One of the greatest graces offered by the Church is the plenary indulgence “in articulo mortis” – at the point of death. There are two ways of obtaining it. It is very important that we are aware of them, make the proper intentions now, and renew those intentions from time to time so that we can be properly disposed to receive this great gift at the moment when the Lord calls us from this life.
First, here are the details of the indulgence:
A plenary indulgence is available to the members of the faithful who receive the Apostolic Pardon from a priest near the point of death. If a priest is unavailable, Holy Mother Church benevolently grants to the Christian faithful who are duly disposed (i.e. in a state of grace), a plenary indulgence to be acquired at the point of death, provided they have been in the habit of reciting some prayers during their lifetime; in such a case, the Church supplies for the three conditions ordinarily required for a plenary indulgence. (This means that if the person cannot fulfill the usual conditions personally, the Church dispenses from that requirement.)
What does this mean, concretely?
It means that you should make the intention now to obtain this indulgence. “I intend to receive the plenary indulgence at the point of death and humbly beg you, Lord, to help me to be prepared for that moment.”
It also means that you should form good habits of prayer if you haven’t already. Part of being properly disposed to meet God face-to-face is to be sorry for your sins and make regular and good use of the Sacrament of Confession. Part of that is to know a good act of contrition and to recite it often, if not daily.
It also means – and this is exceedingly important – that you should prepare your family and friends accordingly so that, as your time approaches, they will be sure to call a priest to come and administer to you the last sacraments; if possible, before you lose consciousness. You have my permission to put the fear of God in your children, grandchildren, and anyone else who will listen about this – charitably, of course! It is something that I would repeat at regular intervals, as well, since in the difficult moments when a loved one is seriously ill and dying, it is easy for people to forget certain details.
Still, if in the unfortunate event that, for whatever reason, a priest is not able to administer the last sacraments to you before you die, you will be covered by the fact that the Church grants this indulgence even when a priest cannot be there to those who have prepared themselves properly.
In this regard, it is important that we all pray for a good death. A “good” death, in the language of our faith, means that one dies in the state of grace (i.e. with no unforgiven mortal sins on their soul), having received the sacraments of the Church. It does not mean that we have a painless death or any other death scenario that we might prefer (passing in one’s sleep…) over what God’s will might be for us.
This prayer is very good, and was previously enriched with a special indulgence by Pope Saint Pius X:
O Lord my God, I now, at this moment, readily and willingly accept at thy hand whatever kind of death it may please thee to send me, with all its pains, penalties, and sorrows. Amen.
It’s not that easy to say, is it? Maybe not. But if you start praying for this intention regularly you will find that more and more you become resigned to accepting whatever God’s will is for you in this regard. What God wants is always best.
St. Joseph is the patron saint of a good death, and here is a traditional prayer to him for that intention:
O Glorious St. Joseph, behold I choose you today for my special patron in life and at the hour of my death. Preserve and increase in me the spirit of prayer and fervor in the service of God. Remove far from me every kind of sin; obtain for me that my death may not come upon me unawares, but that I may have time to confess my sins sacramentally and to bewail them with a most perfect understanding and a most sincere and perfect contrition, in order that I may breathe forth my soul into the hands of Jesus and Mary. Amen.
And a good, short prayer that we could memorize and say often – traditionally known as an “aspiration” – is:
From a sudden and unprovided death, deliver us, O Lord.
Whatever prayers we might say, I cannot stress enough the importance of facing whatever fears we might have concerning death and preparing ourselves accordingly so that our Christian life in this world will not have been in vain.