Reflection: The gift of two Cardinals - to die a good death

  • Fr Robin Gibbons

la façon de mourir - Last year (2016) when he spoke on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought, on the eve of Remembrance Day, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O' Connor focused on the theme of a “good death”. He was quoted as saying:

“In spite of all our weaknesses and failures, God loves us and so death must be of a piece with life. With the help of God I hope I will be able to face it, not with fear but with hope and confidence as being in the hands of God.”

This teaching is something that we desperately need in our 21st century, where death is for so many, the ultimate horror to be avoided and resisted at all costs.

Yet the Church has always placed death into its true context, Christ’s own passion and death give meaning to the resurrection. By accepting death, not running away from it Jesus teaches us to trust that this is not our total end. In Luke’s gospel his last recorded words before his death have been used as a prayer by Christians ever since:

Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Lk 23:46)

This isn’t a denial of death but the opening of its door, beyond it is the hope and trust that the God of all things greets us with open arms.

In the same broadcast Cardinal Cormac went on to say this:

“I think, quite simply, that the way to have a good death is to try to live a good life.” That is a very Catholic saying; for our life and death are intertwined, not separate acts. St Benedict in his Rule asks his disciples to use the instruments of good works (Chapter 4.) one of them is to keep death daily before one’s eyes. This isn’t morbidity nor a flight from reality but something the aged Simeon understood when he held the Christ Child in his arms and saw in that baby new life, new hope, salvation dawning. At his ending he could say in loving acceptance as hope to do: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.For my eyes have seen your salvation,which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2: 29-32)

Peace, rest, homeward bound!

Now Cardinal Cormac is gone, dying surrounded by family and friends on Friday September 1st, but his going from us, like that of his much loved predecessor Cardinal George-Basil Hume, also hands on a ministry of compassion and care. If you are called to be a pastor for the flock of Christ then your teaching carries on right to the end. His own words just before he died written to the Diocese are simple, short and very apt. They are also hopeful words for anybody facing serious illness and death, picking up again those simple words of Jesus.

"At this time, the words I pray every night are never far from my thoughts: 'Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit'. Please tell them that I am at peace and have no fear of what is to come. I have received many blessings in my life, especially from my family and friends.

"Above all, as I now commend myself to the loving mercy of God, I ask them all to pray for me as I remember and pray for them." This is also the faith we believe in, those words of our creed and of the Eucharistic Prayer where we remind ourselves that the great communion of saints, the living and the dead are interceding for one another and belong as one.

As with Cardinal Cormac, so his predecessor Cardinal Hume handed on some helpful words for our own acceptance of death. Bishop John Crowley, who knew him well, preached the homily at his funeral (Friday, 25 June, 1999) in which he used Basil Hume’s own insights and thoughts. One of the most profound sections of the homily was the Cardinals own meditation on the Our Father, which he had reflected on during his last few days on earth. I’ll let Bishop John speak:

"In those last days here on earth he came to a fresh understanding of Our Father. 'It was' he said, 'like discovering its inner meaning for the very first time. It's only now that I begin to glimpse how everything we need is right there in the Lord's Prayer'.

"In the presence of a friend he then prayed the first three phrases of the Our Father, adding to each phrase a tiny commentary of his own. Sitting there and listening was somehow to understand afresh all that he stood for, to see again with great clarity why we admired him so much and loved him so deeply.

"Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name' - 'to sing the praises of God, it is that for which we were made, and it is that which will be, for all eternity, our greatest joy'.

"'Thy Kingdom come' - 'the Gospel values of Jesus, justice, love and peace, embraced throughout the whole world and in all their fullness'.

"'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven' - 'that's the only thing which really matters. What God wants for us is what is best for us'.
"In those final weeks, curtain up or curtain down, the Cardinal's one prayer was simply this: 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit'.

What comes through both these pastors’ words is a profound acceptance and sense that death is something we live each day, not as an enemy but as a friend. Both turn to that simple prayer of Christ, one we can make our own. Both help us accept that all our lives are full of small deaths, small crosses borne on our shoulders but that to die a good death is to live as fully as we can and as both say, to do it with joy. Thank you both for this gift to help so many who struggle to deal with death.

From St Francis Canticle of all creatures

Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape.

See also: Obituary: Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor -

and Message from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor -

Tags: Cardinal Hume, Cardinal Cormac, death, Fr Robin Gibbons

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