Some time ago I read a book from the great theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, called Life Everlasting.
I have found on the Internet the following excerpt from this book and I remember being as struck now as when I first read it directly from the book.
I copy the passage here in its entirety.
Deathbed conversion, however difficult, is still possible. Even when we see no sign of contrition, we can still not affirm that, at the last moment, just before the separation of soul from body, the soul is definitively obstinate. A sinner may be converted at that last-minute in such fashion that God alone can know it. The holy Cure of Ars, Divinely enlightened, said to a weeping widow: “Your prayer, Madame, has been heard. Your husband is saved. When he threw himself into the Rhone, the Blessed Virgin obtained for him the grace of conversion just before he died. Recall how, a month before, in your garden, he plucked the most beautiful rose and said to you, ‘Carry this to the altar of the Blessed Virgin.’ She has not forgotten.”
Other souls, too, have been converted in extremis, souls that could barely recall a few religious acts in the course of their life. A sailor, for example, preserved the practice of uncovering his head when he passed before a church. He did not know even the Our Father or the Hail Mary, but the lifting of his hat kept him from departing definitively from God.
In the life of the saintly Bishop Bertau of Tulle, friend of Louis Veuillot, a poor girl in that city, who had once been chanter in the cathedral, fell first into misery, then into misconduct, and finally became a public sinner. She was assassinated at night, in one of the streets of Tulle. Police found her dying and carried her to a hospital. While she was dying, she cried out: “Jesus, Jesus.” Could she be granted Church burial? The Bishop answered: “Yes, because she died pronouncing the name of Jesus. But bury her early in the morning without incense.” In the room of this poor woman was found a portrait of the holy Bishop, on the back of which was written: “The best of Fathers.” Fallen though she was, she still recognized the holiness of her bishop and preserved in her heart the memory of the goodness of Our Lord.
A certain licentious writer, Armand Sylvestre, promised his mother when she was dying to say a Hail Mary every day. He kept his promise. Out of the swamp in which he lived, he daily lifted up to God this one little flower. Pneumonia brought him to the hospital, served by religious, who said to him: “Do you wish a priest?” “Certainly,” he answered. And he received absolution, probably with sufficient attrition [imperfect contrition], through a special grace obtained for him by the Blessed Mother, though we can hardly doubt he underwent a long and heavy Purgatory.
Another French writer, Adolphe Rette, shortly after his conversion, which was sincere and profound, was struck by a sentence he read in the visitors’ book of the Carmelite Convent: “Pray for those who will die during the Mass at which you are going to assist.” He did so. Some days later he fell grievously ill, and was confined to bed in the hospital at Beaune, for many years, up to his death. Each morning he offered all his sufferings for those who would die during the day. Thus he obtained many deathbed conversions. We shall see in Heaven how many conversions there are in the world, owing to such prayers.
In the life of St. Catherine of Siena we read of the conversion of two great criminals. The Saint had gone to visit one of her friends. As they heard, in the street below, a loud noise, her friend looked through the window. Two condemned men were being led to execution. Their jailers were tormenting them with nails heated red-hot, while the condemned men blasphemed and cried. St. Catherine, inside the house, fell to prayer, with her arms extended in the form of a cross. At once the wicked men ceased to blaspheme and asked for a confessor. People in the street could not understand this sudden change. They did not know that a nearby Saint had obtained this double conversion.
Several years ago the chaplain in a prison in Nancy had the reputation of converting all criminals whom he had accompanied to the guillotine. On one occasion he found himself alone, shut up with an assassin who refused to go to Confession before death. The cart, with the condemned man, passed before the sanctuary of Our Lady of Refuge. The old chaplain prayed: “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who had recourse to thy intercession was abandoned. Convert this criminal of mine: otherwise I will say that it has been heard that you have not heard.” At once the criminal was converted.
Return to God is always possible, up to the time of death, but it becomes more and more difficult as hard-heartedness grows. Let us not put off our conversion. Let us say every day a Hail Mary for the grace of a happy death.
This beautiful passage is, I think, instructive in many ways.
1) Please note how fast the conversion process can be. The episode mentioned by the Cure d’Ars recalls another one in the life of Padre Pio, with the great saint assuring a mother that her son has repented and asked the Blessed Virgin for forgiveness after throwing himself from a bridge.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that such a conversion should be assumed, as it is the scandalous praxis of too many priests nowadays. To do so means to play down the extreme gravity of suicide, and to indirectly cause further ones.
2) Please also note Father Garrigou-Lagranges insistence on these being extreme cases, with the sailor who didn’t even know the Hail mary of Our Father being, in my eyes, the most striking. Powerful, consoling stuff.
3) Particularly notable, please note how strongly the prayer of third parties can, with Mary’s assistance, move the sinner to repentance. The cases of St. Catharine of Siena and of the Nancy chaplain are in my eyes – and someone please correct me if I am wrong – to be interpreted not in the sense that conversion will impose itself on the sinner against his will, but that the prompting to conversion can, through heavenly intervention, become strong enough to reach, together with the collaboration of the sinner, the desired result.
I liked the chuzpah of the chaplain, though….
4) You see here a typical example of what I am tempted to call “South European Catholicism”, to distinguish it from the rigid, protestantised attitude tinged with Puritanism I happen to see in the northern part of the Continent. Once again, we see an approach that whilst doesn’t play down the gravity of the sin, points out to the relative ease with which the direst consequences can be avoided and allows the faithful to live his faith with confidence – the typical attitude in Catholic countries – rather than with fear. I can’t avoid thinking that this confidence is the single most important reason why traditional Catholic countries have – collectively speaking – that striking joy of life that I, alas, never noticed in the north.
5) These examples taken together point out to the absolutely vital necessity of daily prayer. Prayer is what gives us the best cards in our hope to be given final perseverance, and the same Blessed Virgin who helped the sinning sailor just for uncovering his head will very probably take care in her mercy of those who pray to her daily and daily ask her to pray for them in the hour of their death.
As a corollary to this, the great importance of the practice of praying the Rosary and the extremely powerful promises attached to it can never be stressed strongly enough.
I do hope that this little gem of Father Garrigou-Lagrange’s wisdom will help the one or other among the readers; particularly if – as I suppose must happen not infrequently in those parts of Europe, still polluted by Puritan influences – they tend to labour under scrupulosity.
And so there is this chauffeur having to drive me home from the airport. The chap has serious problems with the language of Shakespeare (and no, I may be a foreigner but I have no big problems with it) and therefore the conversation is very, very restrained.
Still, once in his car several objects attract the passenger’s attention:
a) a strange Hindu deity in the form of an elephant (have heard of him; forgive me but I can’t be bothered to look for the name now);
b) what seems to be a small medal of the Blessed Virgin, and
c) a cross hangling from the rear view mirror that at closer inspection appears to be, in fact, a small crucifix.
Under normal circumstances I’d have politely enquired as to the religious persuasion of the man and, if the opportunity had arisen, I’d have started with my little “sales pitch”. The circumstances being what they were I – exceptionally – decided to just shut up.
This forced me to think, and there were only two possibilities coming to mind:
1) chap is a bit of a “belt and braces” type and, whilst still superstitious, decides to enlarge his small pantheon to Christian characters, in order to hedge his bets.
2) chap is slowly coming to see the truth of Christianity and whilst he can’t still get rid of cherished figures that have accompanied him all his life, he has got the Christian message all right.
As I have said, I’ll probably never know the truth. Still, it was very interesting for me to remark that the brand of Christianity either embraced or “hedged” by the chap was very clearly Catholicism (this in a country with at least six Anglicans for every Catholic). Be it as it may, I couldn’t avoid playing with the idea that, in that chauffeur car, the Holy Ghost was silently but constantly at work.
A Hail Mary for the chap is certainly in order and let us hope that one day he will – if he hasn’t done it already – come to see the strange elephant only as a souvenir of his childhood.
I never cease to be amazed at that particular form of human stupidity expressing itself in people insisting that things be the contrary of what they are. Say, I am buddhist and I’d like to think that Jesus was Buddhist, therefore I persuade myself that Jesus was Buddhist.
The problem with that is that one can’t believe one thing and ts contrary. Unless he is outright stupid or deluded to the point of stupidity, of course. If you believe in Jesus you can’t believe that he was Buddhist and if you think that Jesus was Buddhist you don’t believe in Jesus, you believe in a self-made religion to which you conveniently attach what you and many other like in an attempt to make it credible.
The same happens here. You can’t believe that you are a Catholic and that Catholicism is wrong on doctrinal issues. You really can’t. It’s a contradiction in terms. Besides indicating the belonging to a group, being Catholic has a meaning, it signifies something. It is logically impossible to claim to belong to this group and at the same time to negate what the belonging means. You can’t say that you are an “Atheist for Allah”, because being an Atheist implies that you do not believe in any Allah and every claim of doing so lets one sink into total ridicule.
This is so unbelievably banal that it shouldn’t be necessary to explain this at all, not even to a chid. No child claims to be, say, a boy but also a girl because he knows that if you are a boy, you obviously can’t be a girl.
This wisdom is accessible to every five-years-old child, but is apparently beyond the grasp of a group calling itself, wait for this, “Catholics for Choice”.
As the Motley Monk blog reports, not only such an organisation exists (I am tempted now to google in order to see whether the “Atheists for Allah” also exist, seriously…), but it even has a “President”. This chap has – in a moment of boredom or drukenness or, more probably, in a desperate attempt to make himself important – released a statement about Bishop Olmsted’s decision to deprive a group of medical structures to call itself “Catholic” and about which I have already reported.
The statement, available in full on the above mentioned blog, is hilarious. I mean not hilarious for me, but hilarious for every five-years-old who has been properly instructed about what “Catholicism” is. The statement reeks of those home-made religions that aromatherapy-addicted old aunts invent after a longish sojourn in Thailand and reminds rather of the immortal Monthy Phyton sketch about the man who “wants to be a woman” .
Here the sublime humour of Monthy Phyton is not even approached, but a good effort is made when the “individual conscience” is presented – by people who call themselves “Catholic” – as the decisive criterium of what is good.
Also nice is that, very much in line with “liberal” thinking, the good conscience of the one who defends elementary Catholic values is put into question. Basically what the chap says is: “we go against the Teaching of the Church but we are in good conscience, so we are fine; you defend them, therefore are probably in bad faith”. Classic.
The substitution of praxis with Catholic value is also very funny: a lot of Catholics recur to abortion, therefore abortion is in line with Catholicism. I’d like to know the chap’s opinion about fornication, adultery, drunkenness, gluttony, & Co. No wait, better not…..
Enjoy the statement and add, if you can, a Hail Mary for the poor deluded chap who is in serious need of them.