The Venerable Fulton J. Sheen was one of post-war American Catholicism’s greatest evangelists, especially on television, where his fifties show Life is Worth Living drew up to 30 million viewers. He even won an Emmy award as television’s most outstanding personality.
He did not write much about the personal experience of dying and death. He did often speak of death, said Archbishop Edward O’Meara in his homily at Sheen’s funeral Mass on 13 December 1979. Sheen would say: “It is not that I do not love life; I do. It is just that I want to see the Lord. I have spent hours before Him in the Blessed Sacrament. I have spoken to Him in prayer, and about Him to everyone who would listen, and now I want to see Him face to face.” These quotes are taken from Sheen’s book Peace of Soul.
Pagan and Christian Fears of Death
The pagan fears the loss of his body and his wealth; the faithful fears the loss of his soul. The believer fears God with a filial fear such as a devoted son has toward a loving father; the pagan fears, not God, but his fellow man, who seems to threaten him. . . . [T]o an unbeliever death, instead of being an empirical fact, has become a metaphysical anxiety. As Franz Werfel profoundly remarked on the subject: “The skeptic believes in nothing more than death; the believer believes in nothing less. Since the world to him is a creation of spirit and love, he cannot be threatened by eternal destruction in his essential being as a creature of the world.” . . .
Since we are faced with this inevitable event, how shall we meet it? The pagan and the Christian have different ways of answering. The pagan, as he lives, moves progressively closer to death; the Christian moves backward from it. The pagan tries to ignore death, but each tick of the clock brings him nearer to it through fear and anxiety. The Christian begins his life by contemplating his death; knowing that he will die, he plans his life accordingly, in order to enjoy eternal life. There are two stages in the pagan’s experience, human life and human death. In the Christian’s, there are three, human life, human death, which is a gate to the third stage, Divine life.
Christianity has always recommended the contemplation of death as an encouragement to a good life; and this is actually effective, for although we cannot go backward in time, we can go forward in time. A man can therefore say to himself, “What I am living for today, that I shall die for tomorrow.”
The Christian principle for conquering death is twofold: (1) Think about death. (2) Rehearse for it by mortification now. The purpose of contemplation is to conquer the dread and compulsion of death by voluntarily facing it. Through anticipating the final end, we may contemplate new beginnings. Our Blessed Lord lived from the end of life backward: “I came to give My life for the redemption of the world.” The Lamb is pictured as “slain from the beginning of the world.” . . .
The basic spiritual principle is this, that death must be conquered in every thought and word and deed by an affirmation of the eternal. Spiritual writers advise us that everything should be done as if one were going to die in the next moment. If we treat the living as though they were dying, too, then the good in them will come to the surface. Treat the dead as still alive, and our prayers will follow them; thus a belief in the state of purgation after death allows us to atone for our want of love while our friends were still on earth. The failure to help their bodies then can be balanced now by our spiritual assistance to their souls through prayer.
Practicing for Death
Death can be robbed of its greatest fearfulness if we practice for it. Christianity recommends mortification, penance, and detachment as a rehearsal for the great event. For every death should be a great masterpiece, and, like all masterpieces, it cannot be completed in a day. A sculptor who wishes to carve a figure out of a block uses his chisel, first cutting away great chunks of marble, then smaller pieces, until he finally reaches a point where only a brush of hand is needed to reveal the figure. In the same way, the soul has to undergo tremendous mortifications at first, and then more refined detachments, until finally its Divine image is revealed.
Because mortification is recognized as a practice of death, there is fitting epitaph inscribed on the tomb of Duns Scotus, Bis Mortmis; Semel Sepultus (twice died, but buried only once). When we die to something, something comes alive within us. If we die to self, charity comes alive; if we die to pride, service comes alive; if we die to lust, reverence for personality comes alive; if we die to anger, love comes alive.
Death Our True Birth
Death is meant to be our true birth, our beginning. Christianity . . . always blesses her children’s spiritual birth into eternity; in the liturgy, the day on which a saint dies is called his natilitia, or birthday. The world celebrates a birthday on the day a person is born to physical life; the Church celebrates it when a person is born to eternal life.
Photograph By Fred Palumbo, World Telegram, via Wikimedia Commons