Observations: When Father Died

In April 1989, my father died at the age of 89. From 1940 to 1950, he sold 11 short stories to the Saturday Evening Post and millions enjoyed his work, which inspired me in my own desire to write. But it is my father’s relation to the Church which is my subject. When a loved one dies, you naturally wonder about their state of soul after death. A Christian cannot simply dismiss that topic when it concerns someone close to him, nor assume that one has been saved. If the relative or friend lived a devout life, then you are more at ease, but what if you feel uncertain about the faith of the one you love who recently died? What if, frankly, you suspect that person might have died an agnostic? A disturbing thought, but there is room for hope, even then.

My father did not often talk about religion or the Catholic Church, and hardly ever of theology, for he was not interested in such matters. Nor did he want to associate in any way with priests and said so forthrightly; they made him uncomfortable, though he did say they have to deal with a lot of weaklings in their ministry. Instead, Dad cared about his family, his writing, our garden, and going fishing. He loved the wilderness, those Jersey Pine Barrens where he could fish for pickerel off the back roads and see the flash of running deer. He loved the white clematis flowers on our back-door trellis; he loved Ireland, and professional baseball, and his Airedales and white English Bull Terriers. He loved a cold beer on a hot afternoon, with a spanking good story to read, by writers like Jack London, Somerville & Ross, or Alan Moorehead.

Perhaps he had no interest in religion because he thought it false or unreal, something for those who avoided the daily drama of life. He certainly thought going to church was a nuisance or even a bore. What connection was there, in his mind, between the shadowy interior of a church, with candles burning, and everyday life? To him, one was frozen into the past, while the other was full of immediate involvement. Yet, my father did reveal how he felt about the Church, and this is what I’m trying to piece together from his remarks over the years.

Early in his life, my dad gave up on prayer because as a boy he had prayed for certain things to happen, yet they did not happen. So he stopped believing in petitionary prayer. Apparently, he retained this attitude for years. Also, nuns irritated him. (He was easily irritated.) He once announced vigorously, “I’m against evangelists!” These exasperations colored his entire approach to faith and the supernatural. Sometimes, he reminded me of H.L. Mencken.

Dad admired the agnostic writer Henry Thoreau and once told my mother and me that Darwin’s hypothesis of evolution “seemed reasonable.” He also enjoyed London’s The Call of the Wild, a book saturated with naturalistic, evolutionary themes. And when my uncle died at 37, he wondered “Where is he now?” I recall the disturbing effect that question had on me at the time. When my mother died, Dad said he did not think he would ever see her again.

However, aside from occasional comments like these, Dad never made a sustained attack against the faith, as amateur skeptics or professional anti-Catholics are fond of doing. It is one thing to express doubts within the family circle; it is quite another to publicly launch attacks against the Church in the manner of a Bertrand Russell or Paul Blanshard.

About a year before he died, my father was failing, and I called the pastor of the church, which is right across the street. I told him that my father had twice refused to see a priest, but would he, as pastor, come over to visit him and do what he could? The pastor surprised me by saying that he would not come over because my father had already said no, and since he has free will, it would be wrong to ignore that free-will decision. Then this priest asked if my father was a morally good person. I said he was. The priest replied there was nothing to worry about, everything lay in the hands of God, and he actually stated that it didn’t really matter whether my father saw a priest or not.

Jolted by this shocking statement, I said with an edge to my voice that it mattered a great deal. The pastor said I could come over to discuss the situation but I demurred, feeling it would be futile. The pastor finally said that to visit my father after he made it known he didn’t want to see a priest would be to make a judgment of our own and we should not make such judgments! Stunned, I closed the conversation. It was hard to believe that my dad’s own pastor refused to make a judgment about this important matter.

On my own judgment, I did manage to bring another priest to our house, but Dad’s stroke made it difficult for him to speak at times and it seemed that not much was accomplished. We wanted him to go to confession and receive communion. (I could not remember when he had last received the sacraments.) But after ten minutes the priest left. Later, another priest, whom I knew to be orthodox, came and gave my father a rosary. He also got him to repeat a Hail Mary. This was progress! Yet, later, I asked Dad if he wished to see this priest again and he replied, “I don’t care whether he come or not.” Nor did he ever use the rosary, as far as I could see.

A few months later, he went into a comatose condition and was taken to the hospital. There he lay, unable to speak, the man who had always been so articulate. I recalled the day, back around 1937, when I was only five, and could not understand a certain simple word, and my father told me what it meant. Now I leaned over the bed and spoke to his face and told him to ask God for forgiveness. No visible response. The parish church sent a priest, but my father died without the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist.

This distressing experience does not leave me without hope for my father’s eternal destiny. Yet I do not mean to imply any glib assurance that everyone is going to Heaven. That’s a childish view and simply will not do, for such a position seems counter to Scripture and to the teaching of the Church. When I looked at my unconscious father in the hospital bed, I knew that it was over, the race had been run. I faced the possibility that my father would die an agnostic. What can a family do in such a situation?

Only this: we must pray and hope in the mercy of God, that unfathomable mercy to which Sister Faustina calls our attention. And we must do penance and make sacrifices; Our Lady of Fatima said some people go to Hell because there is no one to make sacrifices for them. This realistic, unsentimental advice sounds like “old hat,” but this is one old hat that must be worn.

Since my paternal grandfather was a blacksmith, it is appropriate to quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s fine poem “Felix Randal,” which concerns a dying blacksmith: “Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!”


  • Edward O'Brien Jr.

    Edward O'Brien, Jr. is an assistant professor of philosophy and literature at Delaware Valley College, Doylestown, Pa. He has also taught for Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y. and Rider College in Trenton, N.J. Mr. O'Brien has written articles for Crisis, Fidelity, New Oxford Review, the Wanderer and HPR.

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