Laura was the housekeeper in the rectory of a busy parish with two priests, a school and convent.
After Mass every morning, one of the sisters, Sr. Joseph Mary, would go to the rectory to talk to Laura. Since she had long since retired from teaching, she was in no rush to get back to the convent. However, Laura was anxious to get back to her work in the rectory. As Sister talked on and on, she would try to find some polite way to end the conversation so that she would not fall behind in her chores.
One Friday evening, Laura was in the grocery store and noticed Sr. Joseph Mary out of the corner of her eye. With her daughter waiting for her in the car, she did not want to bump into Sister and get caught in a conversation that could last well over a half an hour. So she did her best to try to avoid her.
However, Sr. Joseph Mary did notice her. As soon as she did, she ran up the aisle to her saying, “Laura, Laura, I’m so glad I saw you! I am going home to my Lord! I am going to see Jesus!”
Puzzled by her words, Laura asked her what she meant. Sister explained that she had been diagnosed with cancer. It was a particularly aggressive kind and it had already spread to several of her organs. The doctor told her that she probably only had weeks to live.
That was the last time Laura saw Sr. Joseph Mary. Within two weeks, she passed away.
Most people when receiving a diagnosis of cancer and a prognosis of only a few weeks to live would panic. They would be angry and ask God why. They would bargain with God assuring Him that they would go to Church more if only He would heal them. They would be overcome with fear at the pain they would be suffering. But not this holy sister. She approached death with total confidence in our Lord. She was even eager to die knowing that she would shortly be resting in the hand of God.
Our Christian faith gives us a new perspective on death. It is not an end, it is a new beginning. Like the seed buried in the ground that becomes a flower or like a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon that becomes a butterfly, death transforms us from mortal human beings to sons and daughters of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven. Once we have passed through death into heaven, suffering can no longer touch us.
We have this confidence because Jesus died on the cross for us. He accepted death with obedience and love and, in so doing, won for us the hope of everlasting life. Through baptism, we join ourselves to Jesus’ death, we “die with Christ” and so are given the promise of eternal life with Him in heaven. Every day, we die to ourselves by carrying the cross that God has chosen for us. If every day, with the help of God’s grace, we seek to do His will, then we too will approach our own death with acceptance, serenity and even joy.
Sr. Joseph Mary, in accepting the news of her death with such joy, shows us how free she really was. She was free from the fear of pain. Though she knew her illness would cause her much suffering, she was willing to endure it by joining it to the suffering of Christ. Her life had been fully of many close relationships but she was willing to say goodbye to her friends and family to be joined with Jesus in the company of the saints. Her life was totally focused on serving God, so she died with no regrets about what she may have missed out on in life. There were no earthly attachments holding her down, so she could open her arms to welcome the death that would unite her with her Lord forever.
Most people who are faced with the imminence of their death are not as blessed as Sr Joseph Mary. They are still holding onto regrets, resentments and sinful habits. They do not have the freedom to welcome death because they never really lived fully. We should always keep in our prayers those who are dying, that they can do so with peace and courage. We should also pray for their families who are struggling to support them while they cope with their own loss.
We should also keep in our prayers those who have already died and were still burdened with regrets, resentments or selfish attitudes. Jesus made it clear that no one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven with such blemishes on their conscience. However, God grants one more act of mercy for them. He offers them the chance to be purified of those earthly attachments, to be cleansed, so that they can freely embrace all the joys of heaven. We call that act of mercy, Purgatory. It is the state of the soul between physical death and entering the glory of heaven. We assist such souls with our prayers that they can let go of everything that is weighing them down and preventing them from rising up to the place God has prepared for them in Heaven.
Every year on this day, we gather as believers to reflect on the mystery of death and to pray for those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. It is an act of mercy for us to offer up Masses, sacrifices and prayers for our loved ones who are preparing themselves to enter the glory of Heaven. In particular, we should make an effort to pray for those souls who are forgotten and have no one to pray for them. If we do so, then we can be assured that they will also pray for us. Through their prayers and through the example of holy people like Sr Joseph Mary, we too can come to embrace the reality of death not with anxiety and fear but with peace and joy knowing that we will be united to our Lord and Savior forever.