By Federico Lombardi
One of Saint John Paul II’s greatest spiritual insights was the exhortation to revive and preserve the memory of the martyrs of the 20th century, one of the most violent centuries in history.
Certainly, remembering in the sight of God the many witnesses of faith, we’re led to remember, too, the countless victims: women and men of every race, time and condition who lost their lives in dramatic circumstances, on land and at sea, at war and in peace. Many died far from any human comfort, victims of senseless violence or irrepressible catastrophes, or abandoned and lonely. An immense cry of pain seems to rise in silence from the dust of every corner of the world for those who have ears to hear it, as we think of millions, even billions of people who have been forgotten — the cry of created beings who feel themselves plunging into an abyss of emptiness and oblivion. For them and with them, we too want to raise up a cry for mercy.
The images of rows of coffins lined up in the churches of Lombardy, of mass graves near New York, the thought of so many people, especially the elderly, who have died in conditions of isolation and solitude over the past few months, have touched us deeply. Not only because of the natural grief of relatives who were not able experience the loss of their loved ones with human and Christian consolation, but even more so for the departed themselves, for those who have died and are dying alone.
All of this helps us understand once more how precious closeness and sincere affection are in times of weakness, old age, and illness. But it has also made us reflect on that fact that every death, including our own, always carries in itself a dimension of solitude. At the end of our lives, the comfort and closeness of others becomes powerless, and no one can avoid the final journey.
How can we prepare ourselves for that moment, which is the common lot of each one of us, a moment that has come prematurely for victims of the coronavirus, but was nonetheless before them as it is before us? How can we escape the anguish of falling into nothingness?
Just a short time ago, we had the grace of reliving the death of Jesus. Certainly, we can relive it every day by uniting ourselves sacramentally or spiritually with Jesus in Holy Communion. But Good Friday and Holy Saturday bring with them a special grace. The death of Jesus was very real and very cruel, bringing with it the experience of being abandoned by men, but also, in a mysterious way, of being abandoned by God, as we see from the Psalm verse Jesus quotes from the Cross. It was a death so true that it was followed by the Body remaining a corpse in the tomb throughout the Sabbath Day. In the Creed we say, “He was crucified, died and was buried; He descended into Hell”. Jesus’s descent into Hell shows that He became close to and a brother to all those who descend into the abyss of death. He does not forget any of them. For Jesus, no one who dies, no matter where or when, not even in the midst of a pandemic, is forgotten. Jesus truly died, just as they did, and He died with them.
After Jesus’s death, descent into hell, and resurrection, death is not what it was before. “O death, where is thy sting?” Saint Paul exclaims. Death can now be lived with Jesus, who reveals a love of God stronger than death. And this goes beyond solitude. Death, even the most unknown and forgotten, can become an entrustment of one’s own spirit into the hands of the Father.
A few days ago, at the daily Mass at Casa Santa Marta, Pope Francis, commenting on Jesus's words to Nicodemus, invited everyone to look to the Crucified One. He is the central point of faith and of the Christian life. Those who have seen them will never forget the images of Saint John Paul II embracing the cross in his chapel a few days before his death, while at the Colosseum the people were united with him in prayer in the Way of the Cross on Good Friday. There is no other way to prepare ourselves to live death than to look with all our soul at the Crucified one Who dies with us and for us, and with our whole heart to remain in His embrace. And so, death lived with Jesus can lose its frightful aspect and allow us to perceive a mystery of love and mercy. Perhaps then we will no longer feel the urge to reject the thought of death, and to erase it from our daily life. On the contrary, with faith and with the passing of time we may become so familiar with it that death can become our “sister”, to use the expression of Saint Francis.
Whether through the coronavirus or in some other way, death comes to us, even in a secularized world. But we should not forget that, thanks to Jesus, death does not have the final word. And every death, even the most forgotten and solitary, means falling, not into nothingness, but into the hands of the Father.