Given on the Feast of All Saints, 1 November 2016, in Westminster Cathedral.
As a society we have an obsession with death. We have seen this so clearly in the ways in which Halloween has been marked in the last few days. We are filled with fascination, confusion and dread when it comes to matters of death and life after death. But this is nothing new. The ancient origins of this festival, the ways which marked the passing from summer into winter, show how deep rooted this anxiety really is, how we feel a need for protection against unknown forces and spirits. So often we hide our uncertainly in laughter.
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints; indeed last night was the eve of All the Saints, the eve of the Hallowed, Halloween. This feast is, of course, a strong affirmation of the saving power of God’s grace, at work in the lives of countless men and women, whose actions have shone in this world throughout the ages, and whose deaths were most assuredly their pathway into eternal and glorious light.
They show us the way, the way to heaven, through the doorway of death itself. They teach us that as we close our eyes for the last time here, we are ready to really see for the first time, there. The first reading we have heard this evening expresses powerfully the vision of faith which uncovers for us the darkness of death:
‘After that I saw a huge number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language; they were standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb … They shouted aloud, “Victory to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb…. Amen. Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and strength to our God for ever and ever. Amen”’ (Rev 7.9-13).
Here we see the, in human terms, fulfilment of our created nature which, in the power of grace, does not perish in death but finds its fulfilment in heaven. Our mortal bodies are buried in the ground like a seed that will spring up to eternal life when that final resurrection takes place.
All of us will have experienced, watched even, the death of a loved one. Tomorrow we will pray for all the faithfully departed, a prayer which will be continued throughout the month of November. We know that in our turn all of us, without exception, will face that moment of death and be in need of those prayers. It is not an easy moment; there is no easy passage through death. Yet it is one we can learn to approach with loving trust.
Today the Catholic Church in England and Wales launches an important initiative. It is called the Art of Dying Well, or in the traditional Latin phrase Ars Moriendi. Here, in these online resources, there is so much for us to learn, from each other, from doctors and nurses who tend the dying, from the teaching of the Church, from those willing to tell their story even as they are making this last journey. Here we learn that dying is essentially a journey of trust, of waiting for the call of the Lord, of handing oneself over to his will. This is the mystery of death, the final vocation, not the product of self-determination in euthanasia.
We will all have memories of people who have shown us something of how to die well. My great privilege was to be working alongside Cardinal Hume in his last days. Others were much closer than I was. But my memories are precious. Many may recall that when he wrote to the priests of the diocese to say that he was dying he added: ‘uncharacteristically, I am at peace.’ When I met him the next day I said, ‘Father, now your task is to show us how to die well.’ And he did.
At my last meeting with him, a few days before he died, I asked for his blessing. He gave it, but in a way that showed so much of his sensitivity. He included himself in his own blessing. He said these words: ‘May the Lord bless us both for all that lies ahead of us.’ How instructive. He was not self-absorbed. Even in his last days he was thinking of others, identifying himself with them, and ready to recognise that we all were sharing the same path. We were just at different stages of it. Today, and tomorrow, I remember him in my prayers.
St John tells us: ‘My dear people, we are already the children of God but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is that we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is. Surely everyone who entertains this hope’, and we do, ‘must try to be as pure as Christ.’