Death can be about more than individual preferences. It can be an opportunity for final acts of love.
Jesus’ “seven last words” provide us with a simple way to enter into that response. Each “word” can be seen as the fulfillment of a duty on the part of Jesus. A brief look at each may provide us with some helpful thoughts on this important topic.
1st Word: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Lk. 23:34
Jesus forgave all who sinned against him. Since he himself needed no forgiveness, we see him here only forgiving. But we need both. Dying Christians therefore should forgive everyone whom they can think of that needs their forgiveness, and they should repent to anyone whom they have offended, to their face if possible. Sacramental confession is our minimum duty for the forgiveness of serious sins. But face to face reconciliation with those whom we’ve offended can also be a source of healing at the end of life. Parents and children (especially those who are estranged), and husbands and wives (especially the divorced), should be solicitous to offer and ask forgiveness of one another.
2nd Word: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Lk. 23:43
3rd Word: To Mary, “Woman, behold, your son!” To John, “Behold your mother.” Jn. 19:26-27
From the cross, Jesus made provision for his loved ones and put his earthly affairs in order. Christians also should make provision for those for whom they have care and put their earthly affairs in order. To their children, they should offer reconciliation, an unambiguous affirmation of their love, and, if possible, frank discussion about their passing. They should use their dying sufferings to intercede for the atonement of their own sins, their family’s sins, and the sins of the whole world. They should attend to the fair distribution of their estates and material resources, especially making provision for the poor, towards whom scripture and Church teaching insist we have a serious obligation. Finally, they should, if possible, pay off all their debts so as not to saddle others with financial burdens.
4th Word: “My God, My God, why have thou forsaken Me?” Matt. 27:46
Jesus endured his sufferings with patience. We know his cry of abandonment was not an expression of final despair from his prior words in the Garden repeated not once but twice, not my will, Father, but thy will be done (Mt. 26:39, 42), and from the fact that the psalm he quotes here (Ps. 22) ends not in darkness but by saying “my soul shall live for him … [and] declare his faithfulness.” Dying Christians too should endure their sufferings with patience and resignation. This is especially important today when temptations to adopt illicit alternatives that promise a “good death” (eu-thanasia) are stronger than ever.
5th Word: “I thirst.” Jn. 19:28
Jesus directed that provision be made for bodily nourishment. Dying Christians too have a duty to consider what forms of medical care are obligatory for them and what are not. Living Wills have standardized a problematic conception of autonomy, leading people to believe that so long as they designate something on the document, it is morally legitimate. This is false. The Catholic Church teaches that if some treatment —any treatment—promises reasonable hope of benefit and is not excessively burdensome to the patient, it is obligatory to accept (and calls it an “ordinary means”). If it doesn’t promise hope of benefit or is excessively burdensome, it may be forgone (an “extraordinary means”) (ERDs, 56-57). It would be wrong to designate on a Living Will or other advance decision document the withholding of a type of treatment that might at the time of the document’s implementation be “ordinary care.” This especially includes the administration of food and water, even by a feeding tube (see John Paul II, 2004).
6th Word: “It is finished.” Jn. 19:30
Jesus saw his duties to an end, and he determined that end by God’s timing, not man’s. Christians should do the same. We might ask, how do we determine our end by God’s timing? We do it by two simple (but far from easy) means: first, by fulfilling our dying duties, and second by conforming our decision-making to the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. Sometimes people caricature this teaching by calling it “vitalistic,” meaning it requires people to sustain life under all circumstances. This has never been Catholic teaching. Christians should not cling to their passing lives if their duties to God and others are fulfilled. Opting for over-zealous and aggressive medical treatment that is not obligatory can be an indication of an unwillingness to accept the human condition in the face of death. Like Jesus, we should neither hasten nor delay our deaths if doing so would mean disobedience to God in any way.
7th Word: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” Lk. 23:46
Jesus set his eyes on heavenly glory. Christians too should hope for resurrected blessedness in the kingdom of God. In commending himself to the Father, Jesus showed us that the complete sacrifice of his earthly life was “for the sake of the kingdom” (see Luke 18.29). Jesus despised the suffering and shame of the cross, but he endured them “for the sake of the joy that lay before him” (Heb. 12:2). That joy was not the purely spiritual joy of the Trinity before the incarnation, but a fully divine and human joy, resurrected joy, a joy in which all human persons are invited to share. Dying Christians too should hope for the resurrection of the body and the kingdom and eternal life in which it may be lived. If their dying sufferings are especially intense, the feeling of joy may be distant. But hope is not a feeling. It is an act of the will stretching forth to a good that is difficult but possible to attain. That good is eternal life in the kingdom of God, in friendship with all blessed persons, human, angelic and divine.
Each of us will taste death. About that fact, nothing can be done. But how we die—i.e., our moral and spiritual response to our dying—is not yet settled.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.