ASK FATHER: Do the devout have the hardest deaths?

vanitasFrom a reader…


I have been unsettled by remarks of a Dr Martin Scurr (Daily Mail 27 Jan 2015) who some years ago served the Jesuits at their HQ in Mayfair and religious attached to Westminster Cathedral. “I always think that it is those who have devoted themselves to their religious faith who are the worst when it comes to dying. Priests are the most anxious, the most hysterical and the hardest to control”, says Dr Scurr. “Their faith didn’t help many of them to die. Only Cardinal Hume died with grace, or peace”. Talking of nuns, most of whom he found to be neurotic and anxious, he says, “In my experience, only the nuns with dementia died well”. What’s going wrong? What can we do to help?

It’s difficult and dangerous to extrapolate one man’s anecdotal experiences into something larger than it is.

However, it is true that some priests and religious struggle mightily at the time of death.  It should come as no surprise that those who have dedicated their lives to the service of the Lord are also considerable targets for the Enemy’s assault. Particularly at the time of death Satan comes with guns blazing to tempt to despair the faithful. The holier their lives, I suspect the more horrible the attack.

The Devil hates holy priests and holy religious with an intensity possible only for an angelic being.  It is fixed, complete, and indefatigable.

This is why the Church retains in Her arsenal many powerful prayers for the time of death. We should all be familiar with the prayers for the dying.  We should have sacramentals to hand.

What can we do?

Pray! Pray for yourselves and for others. Pray frequently for a happy death.  Pray for a provided death.

Attend to your loved ones who are dying. Visit them, pray with them, make sure that a priest gets to them to anoint them and give them the Apostolic Pardon and give them viaticum. When you hear of a priest or religious who is dying, redouble your efforts to pray for them, fast for them. Invoke St. Joseph, Patron of the Dying.  If you can’t visit them, pray before the Blessed Sacrament for them.

We are all engaged in a titanic and relentless struggle for souls.

We need the support that the Church provides.

We need to support each other.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Boniface says:

    Many of the saints – St. Camillus de Lellis comes to mind, and perhaps St. Alphonsus – died with enormous trepidation. I think much of it can come because of a holy soul’s heightened awareness of the gravity of every sin, and need for ever-deeper repentance. Ven. Solanus Casey – miracle-worker and incredibly holy, humble man – used to continually beg people to “pray for my conversion,” to the great perplexity of those he asked.

    I hesitate to say this because it may imply judgment, but perhaps another thing going on behind the scenes in the physician’s experience (an inescapable conjecture given the time period) is that some of the priests may have participated in the 1960s/70s dissent with which we are all familiar. The moments before death probably bring a lot of clarity…

    May God have mercy on all us sinners.

  2. APX says:

    I would agree with the above poster. Furthermore, it wouldn’t surprise me if the devil tried to use it as an opportunity to make a last ditch effort to drive the dying person into despair.

    On the other hand, there are many martyrs and other saints that, despite dying horrendous deaths, died well. I am reminded of the French Carmelite nuns who were beheaded during the French revolution and went to their death singing as Brides on their wedding day. To make their death even more meritorious, they each requested the Mother Superior’s permission to die.

  3. jacobi says:

    In my 1956 missal, there is the Act of resignation to the Divine will.

    I would recommend this!

  4. Lin says:

    You are always in our prayers, Father Z. Please pray for us. Thank you for your daily writings!

  5. gramma10 says:

    Not every saint, (clergy or not) dies violently or horrifically! My goodness!
    We have a merciful God and as long as we have united ourselves closely with Him on earth I do believe the velcro sticks.

  6. JTH says:

    Father Zuhlsdorf,

    Is there a book containing the last rites, viaticum and apostolic pardon that can be purchased by the laity? My father is elderly and in poor health. It would bring me peace of mind when that time comes to have this available, although, I know priests carry their own booklets with them. Thanks.

  7. jameeka says:

    Umm, this “doctor” paints with a broad brush.

  8. The Drifter says:

    Found on line the illustrations from the “Ars Moriendi”, rather useful I dare say.

  9. New Sister says:

    One of the best means of assisting the dying is the one that Our Lord revealed to St. Faustina and insisted that she use often, even continuously: The Chaplet of The Divine Mercy. He said, “My daughter, encourage souls to say the chaplet which I have given to you. It pleases Me to grant everything they ask of Me by saying the chaplet. … Write that when they say this chaplet in the presence of the dying, I will stand between My Father and the dying person, not as the just Judge but as the Merciful Savior” (Diary, 1541)

  10. Nicolas Bellord says:

    Dr Martin Scurr was once on the Board of our leading Catholic Hospital – St John & St Elizabeth. When at the behest of one Joseph Ratzinger an inquiry resulted in a stronger Code of Ethics forbidding referrals for abortion, gender reassignment operations and FGM’s he and others resigned. At that time he said:
    “I am convinced that the cardinal has been badly advised, as so often happens with the Catholic Church. Expert advisers have been chosen who give the hierarchy of the Church the answers that they wish to hear and in the matter of modern medical care the cardinal has chosen to listen to individuals who have no specific expertise in that arena. The damage to the Church will be worse if the hospital closes, unless he chooses to withdraw his patronage.”

    “Dr Scurr accused this group (i.e. some Knights of Malta on the Board) of being concerned with Catholicism rather than their duties as hospital trustees”.

    The above from “The Tablet” of 8th December 2007 which had one of their most egregious covers showing a surgeon hampered in his work by a rosary around his wrists: “Ties that bind” as if Catholic truth was not life-giving?

    In the Catholic Herald, Dr Scurr was quoted as adding that the Catholic Church “appears to be unable to reach the degree of tolerance that has been reached elsewhere in the world.”

    “We are now in an era where the Catholic Church must withdraw from involvement in frontline healthcare.”

    As for Cardinal Hume if he had been correctly diagnosed with cancer rather than being told he was suffering from depression he might not have died when he did thus preventing the secularising disasters that hit the Hospital.

  11. Supertradmum says:

    “magnum usque in finem perseverantiae donum” states Trent quoting St. Augustine. There is a special grace for final perseverance, which is separate from all other graces.

    I have been studying Garrigou-Lagrange’s masterpiece Grace, which is online. We should beg God daily for this grace of final perseverance, which we do even in the Hail Mary.

    Personally, the above quotation is not helpful, as it merely creates scandal and doubt. How many holy deaths did this person miss? No offense, but Dr. Scurr is selling a new book and this type of paragraph as noted above sells books in anti-clerical Britain.

  12. Joe in Canada says:

    The doctor also wrote “I found that the nuns could be very spiteful, competitive and hysterical. When I started looking after them they were all on Valium which the previous GP had used to keep them under control,” which is certainly bizarre. It is perhaps useful to remember that he has always (apparently) seen himself in an adversarial relationship with the church, and is trying to sell a book.

  13. Priam1184 says:

    There seem to have been a lot of saints who seemed to die very peaceful deaths. That said I suspect there is good reason that the words “Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” are the finish of the Hail Mary. If one has a sincere devotion to the Blessed Mother I suspect that she will take care of them at that last and most difficult moment.

  14. Sandy says:

    Two necessary helps at the hour of death are St. Joseph and as stated above, the Chaplet of Mercy. I was comforted to be able to pray the Chaplet as my father was dying. St. Faustina’s revelations are so necessary for us now more than ever. I also trust St. Joseph to hear my prayer for all my family that he would bring us a priest at the hour of death to give us absolution and the Apostolic Pardon. Added to my request is that St. Joseph would bring us a priest, even a priest from Heaven, if an earthly one is not available, because “nothing is impossible with God”!

  15. Moral_Hazard says:

    @New Sister. You are very correct and I also highly recommend the Divine Mercy Chaplet. When my wife’s grandmother was dying we prayed the divine mercy chaplet for days before and on the day of her death. My courageous wife spent hours in vigil by her grandmother’s side and after her passing heard interiorly “This day you shall be with me in paradise”. She didn’t draw the connection until the funeral, a few days later where the gospel reading was Luke’s account of the Good Thief (one of my favorite bible passages, btw).

  16. Moral_Hazard says:

    Sorry for the double post, but I must also sincerely thank Fr. Z who pointed out the efficacy of the Divine Mercy Chaplet even for people who are not Catholic. My wife’s grandmother was Jewish, and although she attended Mass regularly with her husband, and even after her husband’s passing never formally converted. My wife was afraid for her soul and that post about the Chaplet helped very much. Happily, my mother-in-law, Grammie’s legal guardian had her baptized hours before her death.

  17. Suburbanbanshee says:

    In defense of the nuns and sisters — long term Valium/diazepam use at high dosages can be associated with really bad dreams and sleep disturbances and suppression of strong emotions, which then have to be dealt with when you come off Valium. It’s also addictive, so coming off Valium can be very rough. If you were frail and sick already, and if the Valium is mixed with other drugs, I imagine it’s a lot worse.

    Other side effects can include: memory problems, agitation, and even hallucinations. The website says these are grounds to take people off Valium tout suite, but apparently not at that hospital!

    I once dealt with the archived papers of a lady who was treated for health and psychological problems in the 1950’s, and they pushed Valium on her like no tomorrow and then told her to keep a dream diary. It was chilling reading, and again and again she kept mentioning that she never had bad dreams like that until subjected to the Valium. So I was totally horrified when one of my distant relatives pushed Valium on a close relative during her husband’s funeral preparations, and then didn’t stick around to deal with the consequences.

    I’m sure that stuff has good uses, but it’s not junk to play with.

  18. Suburbanbanshee says:

    It may also be that some of the “agitation” at death is patients trying to get the doctor to send for a priest to give them Anointing of the Sick, viaticum, and the Apostolic Pardon, and them being cruelly ignored, or given the Sacrament in a… liturgically unfortunate way. I’m pretty sure that might lead to priests and nuns giving the doctor the what for, and the doctor rewriting the experience in a passive-aggressive way, after they can’t refute him.

  19. LarryW2LJ says:

    I was present at the hospital for both my parent’s deaths. The Divine Mercy was recited several times throughout the day on both occasions. Both died wearing the Scapular. In my Mom’s case, she was visited by her parish priest the day before and was visited by my sister’s pastor literally hours before. I hate to sound “mystical”, but when my mom died, I felt a presence in the room – a quiet, peaceful presence. I have no idea who it was, but I would wager my very last dollar that the presence was sent from Heaven. I told my sister about it and she reported back to me that she had the same feeling. Mom (who was VERY devoted to St. Jude, St. Theresa and St. Rita, and of course, our Blessed Mother) died a very peaceful death.

  20. LarryW2LJ says:

    I might add, that my Mom had the foresight to leave a small note to my sister, to be read upon her passing. She instructed that on the holy card which is distributed at the wake to have the following printed – “And please continue to pray for me, so that one day, I may get to Heaven”. She was definitely NOT one of those who believe that we all go straight to Heaven. My dad died fourteen years ago, my mom three. I still pray for them both, every single day.

  21. APX says:

    People might think I’m a bit on the morbid side, but what it all comes down to is that we know not the day nor the hour, so we must start preparing for death now. We only get one shot at dying, so we need to get it right, starting with habitually living in the state of grace, followed by meditating frequently on the last four things. St. Alphonsus Liguori has a very good Preparation for Death that can be quite helpful. We need to pray for final perseverance daily, keep First Friday and First Saturday devotions, as well as wear and be enrolled in the Brown Scapular and invested with the Miraculous Medal. Live a virtuous life and become a saint NOW! Don’t aim for purgatory.

  22. RichardT says:

    When I lived in London 15 years ago, I suffered through many sermons from elderly Jesuits of doubtful orthodoxy at Farm Street (the “Jesuit’s HQ in Mayfair” where this doctor worked).

    I am not surprised if some of them were afraid to meet their Maker.

  23. Supertradmum says:

    Some commentators are confused about the efficacy of sacraments.

    I suggest a look at my blog yesterday. A person must will to be baptized. Except for babies and those who are not capable of reason, but not “beyond a reasonable state”, those who are baptized must show a desire for such.

    See my blog and Canon law. Also, we should all be meditating on the Four Last Things and doing daily examens of conscience.

  24. Mariana2 says:

    Every evening I pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet for the dying.

    Somewhat OT: Thank you, Suburbanbanshee! I had Valium pushed on me a few years back, for a continuous headache which is still with me. It had no effect at all, so I gave it up after a few days. Thanks to you I now know more about the stuff and will be able to refuse it in future.

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