It is the time each day when, normally, having just prayed the Office of Compline, Night Prayer, I would go to bed.
After all, in union with the whole Church, I have just prayed the blessing: “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.”
Yet, this late evening of All Souls, some in particular are on my heart, for whom, at least to external appearances, death would appear to have not come peacefully.
The first death I witnessed when I was barely five years old.
To this day I do not know if the baby was a boy or girl for when I heard the breaking glass of the tenement window, saw the mother throw her baby through the window from so high up, watched the child crash onto the roof of the coal shed below, I was too far away, likely too shocked as well, to realize much other than the horrific vulnerability of being little.
Decades later, working always that shift, rightly in many ways, called the “graveyard’ shift, as a child protection officer, in the middle of one shift the homicide detectives put out a call for those familiar with a particular part of the inner city to stop by the morgue and see if we could identify a body.
This was in the days before DNA and given the body had been in the river for several days, that the deceased had been tortured, mutilated in a manner to make identification near impossible, and murdered, executed to be blunt, the detectives were desperate for help.
It was near three in the morning before I had a chance between calls to stop by the morgue.
In those days I was a true atheist so my attitude approaching a dead body was akin to finding an empty shell on a beach.
The horrific method by which death had apparently devoured the young man was the antithesis of peaceful.
You can well imagine how stunned I was as I stood there unable to identify him, yet suddenly sensing this was someone’s child, brother, perhaps husband, father, when I distinctly heard: “You will remember him at your first Mass!”
Nearly fifteen years later, concelebrating with my newly ordained confreres, other priests and our Bishop, I did so, and do every year on this day.
One day I was called to emergency, not unusual for a priest, and when I arrived an elderly woman approached me and said she was the younger sister of the woman I had been called to anoint.
She explained to me they were from another part of the country and named the city.
It was the city of my childhood.
She further explained the her sister had been for years a member of the Sisters of.....but one day had simply quit, without ever getting dispensation from her vows, and had also left the Church.
This gentle woman also told me that her sister had not asked for a priest and at that moment grief replaced words with tears.
Holding her hands I asked her to tell me her sister’s name and her name in religious life.
When she told me the latter I smiled and said: “Ah, yes! I remember her. She was my teacher in the parish school of St....”.
I approached the dying woman who was still conscious, bending close to her ear and calling her by her religious name said: “Dear Sister when you taught us the Hail Mary you were so emphatic that we should trust Our Lady would be with us at the hour of our death. Be at peace for Our Lady has brought a child you taught to you to fulfill her Motherly love for you.”
In the memorial of the Fourth Canon we pray for “...those whose faith is known to You alone.”
Ultimately it is neither the time nor manner of our death which determines if it is peaceful or not, all external appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
It is, and mostly this is invisible to our bodily eyes, but the heart often sees, the outstretched hand of Jesus, of Mary, catching a falling child, cradling the youth sinking into the blackness of frigid river water, caressing the fevered brow of an elderly nun as they say: “Do not be afraid.”
Yes O Jesus, You who have conquered death, grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.
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