By Lourdes R. Policarpio
I am 60 years old! I turned 60 last January and did something incredibly alien to my nature: I gathered the young people I have handled in the parish church for 30 years and threw a party! The celebration also marked the 30th year of our church apostolate (the Archconfraternity of Mary Help of Christians in BF Homes, Parañaque) and the 20th anniversary of this magazine (which started out as a mimeographed newsletter for internal dissemination, but that’s another story).
Amidst all the laughter and music, I think I failed to convey one point which I wanted to impart to my young wards. While I am still healthy and energetic in the service to the Lord, 60 is really a turning point in one’s life. It is a time when one faces the sunset and the twilight years; a time for gray hairs, weakening of the knees, and wrinkles on one’s skin. It is time to face bravely what we all don’t like to be reminded of – suffering and death. Yes, I too, will be gone one day.
My spiritual journey has been long and difficult. In my college years, I forgot all about God. While I studied music as a secondary course in a Catholic school, the influence of liberal-minded schoolmates and teachers in the University of the Philippines was much stronger. I married a God-fearing and honest man, but our Sunday Masses must not have been enough for God. My wake-up call came when my daughter, at one year and two months, got afflicted with an incurable brain ailment.
This kind of situation wherein you are helpless, despite the advances of science, brings you down to your knees crying out to the Lord. And relief did not come easy for me. It took years and years of suffering and praying until my daughter walked the road to recovery. (Part of her story is in Fr. Fidel Villarroel’s book on San Lorenzo Ruiz, our first Filipino saint.)
One irony of this was that, while the burden of caring for my daughter eased, the time left free for me went to our church apostolate. I realized that what God wanted was not simply for my daughter to get well, leaving me free to go back to my old carefree life. God wanted more – He wanted me to serve Him in ways He would reveal gradually.
In 1986, when we started the ARCHCON in our parish, the parish priest told me, “That organization seems anachronistic considering the times.” He considered as too old-fashioned for young people the ideals of “devotion-imitation-action” for the Blessed Mother. (Imagine thinking that at that time – 1986! How much more anachronistic would the ARCHCON be now??)
Thirty years hence, as I look deeper into the world, I realize how vastly different things have become. There has been a decline in morals, especially among the youth. And yet, I have resolved to continue working – even if I have only a handful of young people left. We have to keep the torch burning!
Despite the difficulties, God has rewarded me with an apostolate which is so fulfilling. As a church musician, I have discovered that the music simply soothes and uplifts the spirit. Working with the young also makes you feel like them: “forever young”.
Our house here in Manila faces the east. We wake up to the sunrise goading us to action. By a twist of fate, we bought a lot and built a retirement house in a place which has a most beautiful sunset facing the beach. Thus, in the late afternoons, while I gaze at the sunset, I am almost invariably led to thinking of the remaining tasks I have to do and of my own inevitable demise.
When I was in my mid-twenties, my American boss (who then was about to retire) asked me what I would do in my retirement years. I quickly answered, “Oh, I will write my memoirs.” He jokingly replied, “You better have something to write about.” Now, as my mind races back and forth through the years, I smile as I realize I have much to write about (including perhaps the untold story behind the canonization of our first Filipino saint).
In our quiet moments, we dream of certain milestones in our life. For a woman, it could be meeting and getting married to Mr. Right. For a man, maybe owning his first car? But does one ever dream of a happy death? Weird, some might say. Or, that’s only for saints! I have two books of Fr. Larry Tan, SDB which deal on death: “Coming Home” and “Homebound: Preparation for Death”. When you read it, you will realize that preparing for death – including the tasks pertaining to material things like one’s Last Will and Testament – takes years. It is something that cannot be done in a month or even a year. This is the reason why an illness like cancer (or something similar that does not kill you outright) can be a blessing because it gives you time to prepare.
I doubt if the average person plans for death in an organized manner. Well, the saints would say that all our life is a preparation for death. Every day should be lived in such a way that if the Creator were to take our life suddenly, we would be ready to fly and soar high towards Him.
That is, of course, easier said than done. I know a few spiritual things but this is all “in theory”. When the dreaded moment comes that the doctor tells you one part of your body is grievously afflicted, you offer your sickness to the Lord. You embrace things with courage and faith. You pray more, even incessantly, when your dying moment comes since the devils lurk around and make a desperate effort to snatch your soul away. In your final moments, you should be in “spiritual combat gear”: received the Anointing of the Sick and Holy Communion; your sacramentals like the Scapular, a St. Benedict’s Medal or Agonizing Crucifix beside you; a bottle of holy water sprinkled on you now and then; and your family gathered around praying the Rosary and Chaplet of Divine Mercy. And, as a fitting climax, you die with the names of Jesus and Mary on your lips, at least during your last conscious moments.
Well, that is how we would like it to be! But there are many factors we do not know of as yet: Will it be a long-drawn-out illness, or a fatal accident? Will my reservoir of faith be deep enough to give me (and my soul) the courage to battle one (or a thousand?!) demons? Regardless of these uncertain variables, we have to prepare because I believe a person’s last moments are a battleground. They constitute our “last two minutes,” our big hurdle to win what St. Paul calls “the race”.
Keeping in mind the primacy of the Holy Mass and the Eucharist, we Catholics can choose from a myriad of devotions for our private prayer life. We have, for example, the various novenas to the saints. For the sick and dying, it is best to have a devotion to St. Joseph. He died a most enviable death for he expired in the arms of Jesus and Mary.
I have my own “secret”. (Well, it is not really a “secret” since it is always splashed on the cover of this magazine – TotusTuus, Maria!). This has been bolstered by a conversation between two saints which I had read in the memoirs of one of them, St. John Bosco (founder of the ARCHCON).
St. Dominic Savio, the patron of altar boys, was a pupil of Don Bosco but he died young, well ahead of his mentor. One night, Don Bosco dreamt of his pupil. The teacher asked his student, “…what comforted you the most at the moment of your death?” The tea
Death of Saint Joseph by Alonso Cano (Hermitage Museum) cher asked if Dominic’s consolation lay in the following things: the virtue of purity which Dominic was known for, his conscience at peace, the hope of paradise, or the treasure of good deeds the young boy had stored up in his short life. “No, no!” Dominic answered. Don Bosco, puzzled, pleaded with him to reveal this. Dominic gave a piece of advice which is best heeded by us all, not only by his Salesian family: “The one thing that consoled me most at the hour of my death was the assistance of the mighty and lovely Mother of the Savior. Tell your sons never to forget to pray to her as long as they live.”
When we contemplate our own suffering and death, I suppose it is best to end things pondering what Heaven is like. This should give us strength and remind us that following the Sorrowful Mysteries are the Glorious Mysteries; following the Cross of Christ is His glorious Resurrection; following Lent is Easter.
I remember a prayer of St. (Padre) Pio which is most fitting for people aged 50 years and above. Let me quote a portion:
Stay with me, Jesus, for it is getting late and the day is coming to a close. Life passes, death, judgment, eternity approach. It is necessary to renew my strength so that I will not stop along the way, and for that, I need You. It is getting late and death approaches. I fear the darkness, the temptations, the dryness, the cross, the sorrows. O how I need my Jesus in this night of exile.
If even the stigmatist Padre Pio, that spiritual giant of his times, had his moments of weakness and fear, how much more we?
As I face the sunset every time I am in our vacation spot for moments of rest, I should really bear in mind Padre Pio’s prayer. I realize that in my own last moments, I may not get to recite it fully. But I have my own little scenario in mind. Many evenings for the past twenty to thirty years, I have stayed in my little spot in the church playing the organ. There is that last line in the song, “Mother of Christ” which ends the Novena to Mother of Perpetual Help. Every time, I play those lines, my heart swells with emotion. I hope one of the girls and boys I have taught to sing will be able to sing it when my time comes: “When the voyage is o’er, O stand in the shore, and show Him at last to me”.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
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