Archbishop's Message

DEATH: PASSAGE TO FULLNESS OF LOVE

Much as our survival instinct makes us militate against death, we know that one day we have to die and leave this world. The one undeniable reality of our life is death and none can escape it whether we are rich or poor, high or low. The saying is absolutely true that ‘death is the universal leveler’ and if we have wisdom enough to open our eyes and realize this truth we would definitely seek to live our lives every day in a manner more in conformity to the values of the Kingdom of God as laid out in the Gospel of Our Jesus Christ rather than those of the ‘world’ which lead to eternal damnation. The Lord has spoken of the ‘narrow gate’ and the ‘hard way’ that leads to life and the ‘wide gate ’and the ‘easy way’ that leads to destruction (cf. Mt. 7: 13-14). In other words our life here on earth should be lived in such wise that we lay up for ourselves “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Mt. 6:20). Therefore our heart has to be constantly focused on this eternal treasure i.e. the Kingdom of God, rather than on the ephemeral and insecure treasures of this world which deceive us. In his temptations during the forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert Our Lord has demonstrated beyond doubt that the devil is in control of the earthly treasures and makes every effort to trap human beings with the lure of pleasures, wealth, power and popularity, in other words the worship of our ego. And more often than not we fall prey to his temptations. The defeat of the devil which began in the desert was culminated by the Lord on the cross when he said “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30) and bowing his head commended his spirit to the Father. The Resurrection of Jesus reveals the glory that awaits us when we remain faithful to our Risen Lord on this earth and readily take up our cross and follow him in discipleship as he has declared to us without mincing words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Lk. 9: 23-24).
There is no doubt self-denial is the door to eternal life and not self-fulfillment. This truth is summed in that one commandment of the Lord: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12) which goes along with the call to ‘abide in him’ and ‘abide in his love’. Hence what makes life meaningful on this earth is to strive to live the mystery of God’s love which Christ has opened for us and taste already here and now, as in the Apostles’ experience of the Transfiguration, the glory of the Resurrection which is our true destiny.
In the calendar of the Church, the month of November begins with the commemoration of All Saints but immediately followed by the remembrance of All the Dead – to help us to keep before our eyes both the truth of eternal life and the inescapability of death.
With Covid-19 killing people in millions globally the year 2020 seems to have been a ‘year of death’; but in our Christian faith we have approached the tragedy with the courage that comes from the Holy Spirit and in his power we have succeeded in turning this evil into a moment of Christian witness to love and hope. We join St. Paul in exclaiming: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1Cor.15:55).
In our own Archdiocese of Delhi we have faced the death of three of our priests – Fr. Joseph Thomas (March 20), Fr. Augustine Kuriapilly (August 30) and Fr. Cirilo Rodrigues (September 7). Some of us have lost our loved ones and there have been deaths even due to Covid-19 complications. Any death anywhere leaves us with a deep sense of sadness, loss and pain but the death of our loved ones and those we have been closely associated with leaves behind a painful sense of ‘emptiness’. Yet we know, by placing our trust in the One who is the Resurrection and the Life we are victorious over our sadness.
Death is an enemy to those whose eyes are set on building a secure life for themselves on this earth alone like the ‘Rich Fool’ (cf. Lk. 12:13-21). St. Paul warns us: “For many of whom I have already told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:18-19). They are afraid of death. But if life is accepted as God’s gift to be made fruitful in love, then death will be the culmination of life’s journey, of life’s self-offering. Like St. Francis of Assisi who called death ‘sister death’ we will not be afraid of death. Again we listen to the voice of St. Paul: “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (Rom. 14:8-9).
The Church exhorts us to be always alert and joyful to receive the Lord whenever he comes, with a joyful cry of welcome “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). The only question the Lord will ask is, ‘Do you love me and do you also love my sisters and brothers, especially those most in need’ (cf. the parable of the Last Judgement in Mt. 25:31-46).
The late Vietnamese Archbishop Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, now on the path to beatification, writes in his book, Testimony of Hope (Pauline Publications, 2001): “Death is the most serious matter in life. Among all of life’s trials, it is the greatest. It is definitive. Death is the culmination of our life, the last offering that we can give to God here on earth. But we can be sure that in that hour we will be assisted, like Joseph, by Jesus and Mary” (pp. 206-207). Then he goes on to state: “Like Jesus, we must live for our own ‘hour’. Each of us has an ‘hour’, and it is good to live in expectation of it and to offer it now for the purposes God has entrusted to us, even if we are in the full vigor of physical strength” (p. 207). In his characteristic humour he says that Jesus is not a good teacher because he has already revealed to us the ‘questions’ he will ask at the ‘final exam’. He has not only leaked the questions but he has completely simplified the entire question paper into one simple question “Love God and your neighbour”. And he ends his reflection with this prayer: “Jesus, you are our teacher, our judge, our reward! I have no more fear of being judged, but I ardently desire to meet my judge who is so good, generous, and merciful”.
Another great spiritual author, the late Fr. Henri Nouwen, calls death ‘passage to fullness of love’. In his book Finding My Way Home: Pathways to Life and the Spirit (St. Paul’s, 2002) he narrates the near-death experience he had after a car accident (pp. 99-125) and how, for the first time in his life, he began to contemplate death “not through the eyes of fear but through the eyes of love”; “Somehow, if only for a moment, I had known God, felt unconditionally loved, and I had experienced being a lover”(p. 99). That experience was a turning point in his life. He realized the uselessness of carrying ‘hurts’, ‘unforgiveness’ , ‘hatred’, ‘anger’ and ‘resentment’ in his heart. He had to forgive and ask for forgiveness before his death (cf. Sirach 27:30 - 28:7 – the first reading of 24th Sunday of the Year A).
Against the prevailing attitudes to death which are mostly concerned with the tension of ‘being cared for by others in old age and sickness’ and the focus on the ‘hereafter’ (purgatory, heaven, hell) he learnt to see death ‘through the eyes of Jesus’. For Jesus death was not an ending “but a passage to something much greater” (p. 102). He spoke of his death as ‘necessary’ so that he could send us his Spirit, the Paraclete, the Counsellor who will reveal to us the meaning of all that he has taught us, thereby enabling us to form a community and grow in spiritual strength that flows from a relationship with the Risen Lord that was not possible before his death.
This leads us to the question, ‘Who is Jesus’, and we get the response, ‘the Beloved One of the Father’. But this affirmation is not just about Jesus; it about each one of us with whom Jesus shares his identity in baptism. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters because we “belong to God from all eternity” (p. 105); our belovedness preceded our birth. If we dare believe that we are ‘beloved’ before we are born, we may suddenly realize that our life is very very special:
“You become conscious that you were sent here just for a short time, for twenty, forty, or eighty years, to discover and believe that you are beloved child of God. The length of time doesn’t matter. You are sent into this world to believe in yourself as God’s chosen one and then to help your brothers and sisters know that they also are beloved sons and daughters of God who belong together. You’re sent into this world to be a people of reconciliation. You are sent to heal, to break down the walls between you and your neighbours, locally, nationally, and globally. Before all the distinctions, the separations, and the walls built on foundations of fear, there was unity in the mind and heart of God. Out of that unity, you are sent into this world for a little while to claim that you and every other human being belongs to that same God of love who lives from eternity to eternity” (p. 106).
This is the secret Henri Nouwen learnt in his death experience. From then on he set on the path of affirming the chosenness, belovedness and blessedness of others and to make the failures and losses in his life not a passage to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment but passages to something new, wider and deeper. In our belovedness as God’s children we are called to grow in love as spouse, parent, brother or sister and when the time comes for us to leave this world to attain full communion with God it is possible for us to leave behind our spirit as the greatest gift to those we love. Thus we will make our life abundantly fruitful through our ‘leaving’, just as Jesus made it so through his death-resurrection and the outpouring of his Spirit on the Church.
“This brief lifetime is my opportunity to receive love, deepen love, grow in love, and give love. When I die love continues to be active, and from full communion with God I am present by love to those I leave behind” (p. 114).
There will not be anymore fear of death, rather we will befriend death because love transforms our death or another’s from nightmare to gift, and love is stronger than death.
May the commemoration of all the dead on November 2 and especially of our loved ones bring to our awareness that our life has to become a journey of love and our death a passage to fullness of love.


Yours sincerely in the Lord,
+ Anil J. T. Couto
  Archbishop of Delhi