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.