Editorial by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P.
The three longest hours of my life were on March 2, 2014. That was the day my brother died. Michael was the oldest of us seven. For ten years he had struggled with a brain tumor. Then, at age fifty-eight, his condition deteriorated practically overnight. That Sunday afternoon when the dreaded phone call came saying that Michael was dying, I jumped in my car for the three-hour drive to Massachusetts. The whole time I prayed and begged the Blessed Mother not to let my brother die before I could be by his side and give him the Anointing of the Sick.
During those interminable three hours on the road I silently pleaded for my cell phone not to ring. Because I knew that, if it did, it would be my sister Nancy calling to tell me that our brother was gone. I drove on—from New York to Connecticut to Rhode Island. At long last, I crossed the state line of Massachusetts, and as my exit, Exit 8, veered into sight, meaning I was barely just ten minutes from the house…my cell phone went off.
It was my sister Nancy. She asked about my location. I told her. Then, full of fear, since she wasn’t saying anything, I asked the question: Is Michael still alive? I held my breath waiting for the answer which was yes! Nancy was calling to say she would meet me when I arrived to let me into the house.
And there she was, standing in the driveway. I can’t say how happy the sight of her made me. She led me in through the basement and up to the living room, where Michael’s hospital bed had been placed. His breathing was very labored and he didn’t seem to recognize any of us. I put on a violet stole, got out the ritual and the sacred oil, and anointed my dying brother.
The source of grace
The last line of the Hail Mary is “…now and at the hour of our death.” God does not want us to be alone in the experience of death. He gives us a woman who waits for us and helps us to face the ordeal of dying. Our Blessed Mother promises to accompany us at the final and darkest hour of our life.
The first lines of the Hail Mary repeat the angel’s greeting to our Lady at the Annunciation. Which means that every utterance of that prayer is a kind of re-happening of the mystery of the Annunciation.
How do we even know about the Annunciation in the first place? Only one answer makes sense: Mary herself told the disciples about it. And maybe our Lady did so when the disciples required that mystery the most—when they were despondent or filled with perilous doubt.
Maybe that is when the Blessed Virgin said something along these lines: You need to know how all this began. For if you constantly return to this origin, you will always find reasons to hope.
And then Mary told them about how Mercy came out of nowhere and made a promise to her that would transform the world through her. All was darkness and chaos in the world before the Annunciation. But by the power of her Fiat—her Yes to God—the never-ending newness who is Jesus Christ entered the world to change everything for ever.
And something similar would happen, our Lady most likely encouraged her Son’s followers, if they would dare to make their Yes to Jesus as well.
As they listened, the disciples discovered in the Blessed Virgin Mary something that Saint Thomas Aquinas would later put into words: “In conceiving the Son of God, Mary became in some way the source of that grace which the Lord was to pour forth over all mankind.”
With that, the disciples together prayed the first Angelus.
The hour of death
An ottoman had been placed at the head of my brother Michael’s bed so that we could all take turns staying very close to him as the end drew near. We didn’t want him to be alone for one second.
At one point I sat there. Within a matter of minutes, Michael’s breathing became shorter and shallower. And then, suddenly, Michael opened his eyes wide and sat up. He was seeing something, focused on something—not me. I don’t know if it was an angel, or the Blessed Mother, or the Lord himself. But whatever it was, as at the Annunciation, the Infinite came close, blessing Michael with serenity so that he could die in peace. Which is what then happened.
For myself, I believe that Michael had come face to face with the Source of Grace. I believe that he and we were given exactly what we prayed for at the hour of his death.