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June 6, 2004

Pray for the Dead

by Thomas A. Droleskey

The fortieth President of the United States of America, Ronald Wilson Reagan, has died at the age of ninety-three years in California after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for the last ten years. As is the case with any other individual, we have the obligation to pray for the repose of his immortal soul. The Catholic Faith teaches us to pray for the dead, never presuming the state of a person's soul until and unless the Church declares a particular person to be a saint and is thus in Heaven as part of the Church Triumphant. Although many will rush to canonize the late Mr. Reagan, we know that we have the duty both in charity and in justice to pray for his soul--and to pray for the conversion of his family members to the Catholic Faith before they die.

A full review of Ronald Reagan's public life is inappropriate at this time. I have offered commentaries in past few months on the nature of the late president's efforts to conditionally oppose abortion during his term in the White House. Those commentaries will be revisited after a decent interval has passed following the burial of his mortal remains. I will say at this juncture, however, that while his efforts were principally rhetorical and that he could have done far more in terms of substantive policy than he actually did, the fact that he at least spoke about abortion at all publicly elevated the issue to a position of national prominence that it did not have during the 1970s during the administrations of his three immediate predecessors (Richard Milhous Nixon, Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr., James Earl Carter, Jr.).

For the present moment, though, I want to offer a few words about the nature of President Reagan's death. Although it is possible that some Catholic priest was permitted by his widow, Mrs. Nancy Reagan, to administer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction to him before he died, it is probably the case that Mr. Reagan, who was baptized a Catholic but brought up a Presbyterian by his mother, Nelle, died without the sacraments. This is always a tragedy. The only sure path to a happy and holy death is receive the Sacrament of Extreme Unction and to receive Holy Communion as a final viaticum before death. It is sad when anyone dies without such benefits. Mind you, judgment alone belongs to God, which is why we offer our prayers for the repose of a dead person's soul. No prayer is ever wasted. It is thus important to have Masses said for the repose of the soul of a baptized Catholic, Ronald Wilson Reagan. It is nevertheless sad that Mr. Reagan did not practice the Faith of his baptism and might have died without the benefit of the sacraments.

President Reagan's death, therefore, provides us with a salutary lesson: never be slow to make all possible efforts to bring back into the true Church a relative who has fallen away from the practice of the true Faith. We do not know how long any of us has to live. President Reagan was given the gift of many years. It is perhaps possible that at least some of his very many Catholic friends and associates tried to bring him back into the Church after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994. It is vital, however, that we make such efforts with our own relatives as even a young person could be killed in an automobile accident or in some other unexpected tragedy without even a moment's notice. And lest anyone think that I am simply preaching to others, suffice it to say that I have blood relatives, both middle-aged and quite elderly, who have left the true Church and have resisted all efforts to bring them back into the true Sheepfold of Christ. I have to ask myself if I have done enough to bring back these relatives into the Church. Have I prayed enough? Have I fasted and sacrificed enough? Have I said enough? Thus, the death of President Ronald Reagan should give each of us pause to reflect on our own duties to bring back those who have strayed before they die.

One of the best things we can do is to send a priest to a fallen away Catholic. Most of us have "baggage" with our relatives. Our words and our efforts are dismissed, partly because our relatives use our faults and failings against us. How can the Faith be true, they rationalize to themselves, when we have given them such bad examples? We must therefore pray that someone, preferably a traditionally minded priest, who does not have the "baggage" with our relatives that we do, will be able to at least open up a channel of communication that can lead to their reception back into Holy Mother Church. We can never presume our own salvation, which is one of the principal heresies of Protestantism. We can never presume the salvation of others, which is why we have a very special duty as a matter both of justice and charity to lead the fallen away back into the true Sheepfold outside of which there is no salvation.

Prayers thus must be offered at this time for President Reagan's soul and for the conversion of his non-Catholic family members to the true Faith. We must be reminded of our need to offer prayers and to have Masses said for all of our own dead relatives, no matter how long it has been since they may have died. Our Lady will direct the fruit of our prayers to some other deserving souls if our relatives have no need of our prayers (either because they are in Heaven or in Hell). There are many anonymous souls in the Church Suffering in Purgatory who have no one to pray for them. Our prayers and the Masses we have said for our own dead relatives will assist also the suffering souls in Purgatory who have no one to remember them by name.

Death is one of the four Last Things we are supposed to meditate upon before we sleep and after we have made our Nightly Examination of Conscience. Judgment, Heaven, and Hell are the three other Last Things upon which we must meditate every single night. Death is going to come to us all. We may be able to prepare for it. We may be taken suddenly. We must always know that it is a certainty and that we will have to face the sobering moment of our Particular Judgment, a reality from which there will be no escaping and no rationalizing away of anything we have ever said or done that has not been absolved by an alter Christus in the Sacrament of Penance. We will see ourselves for the first time as God sees us. We will either be the unmerited beneficiaries of His ineffable Mercy or we will know the sentence of eternal damnation that we brought upon ourselves by refusing to seek out His absolution on earth in the hospital of Divine Mercy that is the confessional. Oh, yes. Death should be a reality upon which we meditate every evening; it should be uppermost as a possibility as we go through the course of our daily lives.

Using the occasion of the death of President Ronald Reagan to thank God for the gift of the Catholic Faith we received in baptism, we pray to Our Lady, she who is Mater Misericordiae, to help each of us live in such a way so as to die a holy, happy and provided for death as members of the Catholic Faith, consecrated to her Immaculate Heart, demonstrating our fealty to her by wearing the Brown Scapular and the Miraculous Medal.

Eternal rest grant unto Ronald Reagan, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul--and all of the souls of the faithful departed--rest in peace. Amen.


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