What will be your last words?

Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal, and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

Modern man is terrified of death and has done everything possible to delay the inevitable and to disguise it when it finally hits.

Detail from “The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” (1614) by Rubens (Image: José Luiz/Wikipedia)

Editor’s noteThis homily was preached on the feast of St. Lawrence, August 10, 2022, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.

On December 27, 1912, my father was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts; he died on the feast of St. Lawrence in 1983. I would ask for prayerful remembrance of his soul today.

If you were taught about St. Lawrence in childhood, most likely you heard that he was martyred by being “grilled” to death. He is entombed in the Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, but the Italians, with their knack for slight irreverence, nick-named the church, San Lorenzo in Cucina (St. Lawrence in the Kitchen)! Of course, the childhood memory of Lawrence’s ghastly death would also be his quip: “You can turn me over; I think I’m done on this side!” Humor, even in the face of death.

Modern man is terrified of death and has done everything possible to delay the inevitable and to disguise it when it finally hits. The language is that of denial: “She passed last week.” Passed what? An exam? A street sign? Can we say, “She died”? And let’s not forget the absurd lengths to which people go to prep Aunt Tilly for viewing, causing not a few silly folks to exclaim, “She looks so good.” No, my friends, she looks dead.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find those who succumb to suicide, which is sadly all too common for young people. In both instances, these two extremes evince a failure to know how to die, ignorant of what we might term “the art of dying,” which is distinctly Christian art. I am a firm believer that the way one dies is most often the culmination of the way one has lived. And so, I thought it might be worth considering some examples of good deaths or, as we Catholics are wont to say, “happy” deaths.

Obviously, we need to start with Our Lord Himself: His seven last “words,” memorialized in Christian preaching on Good Friday for centuries. We could call these Our Lord’s last will and testament:

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Lk 23:34).

Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise (Lk 23:43).

Woman, behold your son: behold your mother (Jn 19:26-27).

My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mt 27:46)

I thirst (Jn 19:28).

It is finished (Jn 19:30).

Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit (Lk 23:46).

And then, the “good” thief, Dismas, who “stole” Heaven: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42).

Stephen, the proto-martyr, echoes His Lord: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. . . . Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60).

St. Augustine, in the days leading up to his death, had his walls plastered with the texts of the Seven Penitential Psalms, which he recited incessantly until the end.

His mother, St. Monica, hearing her children bicker about where to bury her as she lay dying, introduced a note of sanity into the whole discussion: “Lay this old body anywhere. Only promise me this – that you will remember me at the altar of the Lord.”

St. Thomas More, adjusting his beard on the chopping block, asked his executioner to spare his beard, for it had done nothing to offend the King. And his final declaration, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

The North American Martyrs baffled their Indian murderers with their stalwartness. St. Jean de Brébeuf’s nobility in the face of unspeakable tortures was such that the Huron chief cut out his heart while he was still alive, desiring to consume it and to drink his blood, so as to ingest his bravery.

The Carmelites of Compiègne, victims of the “enlightened” protagonists of the French Revolution, went to the scaffold chanting the Salve Regina. So noble were those women and the reaction of the crowd in such horror that their executions were the last public displays of the Reign of Terror. Their story is immortalized in François Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

And who could forget the patriarch and old scoffer at religion in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited? Having refused the ministrations of a priest repeatedly, he has one brought to him by his daughter in his last hour. Unable to speak, very feebly, he makes the sign of the cross over his dying body.

St. Edith Stein (aka, Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), mounting the train to execution by the Nazis, urged her sister Rosa: “Let us go to die for our people.”

A sadder exit came from the lips of Julian the Apostate, who raged at Christ but never spoke truer words: “You have conquered, O Galilean!”

What will be your last words?