Priests have the privilege of being with people as they near the ends of their lives. Some of the people I’ve helped prepare for death spent their whole lives active in the Church, some were less active, and a few were resistant to the idea of seeing a priest and receiving the sacraments. I remember one gentleman in particular who sent me away the first time I visited with him, but not before demonstrating his ability to say the Memorare, which the nuns in his elementary school had taught him many years before. I went to see him a few other times, managing to sit with him for a few minutes before he had had enough. He would then repeat his performance of the Memorare with a little grin before sending me on my way. During these visits, however, it became apparent that he did desire reconciliation and absolution, but was very afraid of making his confession. Then, one day, lying on his bed, he began telling me about his life. And as he stared at the ceiling, he slowly spoke with obvious regret about things he had done. When he stopped speaking we passed a moment in silence. Finally, I said: “I think I can give you absolution now, if you’d like.” He nodded tearfully. I gave him his penance – one Memorare – and then helped him through the Act of Contrition before pronouncing the words of absolution. A look of deep relief came over his face. The next day he received Communion for the first time in a very long time. He died about a week later, reconciled to God through the ministry of the Church. When I think of what happened there, I am convinced that the prayer that those religious sisters taught him when he was a boy opened his heart in the end to receive the mercy that the Lord wanted desperately to give him. It was the intercession of the Blessed Mother that he had been asking for all those years – “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, and sought thy intercession, was left unaided.” Anyone. What a great gift the nuns gave him when they taught him this prayer.
In my conversations with other priests, it is becoming apparent – especially when we hear first confessions and confessions before Confirmation – that young people do not know their prayers. Many do not know even the basic ones that should come as naturally to Catholics as breathing. This poses a problem when it comes to giving a penance, of course, but the real tragedy is that they’re not learning how to talk to God. Obviously, the rote prayers are not the only way to speak to Him. But they are the tried-and-true formulas of prayer, having stood the test of time and containing authentic expressions of devotion. I’ve found, especially when people are older and have become frail, the rote prayers are comforting because they don’t require the effort of trying to think about what you want to say. It was Jesus who gave us the Our Father. The Hail Mary comes from the Gospel of Luke. The Creed is the faith in a nutshell. The Glory Be is an expression of the Blessed in heaven. It’s hard to come up with a better prayer than these. One worries about a person who has never been taught to pray, who does not know how to address the Lord, who has been deprived of that basic right of the baptized and the deepest longing of every human soul.
One can watch a vivid depiction of this tragedy in the 2013 film Gravity, which stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts struggling to survive an accident that has destroyed their spacecraft. At one point in the film, Bullock’s character finds herself alone and it dawns on her that her death is imminent. Confronted with the reality of her approaching death, she laments that no one will mourn for her or pray for her. Hearing the noise of static on the radio, she asks: “will you mourn for me? Will you say a prayer for me?” Heartbroken, she says she would say a prayer for herself, but “no one ever taught me how.” You can watch the scene here: https://youtu.be/iWgorOAcb4I.
Just as we need to be taught how to read and do math and ride a bike, we need to be taught our prayers. This is primarily the responsibility of parents, but grandparents and godparents, aunts and uncles, catechists and priests should also take great interest in helping young people learn their prayers. These prayers must become like second nature to us, so that when it comes time to face death (or any trial), we know who to turn to and we know what to say.