What sometimes seems to be serendipity is the Holy Spirit working Divine Providence. I hazard a personal example of why I believe there are no coincidences.
On Holy Saturday, I was looking for a book, going through the various places where I have shelves of them. Eventually, I found the one I was looking for.
But it is another book I picked up that day — one that I was not looking for — that I want to write about.
At a second-hand bookstore years ago, I picked up a small volume of some of Lord Macaulay’s writings entitled “Little Masterpieces,” published in 1904. I paged through the book with the kind of excitement only a book addict would understand.
One of the essays is a chapter from Macaulay’s history of England, a very partisan work with an anti-Catholic bias. Thankfully, that bias was not really evident in the selection printed in this volume, which was about the death of King Charles II.
King Charles was 54 years old and was in apparently good health when he died — he literally awoke one day to find he was dying. The monarch rose early on the day his decline started, but was so ill he fell into the arms of one of his attendants and was put back to bed.
All the prominent doctors of London were called to attend him. His mistress was also informed and rushed to his side, but had to tear herself away when the king’s wife, Catherine, came with his sister-in-law. His brother, the duke of York (in whose honor New Amsterdam was renamed New York) hardly left his side during his last days.
The Anglican archbishop of Canterbury told the king to prepare himself “to appear before a Judge who is no respecter of persons.” King Charles did not respond. The Anglican bishop of Bath, a noted author, gave a sermon preaching repentance that moved many of those gathered around the deathbed. The king allowed the prelates to pray absolution over him, but refused to receive communion, saying there was no hurry or that he was too weak.
That was not the real reason. The above-mentioned mistress, the duchess of Portsmouth, told the French ambassador that the king was really a Catholic but might die without the sacraments because, “his bedchamber is full of Protestant clergymen.” It was the king’s mistress, of all people, who urged the ambassador to tell the duke of York, a Catholic convert, to take care of his brother’s soul.
As heir apparent, the duke had been preparing for the transition of power. The ambassador took him aside.
“The conscience of James smote him,” Macaulay writes. “He started as if roused from sleep.”
He went up to the bedside of the king and whispered something in his ear. His brother told him, “Yes, yes, with all my heart.” The duke asked if he should bring a priest. “Do, brother,” said King Charles, “For God’s sake do, and lose no time. But no; you will get into trouble.”
The future King James II, the last Catholic king of the British Isles, a man ill-treated by fortune and history, said in reply, “If it costs me my life, I will fetch a priest.”
It was a capital crime in England in 1685 to convert someone to the Catholic faith. A priest was found, however, and a servant brought Father Huddleston up the back stairs, where he “had often introduced visitors of a very different description by the same entrance,” says the historian. The king’s brother asked the room to be cleared of all the visitors and even the doctors left. Father Huddleston wore a wig over his tonsured head and a cloak over his vestments.
The priest heard the king’s whispered confession, gave him what was then called Extreme Unction and then asked if the dying man wanted to receive the Eucharist. “Surely,” said the king, “if I am not unworthy.” King Charles attempted to rise and kneel to receive the host and they had to send for water so he could swallow it.
Meanwhile the members of the court, the physicians and the servants were outside the chamber suspecting what was going on. The priest had left when the doors were reopened, the king seemed “much relieved,” and his illegitimate children were given a last farewell. The queen was not there because she was too distraught and sent a message to him asking for his pardon.
“She asks my pardon, poor woman! I ask hers will all my heart,” said the king of his wife, whom he had betrayed with many mistresses. The next day he apologized to his courtiers for taking such a long time to die.
The essay is a beautiful story told in beautiful prose. But what struck me as providential about it was the parallels with a recent special end-of-life moment at our parish that, while not as dramatic as a royal deathbed conversion, is a good reminder for Catholics faced with the reality of death.
A man I will call only “D” recently came to the recovery house in our former parish convent. D had been a drinker for most of his life, one with lots of struggle and many ups and downs. Like me, he grew up in an ethnic neighborhood in Cleveland (near mine, actually) and was raised a Catholic. Unlike me, he had gotten away from church attendance after his children made their sacraments and he and his wife divorced.
The regimen of the recovery house includes daily Mass at my parish. D made his confession and came back to Communion. Back when he stopped going to church, Communion in the hand was still unheard of – so D was old school and would only receive Communion on the tongue. He was at Mass every day for the six weeks he was a resident, and while he struggled a bit with the prayers and responses, he received Jesus with devotion.
During Holy Week, one of the recovery community members who had worked in a hospital told others he thought D was dying. The men at the house convinced D to go to the hospital, where they discovered that he had very advanced cancer. He died before they could even propose a treatment.
I told D’s story to a parishioner, a sports fanatic, and old-time Catholic. God must have brought the man to the recovery house so that he could come back to the sacraments, I told him.
“Well,” said my parishioner, “he made it back in the game just before the buzzer. Thank God.” Obviously, D was able to get a three-pointer just in time.
D’s family echoed those sentiments at his wake where the AA fellowship showed up in force. “He spent his last days among friends and was back with God,” I said at the prayer service. “It was his time and God’s.”
The episode made me reflect: how many times we priests are called only after a person has died or lost consciousness. Sometimes, it seems, people are more worried about post-mortem details than dying with the consolation of the last sacraments.
King Charles was probably met at the pearly gates by St. Dismas, the good thief, who, as the Ven. Bishop Fulton Sheen was fond of saying, stole heaven in the last minutes of his life. I am confident D is up there, too. I hope they all pray for us.
We don’t have a clock to show how much time is left in the game, so the buzzer might be closer than we think. “Lose no time,” said the king to his brother. Let’s hope we don’t.