Four Fathers and Doctors of the Church on deathbed penances

December 10, 2021 • 4 min

From The Sinner’s Guide, page 251
By Venerable Louis of Granada

St. Ambrose, in his book on Penance, which some attribute to St. Augustine, treats of this subject at great length. Here is one of the many excellent things he tells us:

If a man ask for the Sacrament of Penance on his deathbed, we do not refuse him what he asks, but we are far from assuring you that if he die after it he is on the way to Heaven. It is more than we dare affirm or promise, for we would not deceive you.

But if you would be relieved of this uncertainty, if you would dissipate this doubt, do penance for your sins while you are in health, and then I can positively assure you that you will be in a good way, for you will have repented for your crimes when you might have been increasing them.

If, on the contrary, you defer your repentance until you are no longer able to sin, it will not be that you have abandoned your sins, but rather that they have abandoned you.

St. Isidore forcibly expresses the same truth:

Would you have a hope of being pardoned your sins at the hour of death, do penance for them while you are able. But if you spend your life in wickedness, and still hope for forgiveness at your death, you are running a most serious risk. Though you are not sure that you will be damned, your salvation is by no means more certain.

The authorities which we have just quoted are very alarming; yet the words of St. Jerome, uttered as he lay in sackcloth upon the ground awaiting his last hour, are still more terrifying.

I dare not give his words in all their rigor, lest I should discourage weak souls; but I refer him who desires to read them to an epistle on the death of St. Jerome written by his disciple Eusebius to a bishop named Damasus.

I will quote only this passage:

He who daily perseveres in sin will probably say: “When I am going to die I shall do penance.” Oh! melancholy consolation! Penance at the hour of death is a very doubtful remedy for him who has always done evil, and has thought of penance only as a dream, to be realized in the uncertain future.

Wearied by suffering; distracted with grief at parting from family, friends, and worldly possessions which he can no longer enjoy; a prey to bitter anguish, how will he raise his heart to God or conceive a true sorrow for his sins? He has never done so in life, and he would not do it now had he any hope of recovery.

What kind of penance must that be which a man performs when life itself is leaving him? I have known rich worldlings who have recovered from bodily sickness only to render the health of their souls still more deplorable.

Here is what I think, what I know, for I have learned it by a long experience: If he who has been a slave to sin during life die a happy death, it is only by an extraordinary miracle of grace.

St. Gregory expresses himself not less strongly upon this subject. Writing upon these words ol Job, “What is the hope of the hypocrite, if through covetousness he take by violence? Will God hear his cry when distress shall come upon him?” [Job xxvii. 8, 9.] he says:

If a man be deaf to God’s voice in prosperity, God will refuse to hear him in adversity, for it is written: “He that turneth away his ears from hearing the law, his prayer shall be an abomination.” [Prov. xxvii. 9.]

And Hugh of St. Victor, comprehending in one sentence the teaching of the Fathers, says:

It is very difficult for that penance to be true which comes at the hour of death, for we have much reason to suspect it because it is forced.

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