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ARCHBISHOP | An honest look at death brings grace

Similarly, the impending goodbye of the end times can be turned into a grace

"Heavenly Choir," Donald Jackson, Copyright 2011, The Saint John's Bible, Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA. Used by permission, all rights reserved
When you work at a school — which I did as a newly ordained bishop — you have to say goodbye every year. The graduates are leaving. You want to tell them about the deep goodness you’ve seen in them. But you’ve also seen their weaknesses and how they deal with them. So you might need to speak some hard truths — gently — for their own benefit. You can carry them forever in your heart. But graduation is a real goodbye, and it forces a certain kind of honesty on you. It’s good for the soul.

Greg Schleppenbach, associate director of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, once wrote about the grace of terminal illness. Most people don’t think of terminal illness as a grace, but he wrote it while his father was dying. He said there was this grace in his dad’s terminal diagnosis: It made you face a real goodbye. It allowed you — even forced you — to reach a deep honesty with each other. There was a chance to say the good things with gratitude and the hard things with love. Terminal illness brought an honesty that was good for the soul.

The Church’s teaching about the end times is often perceived as morbid and scary. But it’s meant to bring that same kind of honesty to our lives. There’s no way around the four last things. We will have to say goodbye to this life. We will stand before Jesus. We will spend eternity in heaven or hell. Acknowledging it helps us look at our lives and relationships. When we sweep the last things under the carpet, we tend to avoid the honesty they can bring.

Jesus told us that the world would end, and He would return in judgment. This means that the world itself has a terminal illness! How do we react to that?

When we react to the Church’s teaching about the end times with fear, that’s usually a sign that some things in our lives, our human relationships and our relationship with God need a deeper reconciliation. Sometimes the fear makes us avoid the topic. What if, instead, the fear helped us to diagnose the hurt?

If the impending goodbye of graduation can be turned into a grace, and the impending goodbye of terminal illness can be turned into a grace, then the impending goodbye of the end times can be turned into a grace, too.

For example, there are three things that every child needs to hear from his or her parents: 1) I love you. 2) I’m proud of you. 3) I’m sorry. It makes a tremendous difference to hear — and to say — those things. In a similar vein, each of us must ask: What are the things we need to say to loved ones?

Death, judgment, heaven and hell: Let’s turn that terminal diagnosis into the grace of an honesty that’s good for our souls.

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