There is a fourth century prayer to Saint Joseph which concludes: “St. Joseph, I never tire of contemplating you with Jesus asleep in your arms. I dare not approach while he rests near your heart. Press him against me in my name and kiss his beautiful head for me, and ask him to return the kiss to me when I take my last breath. Saint Joseph, patron of departing souls, pray for us. It is a tender image, and the old sentiment resonates today: Joseph as protector, until death.
Death will come for all of us, so how do we prepare for what the Church has long called “a happy death” – a death in friendship with the Lord, with the hope of eternal life? Saint Joseph, known as the patron of a happy death, is our guide. First, we can imitate the love and fidelity of Saint Joseph to the will of God in his daily life. Second, we can cultivate the sacramental life of grace through daily prayer and detachment from sin. Third, we can practice devotions that predispose us to a happy death.
Saint Joseph has perhaps become the most famous figure in the Church associated with a happy death. There is a pious tradition that Saint Joseph must have died in the arms and care of his beloved Jesus and Mary, to whom he gave his life day after day, moment after moment. It is difficult to imagine a better death than his, but we can accept our death with the same confidence, in the merciful love of Jesus and in the intercession and maternal care of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Joseph’s privileged role that God wanted for him was to care for and uplift Jesus, and to be the most chaste bride of the immaculate Virgin Mary. God the Father bestowed upon Joseph the holiness and perfection necessary to accomplish his will in the simplicity of his ordinary daily life, as husband and father. It is above all the perfect abandonment of Saint Joseph to the will of God for him that made him the greatest saint after Our Lady, and the secret of a happy death for us is the same. The example of Saint Joseph reveals that the best preparation for a happy death is a life well lived. It consists in being faithful to the will of God revealed in his Commandments, which are transmitted to us by the Church, his teachings and revealed in the duties of the present moment.
Pope Benedict XV said that holiness consists in conformity to the will of God, expressed in a constant and exact fulfillment of the duties of our state of life. This is the life led by Saint Joseph. It’s really exciting – holiness is accessible! It doesn’t mean that holiness is easy, but the means of holiness are provided right there before us in the present moment if we recognize it in faith as St. Joseph did. Holiness consists in doing the will of God and in the perfection of charity – they are inseparable. With the help of grace, we can become saints. That said, Jesus reminds us that becoming a saint (his disciple) requires that we “die to ourselves” for God’s sake. We live this “martyrdom” day by day, at every moment in acts of faith and selfless love: “Love one another. like I loved you ”(Jn 15,12).
We cannot imitate Saint Joseph and prepare for a happy death without also living the sacramental life of grace: the Holy Eucharist, monthly confession, silent daily prayer of the heart and renunciation and detachment from worldly attachments. As Saint Teresa of Avila said, detachment means not paying attention to what does not lead us to God.
Finally, the Church offers us devotions and prayers that help ensure a happy death. Apostolic forgiveness removes any temporal punishment (purgatory) and is granted by the priest when death is imminent. The devotion of the first Friday to the Sacred Heart of Jesus promises the grace of final penance. The devotion of the first Saturday to Notre-Dame promises the graces necessary for salvation at death. The Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary, recited daily, promise her visible help at the time of death. The practice of these and many other devotions leads us to conform to the will of God and cultivates the sacramental life of grace and prayer through the Eucharist and confession.
Let us pray that Saint Joseph intercedes for us, that we are prepared and that we live a happy death.
Deacon Gannon is the director of the Institute for the Continuing Education of the Clergy at St. Paul’s Seminary in St. Paul.
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