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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the prospect of death into much sharper focus for many of us.
Some of us may well suffer critical illness and die due to contracting COVID-19. The strict quarantine protocols to stop the transmission of the virus and protect health care workers means that if it is our time to die, we may be left alone to endure the tribulations of the deathbed without the assistance of our priests or family.
In these circumstances, familiarity and practice of two traditional devotions will help us face dying with greater peace of mind, calmness and composure enabling us to prepare to die with Christian hope.
These two traditional devotions are the Ars Moriendi and the Bona Mors — the art of dying and prayers for a happy death. It is from Our Lord's conquest of death and His defeat of Satan that these devotions derive their power to transfigure our experience of death.
They rob death of its sting by taking us deeper into our baptismal participation in Our Lord's death and resurrection (Rm 6:4).
Faced with the prospect of being quarantined in a hospital and deprived of the assistance of our priests and family at the hour of death, it is prudent to practice the art of dying well as a frequent devotion. The following is based on the traditional practice, adapted to the current circumstances:
It was once a popular devotional practice for Catholics to pray for a happy death at a time when sudden, unexpected death was a common reality of everyday life.
An essential element of these devotions is the veneration of St. Joseph, as the patron of a happy death. A popular depiction of the death of St. Joseph shows him embraced by Jesus and Mary, the perfect image of a happy death. And in light of the Devil's final assault at the deathbed, it is also sensible to invoke the assistance of St. Joseph, "the terror of demons." Entrusted by God with the virtues and graces to protect the Son of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph rightly terrifies the Devil and his hordes.
While there is still time, make the following prayers for a happy death your daily practice, so that you can be confident that through the protection and intercession of St. Joseph, you will defeat the final temptations of the Devil and be granted the grace of a happy death:
O dearest St. Joseph, I consecrate myself to your honor and give myself to you, that you may always be my father, my protector and my guide in the way of salvation. Obtain for me a greater purity of heart and fervent love of the interior life. After your example may I do all my actions for the greater glory of God, in union with the Divine Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. O Blessed St. Joseph, pray for me, that I may share in the peace and joy of your holy death. Amen.
2. Often pray this prayer to St. Joseph for a happy death:
O glorious St. Joseph, behold I choose thee today for my special patron in life and at the hour of my death. Preserve and increase in me the spirit of prayer and fervor in the service of God. Remove far from me every kind of sin; obtain for me that my death may not come upon me unawares, but that I may have time to confess my sins sacramentally and to bewail them with a most perfect understanding and a most sincere and perfect contrition, in order that I may breathe forth my soul into the hands of Jesus and Mary. Amen
In these extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, let us also make this prayer of Padre Pio our own:
"It is getting late and death approaches, I fear the darkness, the temptations, the dryness, the cross, the sorrows. O how I need You, my Jesus, in this night of exile! Stay with me Lord, because at the hour of my death, I want to remain united to you, if not by Communion, at least by grace and love."
An essay by Deacon Nick Donnelly on the art of dying well and prayers for a happy death can be found by clicking here.