Five Insights from Benedict XVI on Death and Dying

Pope Benedict XVI’s thoughts on death and dying, taken from his The Last Testament, a book-length interview with the journalist Peter Seewald, conducted in 2016.

Speaking about the death of Pope St. John Paul II:

This death had intensely moved me. … Of course you grieve deeply when someone close departs. At the same time, I had the awareness that he is there. That he blesses us from his window in Heaven, as I then said on St. Peter’s square too. That wasn’t just words. That genuinely came from an inward awareness that even today he sends blessings down, that he is there and that the friendship endures in a different way.

Asked if he feared death and what he is expecting when he dies:

In a certain respect, yes. For one thing there is the fear that one is imposing on people through a long period of disability. I would find that very distressing. My father always had a fear of death too; it has endured with me, but lessened. Another thing is that, despite all the confidence I have that the loving God cannot forsake me, the closer you come to His face, the more intensely you feel how much you have done wrong. In this respect the burden of guilt always weighs on someone, but the basic trust is of course always there. . . .

St. Augustine says something which is a great thought and a great comfort here. He interprets the passage from the Psalms “seek his face always” as saying: this applies “for ever,” to all eternity. God is so great that we never finish our searching. He is always new. With God there is perpetual, unending encounter, with new discoveries and new joy. Such things are theological matters. At the same time, in an entirely human perspective, I look forward to being reunited with my parents, my siblings, my friends, and I imagine it will be as lovely as it was at our family home.

On the insights of old age:

I now find many statements from the Gospels more challenging in their greatness and gravity than I did before. Indeed, this recalls an episode from my time as a chaplain. One day Romano Guardini was a guest of the neighboring Protestant parish, and said to the Protestant pastor, “In old age it doesn’t get easier, but harder.” That deeply affected and moved my then priest.

But there is something true in it. On the one hand, in old age you are more deeply practiced, so to speak. Life has taken its shape. The fundamental decisions have been made. On the other hand, one feels the difficulty of life’s questions more deeply, one feels the weight of today’s godlessness, the weight of the absence of faith which goes deep into the Church, but then one also feels the greatness of Jesus Christ’s words, which evade interpretation more often than before.

Can we prepare for death and if we can, how do we?

I think one must, even. Not in the sense of performing particular actions, but living inwardly, so that there is a final self-examination before God. So that one goes out of this world and will be there before God, and before the saints, and before friends and those who weren’t friends. So that one, let’s say, accepts the finitude of this life and approaches it inwardly, to come before God’s countenance.

[He does that through] my meditation. I time and time again think on the fact that it is going to end. I try to open myself up for it, and above all, to keep myself present. The important thing is not actually that I imagine it, but that I live in the consciousness of it, that all of life ascends to an encounter. . . .

God is not, let’s say, a ruling power, a distant force; rather he is love, and he loves me — and as such, life should be guided by him, by this power called love.

On what he will say when he stands before the Almighty:

I will plead with Him to show leniency towards my wretchedness.

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