How can we enter into the last human experience of this earthly life with faith, hope, and love? In the first ministerial plan to help the dying written in the West, Juan de Polanco., S.J., set out to answer that very question.
JUDGED BY OUR PRESENT STANDARDS, the 16th century was marked by inadequate pastoral practice, particularly in the care for the dying. Before the Council of Trent (1545-1563), seminaries did not exist as we know them today, so both the training and the ministry of priests were uneven. While there were lots of clerics (one in seven men in Luther’s Germany received tonsure), many of them were sons who sought an income and social status but were not particularly interested in doing ministry. Certainly among the active clergy there were some good priests, but there were also many mediocre ones, and most priests depended heavily on the formal character of the sacraments as channels for God’s power and comforting symbols for believers.
The best trained ministers were those in religious orders and congregations, men and women who were immersed in prayer, study, discussion, and reflection. Typical monastic care for their own was as follows: When a monk or nun was known to be near death, a bell or wooden clapper summoned the community, who came running to the infirmary reciting aloud the Credo. Hymns would be sung as the man or woman made a last formal confession of sins and of faith in everlasting life. Then, in a cloud of incense, the dying person would be borne to the chapel and laid in a bed of ashes. The seven penitential psalms, litanies, and the Subvenite (“Come to his assistance, you saints of God…”) were sung as the monk or nun expired. When death came, the Salve Regina would be sung, a practice begun by the Dominican friars at Sandomir, Poland, as they were being massacred by the Tatars.
There were similar pastoral applications for the laity. When it was thought that a person was in the throes of death, the family would send for a priest. The parish church bell would be tolled, inviting the people of the village or neighborhood to join in a liturgical procession. The priest, vested in the mantle of a cope, would bring the Blessed Sacrament to the home of the dying person, accompanied by acolytes bearing a crucifix, candles, bells, and incense. The dying person would make an act of contrition and receive viaticum (“with you on the journey,” the ill person’s final reception of the Eucharist). All family and mourners would also receive communion. The priest would bless everyone and then return to the church with the acolytes singing the Te Deum (an ancient hymn of praise to God). There is no mention in the rubrics of an extended conversation between the priest and the patient, nor among those gathered. Rather, the process was formulaic. And since it was indeed “extreme unction,” the sight of the priest and the realization of the reason for the visit may well have frightened the patient closer to the anticipated state of death.
This relatively impersonal method of dealing with death set the stage for an Ignatian innovation.
Juan de Polanco (1517-76) would invent a new method. He was a wealthy Spaniard from Burgos who, as a teenager, met Ignatius of Loyola in Paris, while earning his master’s degree, followed him to Rome to serve as a clerk to the Vatican, became a Jesuit, and soon thereafter became Ignatius’ personal secretary and executive assistant. He aided in drafting the constitution for the Society, worked closely with Ignatius until the founder’s death in 1556, and he would go on to serve as secretary to fathers general Diego LaÌnez and Francisco Borgia and to organize the Society’s archives, drawing heavily from them to shape his massive Chronicon, a 4,500-page history of the early Jesuits.
In the year before his own death, Polanco authored the “Guide for those who help the dying” (Methodus ad eos adjuvandos qui moriuntur). His purpose was to instruct other Jesuits who would accompany the dying so that these might leave this life and enter the next in peace, friendship, and joy. The Methodus presents a new, distinctly Jesuit approach to the age-old human challenge: to enter into the last human experience in this earthly life with faith, hope, and love.
Ignatian spirituality is a means of gaining intimacy with God and, at the same time, acquiring both self-knowledge and personal freedom. The first Jesuits sought to make these graces available to lay people in every human situation. Even before the official establishment of the Society of Jesus in 1540, the first companions regularly lived and worked in hospitals, caring for the dying in body and soul. In 1575, Polanco systematized the collective experiences of the early Jesuits in what is likely the first guidebook on the spiritual accompaniment of the dying in the West. The first chapter contains practical advice to priests about their internal disposition. The final chapter relates advice about care for the family of the one who is dying. The intervening chapters map out an approach and apply it to various—and sometimes difficult—cases.
Polanco begins by stressing the significance of this ministry: “Among all the good works to which the Religious of the Society dedicate themselves, none can be reckoned to have greater importance than that of assisting the sick to make a good death.” To approach it with proper reverence, Polanco invites the Jesuit to hold in balance both grace and faith: “Trust that God is active, and prepare yourself rigorously through study, reflection, and prayer.” To keep this balance, the Jesuit must pray for true humility, recognizing his own weakness, doubting all his own capacities, and placing all his hopes in God, so that he may contribute to the salvation of the dying. He should meet people exactly where they are, considering them—in whatever state they may be—as images of God and members of Jesus Christ. His speech should be simple, gentle, honest, and affectionate. He ought not to speak as if he were instructing the dying; rather, he should encourage them to recall God’s goodness and to rally their faith. He should avoid boring the patient with talk about useless things. Should he pose questions to the patient, he ought to listen attentively and remember everything that the dying person says, and with tenderness, seek to gain his confidence in order to dispose the patient to a good death. Finally, Polanco frames his method with the typical Jesuit adaptability: “We would only caution the priest to use this work with prudence, paying attention to the circumstances of place, time and persons, for one doesn’t speak in the same manner to all persons whom one would prepare for a Christian death. It is necessary to choose those things that are more moving to each person, providing hope, reverence or consolation, depending on what is most apt for their salvation.” In the chapters that follow, Polanco lays out a pastoral plan to assist the patient to a state of grace.
A New Structure
Polanco started with existing pastoral practice: sacraments of confession, extreme unction, and viaticum should be given at the appropriate time, apt Gospel passages should be read, and the customary prayers for the dying should be recited. Upon this old foundation, Polanco then built a new structure:
If death is certain but not imminent, the priest should begin a spiritual conversation that could be developed over the course of several visits. The patient should be told the truth about his medical condition and invited to turn his attention and his energies toward God, “who loves him with an infinite love, and being all-powerful will either give him back his health (if this be necessary for his salvation) or the means necessary for a happy eternity.”
If death is near, the priest should hear the patient’s confession during the first visit. But if the patient has some days left, he should be given the time to examine his conscience and reflect back upon his life. The patient should be encouraged to make a general confession, to gain true peace of heart about his status in God’s eyes, and to see the patterns of grace in his life. The priest should not frighten the patient with talk of Hell but rather encourage his contrition by contemplating the goodness of God and of creation. After having given him sufficient time to come to contrition, the Priest should try to elicit his hope and to kindle his love by absolving him and telling him that God forgets all his sins, for His mercy is infinite.
The priest should help the patient to leave this life in right relationship not only with God but also with all human beings. If the patient has ill-gotten goods, these should be returned to the rightful owner. If he damaged the reputation of another through calumny, he should remedy this by letting the truth be known. If the patient had some public feud, he must drop it, and, if possible, meet with his enemy and make peace. If the feud was quite public, then the reconciliation, if possible, should also be public in order to remove the scandal to which it gave rise. If the patient had incurred an excommunication and was at odds with the Church, the Confessor should lead him through the penitential process so that communion could be restored. In short, the priest should do everything to help the patient to a state of peace that is animated and sustained by charity. The confession completed, the patient should prepare himself by acts of faith, hope, and charity-—and most especially, by a profound humility— for the last reception of the Eucharist.
Now in a state of grace, the patient should consider practical details of his death, e.g., the financial support of his family and the disposition of his temporal goods. The patient’s first concern should be for spouse, children, and wards. These should all be provided for financially. If the patient has employees who are owed a pension, let them be treated according to justice and charity. The patient should be asked where he wishes to be buried, in case arrangements have not yet been made. Polanco urges the priest to suggest the removal from the funeral of all superfluous pomp, “which contributes nothing to the salvation of one’s soul,” and “persuading him that a Christian should be buried in a humble and modest manner.” He should dispose of his goods by means of a fair will, being sure to settle all his debts. If he has sufficient wealth to make some pious gifts, the priest may help him to purify his intention, for good works should flow not from fear but rather from love. If he should found a hospital, a monastery, or some similar thing that will pass on to posterity, let him not make this foundation out of pride, that all should later speak of his magnificence, but rather out of love for God. And while there is real virtue in founding convents and hospitals, the needs of the poor may be so great that it would be better to help them through direct alms. Since the Jesuit should have no spirit of avarice, he should not be present while the patient makes out his will, for fear that by his presence he may seem to be asking for something. Let him merely give him advice, should the legator ask, and then withdraw. The patient should choose as executor of his testament capable and reliable persons, in whom he has confidence that they will faithfully support the interests of his family.
Practical details settled, the priest enters into a spiritual conversation with the patient. In what could stretch out over several visits, the priest guides the patient through the difficult passages that lead, finally, to a peaceful and holy death. Polanco dedicates chapters to particular challenges: helping one who fears to die because of a too strong attachment to life, who has attachments to worldly goods, who is impatient, who is tempted to renounce the faith, who doubts mercy, who has thoughts of despair, or who has too much confidence and presumes salvation. There are chapters with advice for especially difficult situations: for a patient who has use of reason and speech but will die soon, or for patients who have reason but are blocked psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually from facing death squarely. In each of these cases, the priest is to lead the person through meditations on God’s grace and goodness, drawn from the Gospels, to an intimate knowledge of Jesus, a deep and trusting friendship with Him, and a final imitation of Jesus’ self-abandonment into the hands of His Father.
As the conversation between Jesuit and the patient arrives, finally, at the paschal mystery, there is a marked shift in their relationship. Up until this point, Polanco directed the priest to refer to the patient with tender affection as “my son.” As they face the final mystery of death, and as the patient turns, as it were, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Jesuit, facing the Cross, the Jesuit is henceforth to refer to him as “my brother,” for in Christ, as in death, all are equal.
Polanco instructs the Jesuit to care as well for the family members and friends of the patient. They should pray for the patient and support him with their love. In addition to offering them the support of the sacraments, he should help them to meditate on death and to see the death of their beloved as an integral part of the common human journey of faith into the mystery of God. Too, he should ask them to consider how they will go on with their lives, and he shall invite them to live in right relationship with all persons and with God, so that when they some day approach death, they too will be able to do so peacefully and with confidence.
Polanco’s efforts to systematize care for the dying contributed greatly to subsequent advances in this important work. In the intervening centuries, knowledge about the process of dying, and both spiritual and psychological assistance to those who are dying, has advanced greatly. Elisabeth K¸bler-Ross’ work on the stages of dying is a fine example of the former, and the modern hospice movement’s holistic care for the terminally ill and their families is a fine example of the latter. Polanco founded this modern practice of care by means of an ingenious adaptation of Ignatian spirituality to the special case of the dying.
First, the patient looks at sin and suffering honestly, and in freedom, accepts forgiveness and comes to a state of grace. Then, in a series of meditations and conversations, the patient reaffirms a deep and abiding friendship with Christ. Next, the patient (and the spiritual director) come to the Cross and experience it as liberating. This, finally, brings the patient to the final graces of the Exercises—the joyful abandonment of self into the arms of God, praying, “Take Lord, receive, all my liberty, all I have and possess, my entire self…”
—Paul Fitzgerald, S.J. ’80 is on the faculty of the department of religious studies and is an associate dean of in the College of Arts and Sciences at SCU.