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The Catholic guidebook for dying well

art of dying

Brother Columba Thomas, OP, MD | The National Catholic Bioethics Center

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 11/03/21

The "Ars Moriendi" (Art of Dying), written in the late Middle Ages, is still here to help us during the most important time of life.

In the Catholic tradition, the month of November is dedicated to praying for the dead. It’s also the end of the liturgical year; a time when the Church ponders the “final things,” and looks with hope at what is to come. This is all reflected in the Scripture readings and prayers at Mass leading up to Advent.

So it’s a perfect time to ponder death and dying — especially your own. Are you ready for death? Do you know how to help a loved one when they draw close to their own deaths?

If you don’t quite know how to answer such questions, you may want to get yourself a copy of The Art of Dying. Traditionally known in Latin as the “Ars Moriendi,” it’s a text that originated in the 15th century when the bubonic plague was ravaging Europe and people were largely cut off from priests and the sacraments. (Sound a little familiar?)

The Church wanted to provide pastoral help to the faithful so it commissioned, printed, and widely circulated a text called 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 how to help others approach death.

A new annotated translation in English has just been completed by Brother Columba Thomas, OP, MD, published by The National Catholic Bioethics Center. The short book with the English title The Art of Dying includes some history of how the Ars Moriendi came to be and how we can apply it to our lives today. The book, with reproductions of the original medieval woodblock prints, contains reflections, teachings, and various kinds of prayers to assist the dying as they prepare to enter eternal life.

This new translation comes at the right time. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to confront our own mortality in ways we haven’t had to before. Some of us have not only experienced illness ourselves, but we’ve witnessed the serious illness and death of loved ones and acquaintance. And a pandemic aside, impairment and death still come for us by way of disease, accident, old age, and various other avenues.

Although death and dying is not a topic most of us like to think about, it’s one of the most important times in our lives — one that can be rich with meaning, grace, reconciliation, and love. The end of life is not simply a time to deal with complex healthcare decisions but to make sure our souls are ready to make the final leg of our journey to the Father’s house. The Art of Dying is a handbook to help us do that.

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