A CURIOUS LESSON IN PASTORAL THEOLOGY
Just as the year 1906 was about to give its parting salutations, it was my good fortune to get a practical lesson in pastoral theology, the memory of which I shall cherish while I live. Mistake me not, however. I do not mean that the incident I am about to relate is without parallel, or that the like happens only in the lives of exemplary priests.
What I would say is that the experience was new to me; it came so suddenly and unexpectedly that for the moment I lost my mental moorings and looked for a tragedy where there was nothing but charity. I was reminded, not of the prudence urged by able theologians, nor of the suggestions and advice of seminary professors, but of what I had read in the lives of the saints, and particularly of the conduct of St. Ambrose with the Emperor Theodosius when the latter was publicly reproached for his misdeeds.
The occasion was a funeral service. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred until the final absolution had been given. I was preparing to leave when a member of the choir whispered: “Wait. He is going to preach.” “By no means,” I answered positively. The statutes of the diocese forbid sermons at the obsequies of the laity; and, what convinced me the more, this particular pastor is a strict observer of episcopal regulations. My arguments were to the wind, as I heard him request the people to be seated. Perhaps this is an exceptional case, I thought, and he has secured permission to speak. The beginning was in no way different from the ordinary funeral sermon; but when the conclusion was reached, I found it so unique that I regretted not having paid closer attention to it all.
In substance he spoke as follows:
Dear Brethren—Death is a subject that generally appears in the abstract to us. It usually visits our neighbors. Sometimes, indeed, it comes to our own houses and snatches away a brother or a sister, a father or a mother, a husband or a wife, a son or a daughter. Then the thought is brought home to us that our time must come; that the hour and the day are uncertain; that a strict account is to be rendered sooner or later to an omniscient God.
The imperative summons for the woman whose remains are in this coffin came last Saturday. Her accounting is over now. By this time she has seen what is recorded of her in the book of life; the good as well as the evil works her hands had done from the dawn of reason until her last breath were brought vividly before her, and the irrevocable sentence has already been passed. It is not for me to judge her. What transpired between her soul and God before she lost consciousness is unknown to any mortal.
Perhaps the good Lord dealt kindly with her, seeing, as He does, what is hid from men. It may be that what seems contrary to Christian principles in her was rather the effect of ignorance and human frailty than of downright malice. To all outward appearance her life was far from being a source of edification; but the priest was with her before she died; and, for all I know, God may have pardoned all and admitted her to Paradise. On the other hand, her neglect of religious duties may have proceeded from a bad will. Perhaps resistance to grace was so manifestly voluntary in her as to be inexcusable on every count. Should this be the case, she is surely in hell now. For my part I know absolutely nothing of her present condition of soul; nor do you, my friends.
You can not imagine how glad I am to have this opportunity of speaking to you—I mean the relatives of the deceased. Death will some day come to you. I need not tell you this. From the youngest person here present, to him that is tottering in feeble old age, there is not one that denies the existence of this dreaded, mysterious visitor. But you do not think seriously enough of it. Otherwise you would serve God better; you would take pity on your souls; you would not live—as I must confess you are now living—in vain.
Hence I am glad to have this chance of speaking plainly to you, in order to save you from eternal damnation. My words of admonition do not reach you on Sundays, for I never see you here. Last night the devotion of the Forty Hours was brought to a close in a manner that did honor to the parish at large. I doubt much if any of you put in an appearance to grace the ceremony. During all the time the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in this church, I have not seen one of you enter to do homage to your Redeemer.
What is worse still, should I ask you if you were at Mass last Sunday, none of you could in conscience answer yes. At least you did not attend your parish church. Were I to ask you if you assisted at divine service within the past month, or within the year that is nearing its close, or within the last two years, which of you could in justice say yes? Yet you know that it is a mortal sin to act thus. You keep on heaping guilt upon guilt, as if there were no eternity, no hell, no God.
You are aware that to neglect one's Easter duty is deemed a grave offense in the Catholic Church. The penalty in such a case is to be deprived of Christian burial. And you are guilty of this outrage. Can any of you stand up and say truthfully, "I have made my Easter duty this year?" This is not by any means a private matter. Every parishioner has knowledge of it. Of course you have some reason to give for your misconduct. But do you think your excuses will stand before God? I fear not. Then what will become of you? To my knowledge you have been idling on street corners, aye, spending your precious time in saloons, while you should have been here in church assisting at the holy Mass. I could reproach you with more shameful deeds, but I forbear for the sake of your ancestors.
Now I have touched on a bright spot in the history of your family. Tradition has it that forty or fifty years ago nobody gave greater edification, nobody was more exact in what concerns the service of God, at least in this part of the country, than those who bore your name. Since you are their descendants, why do you not imitate them? Where is your self-respect? Where is your family pride? Surely you do not wish to bring disgrace upon the fair reputation of your ancestors. Not long ago a Canadian priest visited me. Among other things he asked, "Are there any Y's in this city?" "Why, yes," I answered, "a goodly number of them." "The Y's form the backbone of my parish," he continued. "You could not find better Catholics in a day's journey. Years ago, I am told, some of them emigrated to places hereabouts. They must be fine people. Pray, tell me of them. Are they models in this vicinity as they are in Canada?" I could not answer affirmatively, and so I tried to evade the question. But he insisted so pointedly that I was at length obliged to confess, "Truly they are not as pious as they might be; but I cherish the hope that they will square their actions with the law of God before they die."
Really that was the best report I could give of you. Now, in order that my hope be realized, an important step is to be taken before you leave this church. Death is so uncertain that you cannot promise yourselves another day. Time may not be given you to send for a priest. Besides, death-bed repentances are unsafe assurances to depend upon. Suppose the priest arrives in time, does it stand to reason that after outraging the mercies of Heaven all your life, you can in a moment, by his assistance, jump, as it were, into eternal delight, which is the reward of the just, and not of the wicked?
The woman who lies dead before you rented a pew some weeks ago, when it became manifest that her illness was fatal; and at her request a priest was called to administer the last sacraments. In this she acted wisely. Now I want you to follow her example and that of your pious forefathers before it is too late. Let us begin at once. I request you to advance, place your hand on the coffin and promise to start anew to serve God by attending Mass next Sunday.
For the sake of good example, the husband of the deceased ought to come first.
He came, carried out the instructions to the letter, and shook hands with the pastor. The latter dismissed him with "May God bless you!" spoken so loud and with such feeling that there was many a tearful eye in church. One after another came forward, timidly, meekly, some with moist eyes, and all evidently not without a struggle.
At the end five Our Fathers were said, but I was so full of emotion that I could not speak. As the silent cortege passed from the church, I went to the sacristy and thanked that courageous priest for the lesson he had unconsciously given me. He was surprised when I asked the privilege of shaking his hand. "Do you too wish to mend your ways?" he remarked pleasantly.
TAKEN FROM THE AMERICAN ECCLESIASTICAL REVIEW (Volume 36; 1907).