“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”


Close up of an older mans' face - by Neill Kumar on Unsplash
by Neill Kumar on Unsplash

A long time ago when I was a hospital doctor – long before I became a priest, and if I’m honest, when I was not necessarily at my most Christian – I once knew an old man called Harry who taught me, if not the meaning of life, then the meaning of his life.

I happened to be the doctor on call when Harry came into our hospital very ill with what is called a femoral embolus. That means that the main artery in his leg had been blocked by a blood clot, so that his leg had lost its blood supply and was dying and would have to be amputated. He was very sick, very frightened and in a lot of pain. He asked to see a priest. I wasn’t then a priest, but a rather bored and very junior hospital doctor, but we got talking. I found out he was a Catholic – and a convert. And, like most doctors, I tend to ask more questions than is really polite, so I asked him why he had become a Catholic.

Initially he didn’t really want to tell me: he gave me a lot of “Oh, you young people these days, you weren’t in the war, you wouldn’t understand”.
But gradually I persuaded him. And he told me that he had been a soldier in the Second World War – his unit had fought its way north through the entire length of Italy against stiff determined Axis resistance. The shared experience of facing suffering and danger together had bonded his unit into a body of men who had absolute trust, absolute confidence in one another – if you will,  a band of brothers. It had given them an unbreakable relationship of absolute trust. And Harry had come to think of them almost as the family he had never had when he was growing up in an orphanage.

But, during the course of the campaign, most of them had been killed. And Harry never understood why Fate had taken them and left him alone. In particular, he felt heavily the responsibility of two men who, on separate occasions, had risked their own lives to save him – and had both died in doing so. It was a feeling that never left him – that if men had died so that he might live, then he must use his life well. The only question was ‘how?’ How could he use his life well and fulfil his debt of honour?

You see, at the time, he was a man who spent much of his life in depression. This was a time before depression was recognised as a medical disease that can be treated. Twice he had tried to kill himself. And many times during the campaign he would have been glad to die and to be out of the living Hell of the almost daily battles against the enemy. So many other men died, yet the Lord appeared to preserve him – he hoped – for a purpose. As he said, “when men have died for you, you think you must have something to live for”.

And so, at the end of the war, he became a Catholic. And every time he received the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, he thought of the men who had died for him and he felt once again united with them in a bond, a brotherhood, a family, a Holy Communion of unbreakable trust.  And that made him think of the man who died that all of us might live. Because he had seen lived out in his own time Jesus’ words of consecration: “This is my Body, which will be given up for you.”

And ever since I met him, that is, for me, the meaning of our Eucharist which we share today – that our God in the person of Christ Jesus, bled and died for us. Not because we are special, nor because we are worthy, but because He loved us. That is what unites us with God and with one another. And that is why we hear those words in our Eucharist. “Today – in this sacrament – you will be with me in Paradise.”

Let us profess our Faith in the Father who chose us; the Son who died and rose for us; and the Spirit who lives in us.

Paul O'Reilly SJ