of the supernatural origin of this fear. As death approaches, we will all have to contend with this aboriginal dread, which — without the fortification of Christian faith and sacramental life — can be overwhelming.

The Resurrection of Our Lord changes everything. As St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, the Resurrection is the ‘beginning and exemplar of all good things’ (ST III q.53 a.1, ad 3) — ‘I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live’. (Jn 11:25.)

Through the humanity assumed by the Son of God, Christ bore through his dying on the Cross the punishment of God’s wrath and indignation and freed humanity from captivity to the devil’s power of death:

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? … But thanks be to God, who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 15:54-55;57.)

It is from Our Lord’s conquest of death and His defeat of Satan that the Art of Dying Well and the Prayers for a Happy Death derive their power to transfigure our experience of death.  They rob death of its sting by taking us deeper into our baptismal participation in His death and Resurrection (Rm 6:4.)

The Art of Dying Well

In his famous book-length meditation on the art of dying well, St. Robert Bellarmine S.J. begins by setting out the fundamental Christian hope that energises this devotion — though death cannot be considered a good in itself because it originates in sin, God in His providential wisdom has ‘so seasoned it…that from death many blessings arise’.  The greatest blessing being that it can become the gate from the prison of this earthly life to the Kingdom of God. Therefore, Bellarmine’s starting point for the art of dying well is that through the grace of Christ, ‘death to the good man seems not horrible, but sweet; not terrible, but lovely’. This attitude to death is exemplified by St. Paul when he writes, ‘For to me, to live is Christ; and to die is gain’. (Phil 1:21.)

Prof. Eamon Duffy, in his seminal book on pre-Reformation Catholicism in England, sets out the purpose and elements of the medieval manuals that guided the priests in their preparation of the mortally sick for death. These pastoral practices informed the structure and content of the Ars Moriendi. It included the following elements:

First. The priest presented the dying person with the Crucifix which was held before their face to reassure them ‘that in the image they may adore their redeemer and have in mind his passion, which he endured for their sins’. (The Stripping of the Altars, p. 314). The English mystic Juliana of Norwich described the effect of this presentation of the Crucifix on her as she lay seriously ill. “The parson set the cross before my face and said: Daughter, I have brought you the image of your saviour. Look at it and take comfort from it, in reverence of him who died for you and me”. p. 128 (Julian of Norwich: Showings.)

Second. The Ars Moriendi emphasised the comfort to be gained by meditating on the Crucified Christ by using a popular meditation of St. Bernard.  This meditation described Jesus on the cross with his arms extended, his head bowed, to embrace and kiss the sinner, His side wound exposed to reveal His burning love. Its origin was a mystical vision of St. Bernard during which he saw the Crucified Christ lean down from the cross to embrace and support him. The compassion of the Crucified Christ towards the sinner was a common theme in the writings of St. Bernard:

“The world rages, the flesh is heavy, and the devil lays his snares, but I do not fall, for my feet are planted on firm rock.  I may have sinned gravely.  My conscience would be distressed, but it would not be in turmoil, for I would recall the wounds of the Lord: He was wounded for our iniquities.  What sin is there so deadly that it cannot be pardoned by the death of Christ?  And so, if I bear in mind this strong, effective remedy, I can never again be terrified by the malignancy of sin.” (Sermo 61, 3-5.)

Third. It is within this context, of Our Lord’s death on the cross for our sins and His compassion for sinners, that the priest questioned the dying person to encourage a spirit of honest repentance — one that trusts solely in the redemptive sufferings of Christ. As St. Augustine wrote, “However innocent your life may have been, no Christian ought to venture to die in any other state than that of the penitent.”(quoted by Bishop Richard Challoner in his Garden of the Soul). Eamon Duffy explains that the purpose of this interrogation was to bring the dying Christian to the knowledge of their condition, even if it disturbed and frightened them; for it was better to trouble the dying with wholesome fear and dread than allow them to fall into damnation. The purpose of this was to evoke from the dying a declaration of faith in Christ and true repentance of their sins.

Fourth. Such a declaration of faith and repentance was to strengthen the dying person to withstand the final assault of the devil:

“The deathbed is the centre of an epic struggle for the soul of the Christian, in which the devil bent all his strength to turn the soul from Christ and His cross to self-loathing or self-reliance. Against these temptations the cross and the armies of the redeemed were marshalled to assist the dying Christian. The bedroom became a crowded battlefield centred on the last agonies of the man or woman in the bed.” (Duffy, p.317.)

Following the principle of being forewarned is to be forearmed, the Ars Moriendi prepared the Christian soul to identify and endure five temptations from the devil as they died:

     1. Temptation against Faith. At the last moment, the dying Christian will be tempted to apostasy, against which they must pray for the virtue of Faith and steadfastly renew their Baptismal Faith.
      2. Temptation to despair. The devil tempts the dying to despair of the forgiveness of God by presenting the deadly sins as unpardonable, which must be countered by prayer for the virtue of hope in God’s forgiveness.
    3. Temptation to angry impatience. The dying person is tempted to rejection of God’s permissive will for them to endure sickness and death, expressed through impatience and frustration with one’s situation and against one’s carers. This is to be countered with the deliberate practice of patience, forbearance and charity.
        4. Temptation to pride. Faced with declining powers and lack of control, the dying person is tempted by the devil to desperately cling onto a false sense of security by focusing on one’s past achievements and social status. Instead of sinking into this illusion, the Christian must embrace an honest assessment of one’s sins and cultivate humility expressed as total reliance on God.
      5. Temptation to an avaricious attachment to people and possessions. As one faces the extreme poverty of being dead, the devil will tempt us to cling to our relationships and possessions. To counter this illusion the dying person must seek detachment, accepting the stripping of faculties and familiar securities, abandoning oneself to God, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk 23:46.)

Fifth. The Ars Moriendi fortified and encouraged the Christian facing battle with the devil by reassuring them of the active presence and direct assistance of angels and saints. It reminded them that they were  in the company of great sinners who converted to become great saints, such as St. Peter, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Dismas, the good thief, and St. Paul. In his epic poem, Dream of Gerontius, St. John Henry Newman vividly portrays the role played by our Guardian Angel at the hour of death, assisting the soul to God’s Judgement seat and protecting it from the final assaults of the demons.

Sixth. The family and friends played an important role at the moment the dying person expired by praying out loud prayers of commendation.  As it states in the rubrics for the Prayers for the Dying set out in the traditional Roman Missal,

“When the moment of death draws near, then all who stand at the bedside should pray with great earnestness, and upon their knees. If the dying person is able, he should say: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. If he cannot, someone standing near, or the priest himself, should do so in a clear voice.”

An Ars Moriendi for the COVID-19 Pandemic

Faced with the prospect of being quarantined in hospital and deprived of the assistance of our priests and family at the hour of death, it is prudent to practise the art of dying well as a frequent devotion. The following is based on the traditional practice, adapted to the current circumstances:

1.    Look at a Crucifix, or bring one to mind in your imagination, and adore your redeemer. Recollect His passion which He endured for your sins.

2.    Meditate on the compassion of your Saviour towards you as a sinner. Imagine Jesus on the cross with his arms extended, his head bowed, embracing and supporting you, helping you face your sins.

3.    Undertake a general examination of your conscience, asking the Holy Spirit to uncover the sins of your life. Ask for the grace of honest repentance, not making excuses or rationalisations of sinful actions, trusting solely in the redemptive sufferings of Christ. If you are aware of any mortal or serious sins, ask for the grace to make an act of perfect contrition, which will absolve even these sins in the absence of a priest (under certain conditions).

4.    Expect to undergo the final assault of the devil as you die. Pray for grace as follows:

            Against apostasy — pray for the virtue of Faith and reaffirm your baptismal Faith.
            Against despair over sins — pray for the virtue of Hope in God’s forgiveness.
            Against anger at dying — pray for the virtue of Charity so as to practice patience.
            Against clinging to pride — pray for humility and total reliance on God.
            Against attachment to this life — pray for detachment and abandonment to God’s          will.

At the moment of temptation always also say, ‘My Jesus, mercy! Mary, help!’

5. Pray for the assistance of your guardian angel and the communion of saints, especially St. Peter, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Dismas (the Good Thief) and St. Paul.

6. Unable to receive Viaticum due to the absence of a priest, make a spiritual communion by ardently longing to receive Holy Communion.

7. At the moment of death pray out loud or in your heart, ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’ or ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul’.

Prayers for a Happy Death

It was once a popular devotional practice for Catholics to pray for a happy death at a time when sudden, unexpected death was a common reality of everyday life. In the 17th century the Jesuits, with papal approval, founded The Bona Mors Confraternity to “prepare its members by a well-regulated life to die in peace with God.” Richard Challoner, the eminent English bishop during the Penal Times, included in his devotional book, The Garden of the Soul, Litanies for a Happy Death, composed by ‘a Young Lady, who at ten years of age, was converted to the Catholic Faith, and died at eighteen, in the odour of sanctity’.

St. Joseph, Patron of a Happy Death

An essential element of these devotions is the veneration of St. Joseph, as the patron of a happy death. This association of St. Joseph with the hour of death can be traced back to a fifth century devotional text, The Life of Joseph the Carpenter, which imagines St. Joseph, in fear of impending death, being comforted by Jesus. Joseph says to Jesus:

“All hail! My well-beloved son. Indeed, the agony and fear of death have already environed me; but as soon as I heard Your voice, my soul was at rest. O Jesus of Nazareth! Jesus, my Saviour! Jesus, the deliverer of my soul! Jesus, my protector! Jesus! O sweetest name in my mouth, and in the mouth of all those that love it! O eye which sees, and ear which hears, hear me! I am Your servant; this day I most humbly reverence You, and before Your face I pour out my tears. You are altogether my God”.

Since the 5th century, a popular depiction of the death of St. Joseph shows him embraced by Jesus and Mary, the perfect image of a happy death. St. Alphonsus Liguori presents St. Joseph’s death as the ideal Christian death:

“And by that assistance which Jesus and Mary gave thee at death, I beg of thee to protect me in a special way at the hour of my death, so that dying, assisted by thee, in the company of Jesus and Mary, I may go to thank thee in paradise, and in thy company praise my God for all eternity. Amen.”

Fr. Francis Filas, S.J., observed that “No deathbed scene could ever have been attended by witnesses who were more consoling.”

Various popes have promoted veneration of St. Joseph as the Patron of a Happy Death.  In his prayer to St. Joseph, Pope Leo XIII wrote, “Shield us ever under thy patronage, that, following thine example and strengthened by thy help, we may live a holy life, die a happy death, and attain to everlasting bliss in Heaven. Amen.” Pope Benedict XV encouraged the faithful to invoke St. Joseph on Wednesdays as the patron of a happy death. He urged the world’s bishops to promote devotion to him:

“Particularly, since he is thought to be the most effective protector of the dying people, as He died with the attendance of Jesus and Mary, it will be up to the Holy Shepherds to introduce and to sponsor, with all the prestige of their authority, those devout prayers which were instituted for invoking S. Joseph for the dying people, like that one ‘of the happy death’, of the ‘Transit of S. Joseph for everyday agonising’.”

St. Joseph, Terror of Demons

In light of the devil’s final assault at the deathbed, it is also sensible to invoke the assistance of St. Joseph, ‘the Terror of demons’; as he is described in his Litany.  Entrusted by God with the virtues and graces to protect the Son of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph rightly terrifies the devil and his hordes. As the foster father of Jesus, to whose authority Jesus was subject (Luke 2:51), and as the chaste spouse of the Mother of God, St. Joseph holds a special place in Heaven. Fr Antony Patrigani writes about St. Joseph’s special place in Heaven in A Manual of Practical Devotion to the Glorious Patriarch St. Joseph (1885):

“Lucifer is aware of this, and hence it is that with fear and trembling he approaches the bed of a dying person who, during life, had been a true servant of St. Joseph. He knows that our Divine Saviour, in order to reward His great saint for having saved Him from the sword of Herod and a temporal death, has given him the special privilege of preserving those dying persons who, during life, looked up to him as their protector, from the power of the devil and eternal death…[they] are sure to find beneath his wings their best security against the arts of Satan at that tremendous crisis, when his fury is raised to its highest pitch at the prospect of his prey about to escape from him for ever.”

A Bona Mors for the COVID-19 Pandemic

While there is still time, make these prayers for a happy death your daily practice, so that, if you contract the COVID-19 coronavirus and develop serious, life-threatening complications, they will have already become part of your daily prayer life. In this way, you can be confident that through the protection and intercession of St. Joseph you will defeat the final temptations of the devil and be granted the grace of a happy death.

1.     Make an Act of Consecration to St. Joseph.

O dearest St. Joseph, I consecrate myself to your honour and give myself to you, that you may always be my father, my protector and my guide in the way of salvation. Obtain for me a greater purity of heart and fervent love of the interior life. After your example may I do all my actions for the greater glory of God, in union with the Divine Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. O Blessed St. Joseph, pray for me, that I may share in the peace and joy of your holy death. Amen.

2. Often pray this Prayer to St. Joseph for a Happy Death.

O Glorious St. Joseph, behold I choose thee today for my special patron in life and at the hour of my death. Preserve and increase in me the spirit of prayer and fervour in the service of God. Remove far from me every kind of sin; obtain for me that my death may not come upon me unawares, but that I may have time to confess my sins sacramentally and to bewail them with a most perfect understanding and a most sincere and perfect contrition, in order that I may breathe forth my soul into the hands of Jesus and Mary. Amen

3. Pray St. Luigi Guanella’s Universal Prayer for the Dying

Glorious Saint Joseph, adoptive father of the Son of God and true husband of the Holy Virgin Mary, pray for us and for our brothers that agonise in this day (or night).

To conclude, in normal circumstances it would be wise to make the art of dying well and prayers for a happy death a frequent practice because we each have to face the hour of death. But in these extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic it is even more necessary to take up these devotions to prepare for the possibility that we will face our deathbeds without the assistance of priests and family. If we have to face such a death, we can be sure of the protection of St. Joseph and the consoling presence of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Let us make this prayer of Padre Pio our own:

“It is getting late and death approaches, I fear the darkness, the temptations, the dryness, the cross, the sorrows. O how I need You, my Jesus, in this night of exile! Stay with me Lord, because at the hour of my death, I want to remain united to you, if not by Communion, at least by grace and love.”