The phenomenal strength of our belief in an afterlife is very consoling. It, of course, is not meant to be some sort of pious fairy tale providing us with a “happily ever after” ending for our fearsome ideas of the awesome finality of death. Among all the various and sundry absurdities that many people supply for their ignorance of authentic Catholic teaching (failure to believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, the personal absolution or release from the necessity for confession in dealing with mortal sin in one’s life, the knowledge of mortal sin itself, to name a few) the lack of believing in heaven, hell or purgatory ranks fairly high in issues we need to address in our teaching.
Many of you know that I am recuperating from coronary bypass surgery. I am still feeling the effects of having a “Mack truck on my chest” these days — along with some other issues. (I’ll share all of that with you at another time …) Before the surgery, I was genuinely afraid. I had confidence in the surgeon and all of those “pre-operative” positive thoughts, but I was still afraid. As is typical for me, I did not share my fears widely. I have always had a great devotion to St. Joseph and so I shared my fears freely with the patron saint of a happy death, hoping that if it was God’s will for me to die in surgery, I would wake up in heaven — OK, purgatory.
Now, you see, THAT is the reality of our belief about the afterlife: the consolation of embracing the option of heaven or the desolation of not! There are different places — states of existence, if you will — where we will await the second coming of Jesus (another difficult point of Catholic belief …).
First of all, we believe that we, just like our Blessed Savior, will rise from the dead. We will rise in our bodies to be reunited with our souls (the part of us that does not die). We say it every time we say the creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” We are not asserting our belief in Jesus’ resurrection when we say that (as many may think), we are asserting the belief in our resurrection from the dead! And because we are human beings made up of body and soul, we need both to be completely ourselves. When Jesus comes back, He who is the resurrection and the life, there will no longer be any death or the consequences of death. All creation will be made new again. Thus, in the power of Christ’s resurrection, we will rise with glorified bodies to face eternity. The time of the second coming is a closely guarded secret known only to the Triune God, so we still have to deal with our options in the meantime.
We all know that we will die; we don’t know when or how, but we are all certain about the reality of death. As I have already mentioned, death can be a fearful thing. That is why it is so good to think of Jesus and the example He gave us with his life here on earth. Jesus faced death and its author, the devil, without fear. The devil released the entire arsenal of death’s power at Jesus — fear, pain, anguish, rejection, sadness, loneliness, and on and on. The devil even tried to make Jesus feel like He was abandoned by His Father — that He was abandoned by God! This can be a great fear at the time of death and it affects many people.
Our faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection removes all the fear from our death. Yes, we still may have our worries and such, but death does not bring a fear of separation from God. God created us for LIFE and for eternal life with Him in heaven.
Most of us are familiar with heaven and hell — and know pretty well how to get to either one. The temporary place — purgatory — is something that requires just a little notice here. Simply put, purgatory is the finishing up point before heaven. It’s the place where you finish “getting ready” for the banquet of heaven. We assist in that process by praying for those souls who are in purgatory. We recommend their good deeds to God and we offer prayers and good deeds on their behalf.
November is typically the month we remember our beloved dead in special ways. On the first day of November, we remember all of our brothers and sisters — all of our fellow human beings who have died — who are already in heaven. It’s the celebration of All Saints.
On the second of November, we are mindful of the souls in purgatory, those for whom we pray because they no longer can pray for themselves.
So, remember the brevity of life and the certainty of death. Pray for those who have gone before us and live your life with a certainty about the reality of heaven and your place in it!