The Catholic guide for dying well

The “Ars Moriendi” (Art of Dying), written at the end of the Middle Ages, is always there to help us during the most important period of life.

In the Catholic tradition, the month of November is dedicated to prayer for the dead. It is also the end of the liturgical year; a time when the Church meditates on “final things” and looks with hope to what is to come. All of this is reflected in the scripture readings and Mass prayers leading up to Advent.

So now is a great time to reflect on death and dying, especially your own. Are you ready for death? Do you know how to help a loved one when they are approaching their own death?

If you are unsure of how to answer these questions, you can get a copy of The art of dying. Traditionally known in Latin as “Ars Moriendi»Is a text that originated in the 15th century when the bubonic plague ravaged Europe and people were largely cut off from priests and sacraments. (Does this sound a little familiar to you?)

The Church wanted to provide pastoral help to the faithful, which is why she commissioned, printed and widely distributed a text entitled the Ars Moriendi. There were two versions – first a longer one, then a shorter one. Each contained reflections, meditations, and instructions for Catholics on how to die well and help others approach death.

A new annotated English translation has just been completed by Brother Columba Thomas, OP, MD, published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center. The little book with the English title The art of dying includes a history of how the Ars Moriendi emerged and how we can apply it to our lives today. The book, with reproductions of the original medieval prints, contains reflections, teachings, and various types of prayers to help the dying as they prepare to enter eternal life.

This new translation is timely. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to face our own mortality in ways we have never had before. Some of us have not only experienced the disease ourselves, but we have also witnessed the serious illness and death of loved ones and acquaintances. And a pandemic aside, disability and death always come to us through illness, accidents, old age, and various other pathways.

While death and dying is not something most of us like to think about, it is one of the most important times in our lives – a time that can be rich in meaning, grace, reconciliation and love. The end of life is not just a time to face complex health care decisions, but to ensure that our souls are ready for the final leg of our journey to the Father’s house. The art of dying is a manual to help us do that.