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Father Nicholas Nelson: Dying a happy death

Above the right side altar of my church, Queen of Peace Church in Cloquet, there is a beautiful painting of St. Joseph in the moments before his death. In the painting, our Blessed Mother kneels at his feet, and our Lord Jesus stands at the side of the failing Joseph. We call on St. Joseph as the patron of a happy death. Why? For just that reason: He died with our Lord and Mary at his side. You can’t die a happier death than that. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

It is a lost but important tradition to pray to St. Joseph for a happy death. I remember discussing with others when I was younger how we would like to die. This always included the most painless ways of dying. This is not what we mean by a “happy death.” A happy death does not mean a painless death. A happy death means dying in friendship with God. It means dying in a state of grace having received the Last Rites, or Last Sacraments. Knowing that we have received the promise of grace through the sacraments makes one happy as one dies. People can’t truly be happy if they are questioning or unsure of where they stand with God as they take their last few breaths on this side of eternity. 

Those who receive the Last Rites can die happy and in peace knowing that while they may need further purification, they won’t be lost for all eternity, they will eventually be on their way to eternal beatitude in heaven. 

When we speak of the Last Rites, we mean three sacraments. A person first confesses their sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The person then receives the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. Finally, the person receives Holy Communion. We call this last Communion before death “Viaticum.” Viaticum comes from its Latin root meaning “provisions for the journey.” Here we can call it “Food for the Journey” — food, the Bread of Life, helping us on our way to heaven. There are also other comforting prayers and even a plenary indulgence called the Apostolic Pardon available. Oftentimes, a person will be very close to death and unable to confess and unable to receive Viaticum. However, as long as they are alive, they are still able to receive the Anointing of the Sick. And God is so merciful and so generous with his grace that Anointing of the Sick has the power to forgive sins, even mortal sins if the person is unable to confess. 

God is so good to give us the sacraments. God doesn’t want us to be anxious about our relationship with him and where we stand with him. He gives us concrete tangible rituals through which he promises forgiveness of sin and grace. That is the peace that Christ brings us, the peace of knowing we are right with our Creator. 

In 1672, Jesus began appearing to a French nun, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Jesus wanted to reemphasize the infinite depth of his love for humanity, how available his love and mercy is, but also that so many are cold to it. In order to draw people to him, Jesus offered St. Margaret Mary 12 promises. The last of these promises concerns a happy death. He said, “I promise you in the excessive mercy of my Heart that my all-powerful love will grant to all those who receive Holy Communion on the First Fridays in nine consecutive months the grace of final perseverance; they shall not die in my disgrace, nor without receiving their sacraments. My divine Heart shall be their safe refuge in this last moment.” This is where we get the First Fridays devotion. If you haven’t made your nine First Fridays, consider it as you next spiritual undertaking. 

As a priest, I will get a call from a funeral home saying a Catholic had died and the family wants to do a funeral, or a family will call me once the person has died and they want me to come bless the body. And way too often, no one even told me the person was dying. We can do the funeral, and I can bless the body, but it’s sad, because these individuals still missed out on the sacraments. The sacraments cannot be given to those we know have already died. 

Now, we can always have hope for a person’s salvation, but we can have much greater peace knowing someone has received the sacraments and their promise of grace and mercy before they died. 

Friends, make it clear that you want to see a priest before you die. Let your entire family know. If you have a loved one who is dying, make sure a priest comes. And don’t wait until the last minute! You may have to make a few calls, especially if you aren’t familiar with the area or parish or who the priest is. But be persistent and make sure a priest comes. It truly can be the difference between eternity in hell and eternity in heaven. 

I’ll end with the words of St. Cyprian, “What an honor, what happiness to depart joyfully from this world, to go forth in glory from the anguish and pain, in one moment to close the eyes that looked on the world of men and in the next to open them at once to look on God and Christ.” 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].