Pope Francis: You’re Gonna Die
In a Catholic world where many churches have replaced the crucifix with a cross, it’s rare for personal spirituality and prayer to focus on death. We live our lives in the present and hope our future will be in heaven. However, Pope Francis reminded us in a homily on Thursday that we must not forget that death “is a fact that affects everyone”. Pondering this reality allows us to make better choices in our lives: “When I die, what would I like to have done in this decision that I must make today, in my way of living today? It is an anticipated memory that illuminates the “moment” of today, illuminating with the fact of death the decisions that I must make every day.”
This past Sunday’s first reading again reminded us of our mortality. Job, in a lament of despair. exclaims, “Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good.” Mindful that the Lord comes like a thief in the night, our Christian forefathers prepared themselves for eternal life by keeping death ever before them. For the earliest Christians, it was impossible to escape the dangers surrounding them. Fleeing persecution from a continuous stream of emperors, Christians in Rome were forced underground. In order to worship as a community, many retreated to the Catacombs and out of ear-shot of the authorities.
Praying amongst the remains of the earliest martyrs, the persecuted Church found strength and courage from the witness of those who accepted death rather than renounce the Truth of Jesus. Within the Crypt of the Popes, a slab covering the tomb of St. Pope Pontian was discovered In 1909. Ancient manuscripts document that Pope Fabian had ordered the bodies of both Pope Pontian and Pope Hippolytus brought back to Rome in 236 or 237 AD. When archaeologists discovered the slab covering St. Pontian’s tomb, it was inscribed with the Ποντιανός Επίσκ (Pontianus Episk; in English Pontianus Bish – Pontanus Bishop). Of utmost importance to the early Christian community was not only that Pontian had been the Bishop of Rome, but also that he died a martyr. Inscribed in another hand was Μάρτυρ”, “MARTUR”. In death, Pope Pontian provided Christians a witness that one must renounce this life to claim the next: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
Just as emotionally impacting as the catacombs are the few mortuary crypts scattered throughout Europe. During World Youth Day in 2005, I visited the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, Germany. While kneeling and praying, I heard an American group enter, led by a guide. Overhearing him explain that he had made special arrangements for the pilgrims to enter a chapel which is not ordinarily open to the public, I ever-so-casually mingled into the group. Entering the chapel, I was overwhelmed by a site unlike any other I had previously witnessed. Lining the walls was an arrangement of thousands of bones taken from an early Roman cemetery. Christian tradition claims that the Basilica is built upon the ground under which was buried the 11,000 virgins associated with Saint Ursula.
While chapels like that of St. Ursula are rare in Christendom, I surprisingly visited an even more dramatic crypt in Rome a few years later. The cripta dei cappuccini, Capuchin Crypt, contains the remains of 3,700 monks who died between 1528 and 1870. Wikipedia explains that “as monks died during the lifetime of the crypt, the longest-buried monk was exhumed to make room for the newly deceased who was buried without a coffin, and the newly reclaimed bones were added to the decorative motifs.” One might initially conclude that the Capuchin crypt manifests a morbid fascination with death. However, the friars hoped that contemplating death would inspire them to lead holy lives directed solely towards God. Thus, they inscribed above the entrance to the crypt the following phrase: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”
Such sights grasp at the fringes of modern sensibility, but we must not forget that we are creatures of both time and culture. While the contemporary onlooker will struggle to look past the macabre nature of these shrines, they would have led the medieval visitor to reflect deeply on the transience of life and the infinite love of God which is the only path to eternal life.
In the book “Preparation for Death”, St. Alphonsus Liguori encapsulates the medieval understanding of the beauty discoverable in death:
As Pope Francis reminds us, Jesus accepted death to save those “who were dead in the slavery of sin”. His love “shattered the yoke of death and opened to us the doors of life.” “By virtue of this divine bond of Christ’s charity, we know that our fellowship with the dead is not merely a desire or an illusion, but a reality.”