This is one of two stories I’ll tell you about a hospice I used to visit as a priest. I used to visit the hospice every couple of days or so. The staff new I was a registered nurse, as well as a local Catholic priest. Some days I’d go in early in the morning (maybe on a call-out) and the nurses would say “Father [or simply, David], we’re really busy this morning and So-And-So needs help going to the bathroom, or someone else needs a commode!” I’d roll my sleeves up and muck in!
When visiting the hospice, I used to call by every single patient’s room, hating hearing stories that “the Catholic priest usually only visits their own!” If a person invited me in to their room, or engaged in chat, I would stay. I could also take the hint if they preferred not to talk to me.
When I stood in the doorway of one particular man’s room, he turned to look at me and he went white as a sheet! I greeted him and he engaged me in chat. When he invited me to sit down and tell me a bit more about himself, he said: “I thought you were the angel of death, standing at my door. I’m not ready to die yet!”
He told me that he came from a very Catholic part of Europe, and that he grew up thinking that when a priest visited a person who was dying, then surely their “time was up”. I assured him I was not the angel of death. As we chatted he told me that he hadn’t been to the Sacraments for many years, that maybe he should go to confession. But he made clear that he did not want “the last rites”. As he said again: “I’m not ready to go yet!”
His ideas were typically ‘old school’ and certainly did not reflect contemporary Catholic Sacramental Theology. I explained that what he called the ‘last rites’ were in fact now called ‘the Sacrament of Anointing The Sick’. The sacrament was meant to help him, not to fast-exit him into eternity! So, he agreed; I could come back to bring him Holy Communion and do all the other things he wanted. Eventually, I heard his confession, anointed him and gave him Holy Communion. All that could be done, in order to bring him peace at this stage in life, was done – or so I thought!
A few days later I had an emergency call-out to the hospice in the middle of the night. It was him. The night Sister said to me “We don’t know what’s wrong. He’s on the verge of dying; he is on excellent pain relief, so it can’t be that.” He was a very small man and now very light in weight; the cumulative amount of analgesia he had been given to get him pain free might have even been strong enough to exert a secondary effect, allowing him to slip away peacefully. But he wasn’t in peace. His face was contorted, as though in agony. It couldn’t have been physical pain; that was a pharmacological impossibility. But he looked as though he was suffering somehow. His wife and children were present and I spoke with them all. Then I eventually asked the family to leave the room for a few minutes. I spent time sitting with him, reassuring him that he had nothing to worry about or fear. I told him that from the Catholic Church’s point of view, everything that could have been done for him, sacramentally, had been. He had been reconciled in confession; he had received Holy Communion, and been given the strength and grace of the Sacrament of Anointing. There was only one thing left, and that was the formal prayer for “Commendation of the dying”, a most wonderful prayer that even today fills me with tears as I think of all the people I have said this over.
But that wasn’t the only thing!
When I went outside the room to invite his wife and children back in, one of his daughters said to me “Father, we think we know what’s wrong. He’s not ready to die! He’s frightened to let go just now, as he made a promise to our mother that he would never die until he was married in the eyes of the Church!” She told me a story:
When he was a boy at school, his head master slapped him across the face for doing something wrong. He ran crying to the Parish Priest and told him, thinking the priest would have a word with the head master and tell the teacher off. Instead of that, the priest slapped him across the face too! He said, “If the head master slapped you, you definitely deserved it!”
From that day forward this young boy never ever went into a Catholic church again; hence his ‘old fashioned’ ideas of the Angel of Death. The daughter told me that when he moved to the UK and met the woman he was to marry, to become his wife and mother of his children, she wasn’t a Catholic. Given his estrangement from the Church, the couple opted for a civil marriage and decided to get wed in the local Register Office. Once they did this, then started having children (they had about 6 in all), his Catholic family ‘back home’ totally disowned him: he was ‘dead to them’. They said that as he was living in sin; that he wasn’t married ‘in the eyes of the Church’, and therefore all his children were bastardini! So, he made that life-long vow to his wife not to die until …
Once she told me this, I knew exactly what to do. I ran back to my car, where I had the book for the celebration of matrimony (my car was like a portable library!) and I got myself back to his room, as time was certainly not on our side. His wife had put on lots of weight over the years, so couldn’t wear her wedding ring any longer. But one of his daughters was of a similar size to her mother, with a ring to fit. So I borrowed the ring from her. With him fighting hard to ‘hang on in there’, I donned a stole, lit a candle from the night Sister, and I married them!
It’s lucky I am typing this story, because I am all choked up right now just recalling it. I’ve tried telling the story of this man and his family, in lecture halls to students, before now, but it’s always a disaster. It’s just one of those stories that gets me going every time.
After I pronounced them husband and wife, he let me say the prayers of commendation over him. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place, not even the nursing staff. I left him and his family to be together for those precious moments. I called back to the hospice as my first duty in the morning. The ward Sister said he had not long ago slipped away and his body was still in his bed. I went in to see him. The horrendous look of angst, that screwed up his face the night before, was totally gone. Requiescat in pace.