When one of my sons was a teenager, while going over the Catechism during a typical homeschool day, we were talking about the Sacrament of Extreme Unction (aka Anointing of the sick and dying). Always able to make me laugh, he said in a deep, gravelly voice, “When I’m dying, I want my Unction to the Extreeeeeeme.”
Well, if you think about it, when you are dying, that Sacrament is extreme….an extreme mercy! Because if you are repentant, through the priest, Jesus is there with all the grace to bring you straight to heaven.
But that isn’t the extreme mercy that I want to share now. It is one that was presented to me in stages.
Trust and Confidence
Years ago, I read a book by Connie Rossini, Trusting in God with St. Therese. In it Connie shares her own personal spiritual struggle and growth through tragedy, and life experiences, with the help of St. Therese. But there was one thing, in particular, that struck me while reading the book. And it had to do with a statement that St. Therese made about a murderer in France who was about to go to the gallows. I remembered this story from her diary, Story of a Soul, but did not remember her saying this…. that God would not give us desires that He did not mean to fulfill.
“I felt in the depth of my heart certain that our desires would be granted, but to obtain courage to pray for sinners I told God I was sure He would pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini; that I’d believe this even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus.” (St Therese, Story of a Soul)
Pranzini, had been unrepentant, his heart hardened to God. Then, just seconds before his execution, seeing a priest standing nearby with a crucifix, He suddenly asked to kiss it. This was St. Therese’s confirmation. Now, you may say, “Well, she is a saint, so no wonder He answered her prayer!” Yes, that is true. But having complete trust and confidence in God is something that we can all reach for, since we are all called to be saints. And as long as our desire conforms with the will of God, why shouldn’t we be confident?
This brings me to the next stage of my understanding of this extreme mercy of God.
Throughout my life, I had wondered what it would be like to actually live in Jesus time. I pondered if I would have been a faithful follower, or one who walked away? In meditative prayer, I would sometimes place myself in different scenes of Jesus life, especially the Passion, to be there with Him in my mind. One day while I was “with Jesus” consoling Him in the Garden of Olives during his agony, I asked Him if He could accept it as if I was really there. To my surprise, and in the depths of my heart, I just knew…”Yes, you are there with Me.”
I hadn’t known, or been taught this before, and it blew me away.
Fast forward some years, and while reading the book Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Father Michael Gaitley, this desire, that of actually “being with Jesus” in prayer, was confirmed. Again, the confirmation blew my mind.
Father Gaitley called it “retroactive consolation”. He writes:
“The idea of giving retroactive consolation to Christ has something to do with consoling him now for his suffering in the past. Although he doesn’t use the word ‘retroactive’ Pope Pius XI seems to endorse such an idea in Miserentissimus Redemptor:
Now if, because of our sins, also which were as yet in the future, but were forseen, the soul of Christ became sorrowful unto death, it cannot be doubted that then, too, already He derived somewhat of solace from our reparation, which was likewise forseen…”
Father Gaitley then goes on to say that others (saints, theologians) have confirmed this idea, but in particular he mentions Saint Faustina Kowalska. In six of the nine days of the Divine Mercy Novena that Jesus gave to her, He speaks of this mystery… that we can somehow console Him now for what He suffered back then.
(Second day) Today bring to Me the souls of priests and religious, and immerse them in My unfathomable mercy. It was they who gave me strength to endure My bitter Passion.
(Third day) Today bring to Me all devout and faithful souls and immerse them in the ocean of My mercy. These souls brought Me consolation on the Way of the Cross. They were that drop of consolation in the midst of an ocean of bitterness.
I had read Saint Faustina’s Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, and prayed this novena, but now more of this mystery was coming into focus.
Grace outside of time
If this wasn’t profound enough, it led to another amazing insight. I began to ponder…what about those loved ones, or relatives who I had not prayed for at their death, but wished I had? What about that distant cousin who took his own life? Or that relative who left the Faith, and died unexpectedly? Some of them, obviously, I didn’t know were going to die, and some I never even knew. But I still had some regrets, due to just being very young, ignorant, or self-absorbed at the time.
And now I had the desire to pray for them as if I was there by their side at the moment of death. Would the Lord accept my prayer now, as if I was there then? Since God is outside of time, couldn’t He, in His mercy, accept this? Didn’t St. Therese say that God would not give us desires that He did not mean to fulfill? I didn’t know for sure, but this idea had all the hallmarks of a loving, merciful God… to the extreme… which I knew my Savior to be.
Father Chris Alar
Fast forward again, to our present time. My sister has been watching videos by Father Chris Alar, who is the Director of the Association of Marian Helpers at the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA. I have watched some of them as well. (I found it no coincidence that he is the director at the Shrine of Divine Mercy) My sister shared a particular video with me, that had blown her away. And she had no idea that I had been pondering this. (I will provide the link here. Another talk on this is here.)
In this video, Father Alar recounts his own grandmother’s death by suicide, and his regret that he was not only absent to her during that time of difficulty and pain in her life, but that he could do nothing to help her in that tragic moment in time. He and his family were convinced that because she took her own life by a gunshot to the head, there was no time for repentance, and she was in hell. Through a series of events, and a good priest, who was instrumental in bringing Fr. Alar (who was not a priest at the time) back to his faith, Fr. Alar was given a better understanding of what the Church actually teaches, and is in the Catechism, regarding death by suicide.
The catechism states (and note the last paragraph):
- “Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (#2280).
- “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God” (#2281).
- “If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law. Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (#2282).
- “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for people who have taken their own lives” (#2283). †
Fr. Alar is changed forever
Father Alar did not know that there was opportunity for his grandmother’s repentance in ways known to God alone. Furthermore, when Fr. Alar expressed his regret that he was not there for his grandmother, nor could he have prayed for her at death, this priest told him, (and I am paraphrasing) “No, you are wrong. You go home right now and pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet for your grandmother. God, who is outside of and controls time, can apply the grace of your prayer at the moment of her death. And don’t you think that our all-powerful, omnipotent God, in the time it takes for a bullet to leave the barrel of a gun and strike your grandmother, can give her special grace, so she repents?”
Fr. Alar said that this truth changed his life. In the video, he explains and supports this in much more fascinating detail. As for me, the Lord clearly confirmed what He had already placed in my heart. And this is the extreme mercy that I want to share! How incredible our God is!
Teaching of the Catholic Church
Now, I want to emphatically stress that this in no way is meant to diminish any teaching of the Catholic Church, especially that suicide is a grave sin that takes sanctifying grace from us. And if we die unrepentant of it, then we go to hell. This is absolutely true.
And while we can’t know if someone will accept the grace in their free will, that doesn’t mean that there is no hope for those who took their own life, or no hope for those who died unexpectedly perhaps without confession, or even outward repentance. There are three conditions that must be there for sins to be mortal, and we cannot know if they all apply to a particular person either. So, while we may know that they have committed grave sin, we cannot know their culpability. Only God sees, and knows what is going on in the mind and depths of a soul.
This in no way, changes their personal judgment. That cannot happen either. But since God knew at the time of that person’s death, that in the future you would be praying for them, He can apply the grace of that prayer to them then. How this all works, and why God may choose to use our prayers to release the graces of His Redemption is a mystery. But He does.
Since this is a complicated subject, and I am no theologian, I will try to put in simple terms what is my understanding. Sufficient grace for salvation is provided to all, and we may or may not respond to it. Efficacious grace, which is a grace that produces its divinely intended effect without destroying human freedom, can be given by God at different times. And they can come through our prayers. Perhaps it has its desired effect because God knows ahead of time how that person will respond to that grace. (See a definition on it here. And if you really want to delve into it you might start here.)
And finally, lest anyone thinks this supports the “dare we hope” view that some theologians have that perhaps no one is in hell. As Connie Rossini writes in Trusting God with St. Therese, ” Therese never proposed that purgatory was empty, let alone hell. She did not concern herself with universal principles, but with individual choices.”
Jesus himself spoke of hell more often than heaven. Hell is real. And people go there. I believe what Scripture and Sacred Tradition teach.
Hope and Trust
But I also believe that God can do things that I just don’t understand. Even Saint Padre Pio prayed for the grace of a holy death for his deceased relatives. So, I will continue my “retroactive” prayer, in hopeful trust.
Jesus even gave us a special prayer for the dying to Saint Faustina…the Divine Mercy Chaplet. If you are not familiar with it, I will link it here. And here is the promise God gave to Saint Faustina:
At the hour of their death, I defend as My own glory every soul that will say this chaplet; or when others say it for a dying person, the pardon is the same. When this chaplet is said by the bedside of a dying person, God’s anger is placated, unfathomable mercy envelops the soul, and the very depths of My tender mercy are moved for the sake of the sorrowful Passion of My Son. (811)
I pray this gives hope to someone. Pray like you were there. Like Saint Therese, we too can have confidence in the mercy of God.
Jesus, I trust in You.
(May the Father, Son and Holy Ghost be glorified in all places through the Immaculate Virgin Mary)