The prism of death often provides an excellent perspective to influence how to live. Thus, the book Life Stories of Dying Penitents or Sick Calls from the Diary of a Missionary Priest invites the reader to make serious, profound, hopeful and tragic reflections. Originally published in the late nineteenth century, the book is a compilation of accounts of sick calls to the dying written by an anonymous Irish priest at a parish in London, England.
In the Litany of the Saints, there is the invocation: “From a sudden and unprovided death, deliver me, O Lord.” After reading this book, the reader can see why the Church makes this plea. Death comes to all, and it is best to be prepared.
The rich descriptions in the book provide a snapshot of how death visits all the social classes. It offers insights into the complex situations priests faced at the time.
Most accounts end happily with the priest hearing the final confession and administering Extreme Unction. However, others are tragic. Some cases involved situations where the family contacted the priest on behalf of a dying relative who had not practiced the Faith for a long time. It is pretty sobering to consider that such dying people often refuse to confess and repent despite the pleadings of the priest and family members. The tragedy contradicts the Hollywood narratives, where everything turns out fine in the end. As Saint Alphonsus Liguori wrote, “most die as they lived.”
Of course, God’s mercy is always available to those who repent. However, those who spent their entire lives turned against God will not likely repent without a special grace. The book highlights the importance of the prayers and sacrifices of the faithful for the conversion of sinners. These efforts can sometimes move Our Lord and Our Lady to touch souls with a special grace of profound sorrow and repentance. How rare are such prayers and sacrifices today, and how few are the special grace of repentance for millions with no one to pray for them.
Father visited everyone, rich, middle class and poor. Without hesitation, he would get up in the middle of the night if summoned to visit someone who asked for him. After spending most of a night with the sick and dying, the exhausted priest would often arrive at the rectory just in time to offer morning Mass. His total dedication to his vocation is worthy of great admiration.
This willingness to serve contrasts with today’s lack of faith and zeal for souls. When the ill and dying often ask for a priest, the family is told that the person is not registered in the parish or that a public anointing takes place once a month. Whenever this priest was called, he rushed to visit the soul who was approaching the judgment seat of God, where time was of the essence.
Several accounts involve Irish immigrants who worked long hours for low wages and who spent their little free time intoxicated at gin houses, neglecting the spiritual and material needs of themselves and their families. Sometimes Father would have to pass through the gauntlet of drunkards mocking and cursing him on his way to visit someone. Father entered residences of incredible opulence or squalor, remaining focused on saving souls.
The benefits of this book are immense. Readers will have a greater appreciation of the value of suffering, the gravity of sin, and the need to follow God’s commandments. Those who read it will value more the receiving of the sacraments with frequency and piety and prepare better for death.
This book can remove any illusion about death and presumptions about salvation. Thus, pray for being spared from sudden and unprovided death. Maintain the state of sanctifying grace so, if called suddenly from this life, one can enter heaven with God’s mercy.
Be edified by the accounts of repentant sinners. See the importance of family and friends who fervently pray for the dying. Admire priests of this high caliber who are willing to make every effort to bring a soul to God. Indeed, this book should be mandatory reading for all priests, seminarians and laity.
Original and used copies of this old book can be found, but they are expensive. However, reprints are available at standard prices. Obtaining a copy might make a big difference since the stories of the dying have always helped the living.