Why is Death the only Divine mystery in front of which all scepticisms fail?
Even now, in front of me a person dies.
It's incredible how this mystery is so common in our everyday lives. Every few seconds, a new life enters the world, but at the same time, another life ends. The Earth is like an enormous room filled with candles, of which we are the flames. Some of us light up, some of us die out, and the rest of us flicker and flare dangerously under the cold wind of illness before regaining strength. In the same way, another flame dies today in front of my very eyes.
I’m walking through the alleys in the centre of Rome, performing errands I have to fulfill before returning to my job. I am a forty-year-old man, subject to one of the heaviest duties in the world, priesthood.
Today, I must say mass at a funeral. Or rather, at a number of funerals. Thankfully, one of the younger priests in my parish was willing to preside at the one at half-past-nine this morning, otherwise I would never be able to go out for this walk.
A funeral. You may think that it’s something sad, something bewildering; something that destroys all your convictions and creates doubt within every cynical thought. However, even this mysterious and poignant event has become mere routine for a person like me.
Each day, I preside over funerals. Weddings and baptisms are rarer requests. Why does death happen so often? Honestly, I must admit that I don't know.
I ponder over these profound thoughts; if the matter weren’t so sad it would be rather amusing.
I have written sermons for the masses I must direct today. They're all very similar to one another, but I modify a few paragraphs to customize them. I'm thinking of ways to make each sermon unique when I hear the loud screech of brakes, followed by the chilling crash of broken glass and twisted metal.
The noise shakes me roughly from my thoughts, and I turn around to see what has happened. A car, turning right into Via Ferrari, has collided at high speed with a truck. The car driver is huddled over the steering wheel, unconscious; she hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt from the looks of it, and I can see, to my horror, that the shattered windscreen is covered with her blood.
A huge crowd runs towards the scene, wanting to help. They want to wake her, but nobody dares touch her. I see someone on a mobile, calling the police and the ambulance. I hear people panicking, blocking the morning traffic, worried for a person they don't know and will probably forget shortly after.
The truck driver slowly jumps off the high step of the truck; he looks aghast, and is shaking uncontrollably. The blood has drained completely from his face. He stares at the unconscious woman with a look of disbelief and sheer fright; he falls to the ground, his head in hands. People begin to gather around him; someone asks if he’s all right, but he barely notices it. He rocks back and forth, muttering words that I can’t understand... maybe he’s blaming himself for not seeing that car fly towards him. Maybe if he only swerved or slammed on the brakes quicker, then this could have been avoided. I can almost hear his heart thudding in his chest, and feel his horror, his guilt, and his pain.
I should comfort him. I'm a priest, a man called to the duty of aiding the poor and the needy by Christ himself. I decide to approach the accident scene, but at the same time, a loud clanging of bells sounds from the cathedral tower.
I glance at my watch: it's a quarter to ten, I must hurry up. If I don't make it back in time, I won’t be able to conduct the mass and my young colleague would be in trouble, not having a sermon ready.
Although I feel horrible doing this, I walk away. I try not to bring attention to myself, try to hide from the crowd, which is starting to panic because the driver doesn’t show signs of waking. I keep walking as if I don't notice the accident at all. My decision plays on my conscience, I’m ashamed of myself. I know that I can’t act differently, but of course, this doesn’t stop the guilt from eating at me.
As I reach the cathedral’s side entrance, and my right foot steps just inside the door, I hear the siren of an ambulance approaching from Piazza Mazzini, and a police siren screaming from the opposite direction. I wonder if they’ll be able to do something. I’m afraid not, though.
I enter the sacristy and Father Francesco gazes at me, relieved. Of course, he was worried I would be late, that he would’ve had to preside over a funeral unprepared.
I nod at him and don my ceremonial robes. After a quick glance in the mirror, I leave the sacristy, approach the aisle of the cathedral and wait in the corridor, rereading my sermon. It’s about the pity of God, how death shouldn’t be seen as an end, but as a beginning, the beginning of a new life in the name of Christ. I take a look inside the church. I’ve witnessed this scene so many times in my life.
An old man sitting in the first pew on the left is waiting. He appears to be in shock. I don’t know him, the same way I don’t know his relatives, but his pain is so deep and vivid that it envelopes him; he looks so small, fragile, and defenseless. It’s his wife that has died.
Two men, presumably his sons, are sitting on either side of him. One is clearly older than the other, even if the dark hair and beard of the other is already peppered with grey. Their sadness can not be compared to their father’s, but it’s still clear and genuine. In fact, the older son bears the red marks of crying around his eyes, which his dark glasses cover like a protective shell.
Sitting in the first pew on the right-hand side are three women. The first I assume is the older son’s wife, or at least she’s old enough to be that. The other two seem to be her daughters – they are young.
The woman emits a certain sadness which doesn’t seem to be as deep as that of her husband. The two girls look half-bored and half-thoughtful, even through they try to appear sad. Maybe they really are sad, I don’t know, but I know what they are thinking: this funeral is a nuisance. They must wear those elegant clothes, which may be too tight, and those stylish shoes, which may be painful for them. At least, I think that’s the reason why one of the girls stretches her feet.
A façade. That is what most funerals are. Only a few people understand what death really is, and even fewer still feel truly sad. The rest wear a mask of grief, playing the role that society wants them to act out. They display a sadness that they don’t feel. My duty should be to change their minds, to enlighten them, to open their hearts to the Mysteries of God.
The music resounds solemnly as I progress slowly up the aisle. Many pairs of eyes watch me: the genuinely sad, the fake sad, the bored.
I approach the altar in the center of the nave and begin my sermon. I preach about Christ, about his forgiveness, about how every soul will return to life on Judgment Day. The eyes of the old man scan me carefully; he doesn’t trust me.
Cynicism. The majority of human beings today are cynical and artificial. Almost no one trusts in God, almost nobody is ready to bet on His existence, but everybody will pray to God if ever they need help.
As I keep talking, I see his eyes fill with wonder. The little man is starting to wake from his spiritual slumber, his cynicism is failing him. Why? It’s a question which only God can answer. People can be dubious and not trust in Him… but all of them find their skepticism wavering when they meet death. Death is the most terrible of all the divine mysteries.
Maybe it’s the anguish, maybe it’s the pain, or maybe it’s just the knowledge that we won’t see the people we love anymore. Perhaps this is why we start to believe that there may be an afterlife. Being the modest creature that he is, man needs this certainty, he needs the hope. Is it hope that makes us believe? Or the sudden knowledge of some higher power? We may never know.
Reading the information bulletin about the dead woman, I find that she and this man had been married for more than sixty years.
I understand now. I understand the little man’s sorrow. He must have loved her. She was probably the only person able to deal with his bad temper that we men always seem to have. She was his soulmate, the mother of his sons. She followed him wherever he went, but now she’s no more. For all I know, her mind could have failed her in her old age, but she still would have been the rock upon which the old man supported himself.
Now that I think about it, I believe that I have already met him. If he is who I believe him to be, he often came here with an elderly lady... his wife? I assume so. He was a distinctive man and would scan the many figures of Jesus and Mary placed around the church with the cynical and incredulous eye of a philosopher.
Oh yes, now I remember where I’ve seen his name: he writes articles for many philosophy magazines. In the article of his I remember reading many years ago, he talked scornfully about the existence of God. However, this once strong and critical philosopher is now just old, small and thin -- a little man whose eyes are red from crying.
I finish my sermon and see that most of the congregation is now truly moved. How can the exact same words, told in a different way, always bring genuine tears to people’s eyes?
I approach the old and grieving man as the smell of the incense my attendant is spreading reaches my nose. I hold hands that have written so many hard and doubtful words about Our Lord. They’re now just the cold and shaking hands of an old man who has lost the love of his life.
I talk with him, try to comfort him. I haven’t prepared a speech this time, but the man stares at me with a tentative smile. He thanks me, and I know that my words have touched him, but his voice has an eerie quality to it; my heart sinks as I understand why. This little man won’t last long.
I leave the man to his family, feeling a lump growing in my throat. I notice that my sermon has even touched the young girls; they aren’t bored anymore, and their tears look sincere now. I have achieved my aim.
As the family leaves the church, I remember the accident I had witnessed only half an hour beforehand. I approach the side entrance and look outside. The road is clear now and everybody is back to their normal lives. Cars dart by in the street; people walk past hurriedly on the pavement -- everyone at their own pace, governed by different thoughts. The world is back to its usual routine, and I have to return to my duty as well.
There is another funeral over which I must preside.