Afraid to Die
To the end we must persevere in our belief in Christ’s mercy
I received a phone call from my 91-year-old friend Lou, who had asked me for advice on several occasions. I had just awakened from a nap, but my grogginess vanished on hearing the urgent tone of his voice.
Lately his health had been failing from a hiatal hernia that caused constant acid reflux. He couldn’t digest his food, lost his appetite, was losing weight, and needed a special oxygen device. For all that distress, he has been frequently in and out of hospitals where finally a doctor said, “No surgery, too risky at your age.” That equated to a death sentence for him.
“I’m afraid to die,” he said. “All my life I’ve done everything the Church has asked of me – donated money, volunteered my time, regularly went to confession and to Holy Communion weekly, baptized my three daughters and raised them all Catholic. But I’m still fearful of death. Isn’t what I’ve done for the Church enough to get me into heaven?”
He felt his last hour was near and that got him pondering end-of-life questions. What I said now could carry heavy significance.
Lou queried further about the Good and Bad Thieves hung alongside Jesus on Calvary. “There was no Church back then, no Last Rites, no Eucharist, no confession, only Jesus. I have served the Church all my life, but the Good Thief gets into Paradise without lifting a finger? Was that fair to us who worked all our lives to serve God through his Church?”
Approaching my eighties, I too have had questions about death and the Afterlife. I pondered eleventh-hour conversions of Oscar Wilde and John Wayne, both probably worried about meriting heaven. Wilde, the gay dramatist, had lived a risky, promiscuous life and led many youth astray. The Duke in films portrayed a moral macho man, but in real life was a serial philanderer.
So Lou posed two important questions: Does serving the Church’s many requirements guarantee entrance into heaven? Do eleventh-hour conversions redeem lifelong perfidy?
Lou was a skilled auto mechanic, so I attempted to answer him in familiar terms.
“You’ve rebuilt car engines and sometimes felt confident about your work and, other times, not so sure. What accounts for the difference in your confidence level?”
“I suppose because I might’ve missed inserting a bolt or forgotten to tighten it… that’s when I’d get that gut feeling of doubt,” he said.
“Exactly. Translate that into your doubt about getting into heaven. Maybe you’ve left undone something important, despite lifelong ritual devotion to the Church. Religiosity has its limits. We can’t pay or bribe our way into heaven with goods and services, even if we prophesied and worked wondrous healings.”
Lou asked, “So is all the money I donated, all the volunteer services I contributed to the Church reduced to ‘vanity of vanities’?”
“Not necessarily. The crucial question is did we give in secret, so our gifts were not rewarded in this world but recorded in heaven’s ledger? And consider why Jesus forgave the Good Thief in that last hour, promising eternal paradise to a criminal who likely deserved to die. He got into heaven without having to lift a finger to serve the Holy Temple. What did that scoundrel ever do to merit heaven?”
Lou answered, “The Good Thief repented by recognizing Jesus as an innocent man, but the Bad Thief, unable to admit his own guilt, kept mocking Christ.”
“Lou, on our death beds, let us do likewise to obtain divine mercy. It doesn’t matter how much we served the Church, how many virtuous deeds we did in life, for the wage is the same so long as we persevere in our belief in Christ’s mercy during that eleventh hour.”
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (Luke 23:42)
Lou went silent for a moment. “Thanks for reminding me,” he said. “That helps a lot.”
So when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last ones hired and moving on to the first. So when the original workers came, they assumed they would receive more. But each of them also received the same wage.” (Matthew 20:8-10)
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