I Believe in Life Everlasting: A Talk on Catholic Beliefs Regarding Eternity Given to the Clarendon Hills Interfaith Dinner

Today at Notre Dame we celebrated the funeral of a dear woman who has been part of our community for many years.  The funeral Liturgy provides a glimpse as to what the Catholic Church teaches about life, death, and eternity.  In particular, the prayer of commendation, which is said just before leaving the church says this:

Into your hands, Father of mercies,
we commend our sister Helen
in the sure and certain hope
that, together with all who have died in Christ,
she will rise with him on the last day. 

Merciful Lord,
turn toward us and listen to our prayers:
open the gates of paradise to your servant
and help us who remain
to comfort one another with assurances of faith,
until we all meet in Christ
and with you and with our sister for ever.

From this beautiful prayer, we can pick up two very important aspects of the Church’s teaching on eternity: first, for the baptized believer who has done her or his best to live the Gospel, a resurrection to life is assured – in “sure and certain hope.”  Second, that resurrection will happen together with all believers, and until then we wait, comforting one another with “assurances of faith” so that one day we can all “meet in Christ.”

So first, the believer has sure and certain hope of resurrection to life.  Many people erroneously believe that because of the Church’s teaching on works, and also the teaching on purgatory, the salvation of the believer is not certain.  But we believe that our salvation has indeed been won by Christ, and believe that those who accept his free offer of grace and friendship are indeed assured of their eternal salvation (CCC 1031).  The need for purification in purgatory is a separate matter; and I’ll ask you to bookmark that for a bit.*

Second, we believe that salvation is something we’re supposed to do together.  Yes, the individual believer has to choose to receive grace and friendship with God, but we live that grace and friendship in communion with the body of the Church, and it’s up to us as believers to encourage one another and bring one another to heaven.  This is such an important concept that the Church, in its instruction on marriage, insists that “authentic married love is caught up into divine love,” in effect, the spouses love one another into heaven (Gaudium et Spes 48.2, cf CCC 1639).  Even vocations to the consecrated religious life (monks, sisters, etc.) are ordered to the salvation of the person within the context of community.  As Saint Benedict wrote in his Rule for monks, “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to eternal life” (Rule of St. Benedict, 72).  This desire for communal salvation is so great that the Church prays for it at every celebration of the Eucharist.  For example, this selection from Eucharistic Prayer I notes that the whole family of believers comes together to offer the sacrifice:

Therefore, Lord, we pray:
graciously accept this oblation of our service,
that of your whole family;
order our days in your peace,
and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.

And so we can say that Catholic eternity consists of assured and communal salvation for each believer.  But what does it look like?

At the moment of death, each person receives a particular, individual judgment, which corresponds to whether or not they have accepted God’s free gift of grace and friendship.  We see this biblically in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus relates a parable about Lazarus, a poor man, who is ignored by a rich man every single day of their lives on earth.  When they have both died, Lazarus goes to heaven, while the rich man goes to hell.  The rich man cries out for relief to Father Abraham, who replies: “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.  Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours” (Luke 16:25-26).  Jesus was giving this analogy to show the choice that we must make: accepting God’s friendship means living a certain way, loving others and reaching out to them in their need.

Heaven, then, is a choice that leads to perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the angels and saints.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that heaven “is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC 1024).  I always tell the children that I teach that God always wants us to be happy.  And if we want to be happy forever, we will always seek God’s will and do what he calls us to do.  That is the life that leads to heaven.

In heaven, we have communion with the angels and saints and all of the Church, but also and especially with God himself.  This communion is almost indescribable, although the Bible speaks of it in images: light, life, the heavenly Jerusalem, paradise.  Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians summed it up: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9, cf CCC 1027).  It’s hard to describe this communion with God because he is transcendent, and so unless he gives us the grace of a capacity to see him, it doesn’t happen.  We call this grace the “beatific vision” in which we are allowed to see God and share with him the joy of salvation (CCC 1028).

Now, we can’t talk about heaven without at least mentioning the other thing, and that is hell.  Because that’s where the rich man found himself, so because Jesus included it in his teaching, we know that it exists.  But what the Church teaches about hell is that it is in itself a choice.  To get there, one must completely reject God’s free gift of grace and friendship.  This is usually done through the act of unrepentant mortal sin: one knows the right thing to do, and actively chooses not to do it, and acts contrary to the good.  If a person commits a mortal sin, it can be forgiven through grace, but for the one who chooses not to seek forgiveness and chooses not to repent, the only other option is a life devoid of God’s presence.  And that life we call hell (CCC 1033).

But here’s the thing about hell.  We don’t really know if anyone’s there or not, well, except for Satan and his demons.  But since God doesn’t send anyone to hell – one chooses to go there freely – we can’t say for certain that there is anyone there.  The Church teaches that we definitely know that thousands of people are in heaven, because we call them saints.  The process of sainthood involves the recognition of miracles that happen after the saint’s death, indicating that the person is acting from the glory of heaven to affect the good of those on earth.  But the Church has never named anyone who is in hell, because we cannot know if, at the moment of death, an unrepentant sinner may have called out to God for mercy, repenting of her or his sins.  We know that hell exists, and we know that it is possible to go there of one’s own free will, but we don’t know that anyone has chosen that option.  In fact, we hope not.

To sum up Catholic teaching about the nature of heaven and eternity, I’d like to once again choose some words from the Church’s Liturgy.  This time it comes from the prayers for the dead, which can be said at the bedside of a dying person.  For them we pray:

Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian!

May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
with Joseph, and all the angels and saints …

May you return to [your Creator]
who formed you from the dust of the earth.
May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints
come to meet you as you go forth from this life…
May you see your Redeemer face to face.  Amen.

*Purgatory

So I referred to Purgatory earlier, and I said to book mark it.  Let’s come back to it now.  Purgatory is thought of as the final purification, in which the soul is made fit to be caught up into the life of God in heaven.  Now once again, every believer who has accepted God’s grace and friendship is absolutely assured of eternal salvation.  But if they have sins that have left them impure at death, they must be purified to enter the joy of heaven (CCC 1030).  The purification in purgatory is entirely different that the punishment of the damned in hell.  Purgatory is, instead, that “cleansing fire” that Saint Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor 3:15, 1 Pet 1:7).  This is why the Church prays for the dead, a practice that comes from the book of Maccabees in which we read: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:46, cf. CCC 1032).

I tell people that Purgatory is really a gift.  It’s that time and experience of our spiritual life in which we are completely made ready for the life of heaven.  It’s kind of stereotypical for a Catholic to say this, but eternity can be likened to a party.  Those who freely accept the invitation freely offered enter in and enjoy the party.  This is heaven.  Those who reject the invitation outright are outside the party, and this is hell.  But imagine going to a party and you know that you’ve done or said something wrong to another person at the party, in particular the host.  You’re not going to be enjoying yourself with the guilt of that indiscretion on your heart.  So you need to do something to fix the relationship so that you can enjoy the party.  That’s what Purgatory is.  You still get to go to the party, but you have to make amends first.

The Anniversary of the Dedication of the Saint John Lateran Cathedral

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of the Saint John Lateran Cathedral in Rome. That seems a little obscure to us, I know, but it’s an important feast for the Church because it is a celebration of Church and a reflection on what Church is. The Lateran Cathedral is the cathedral church for the Diocese of Rome. As bishop of the diocese, the Lateran Cathedral is the pope’s church. Because of that, Saint John Lateran is considered to be the mother church of the Catholic faithful. So it’s an important church, and it gives us cause to celebrate the Church as a whole, so this feast is celebrated throughout the world, and when it falls on Sunday, it takes the place of the Ordinary Time Sunday. So that’s why we’re celebrating the Dedication of Saint John Lateran today.

So let’s take a look at what Church (big “C”) is. The Church is a reality that is at the same time concrete and experiential and heavenly and eternal. The concrete structures of it are the nuts and bolts that make it work. The building itself, the parish staff, the rubrics of liturgy and the holy books, as well as teachings and dogma and sacraments – all of these are things we can touch, or learn or work with. But there is another layer, one more experiential. These include the people as a whole, on the way to holiness; the Word at work in believers; the effects of grace mediated through the sacraments; the Gospel lived out day by day and the love of God shown through Charity. And in yet another layer, the Church is not just here on earth. It’s in heaven, celebrated among the Communion of Saints and sung by the choirs of angels. And finally it is eternal, not just limited to our own puny ideas of time and space, but all wrapped up in the Mind of God who is ever-present, all-powerful and all-knowing. The Church is an incredible reality that has been pondered by people much more saintly and learned than I, and a reality that will be advanced and celebrated for ages yet to come.

The Scriptures today are a beautiful meditation on Church. The gospel is a little jarring, to be honest. Jesus has this famous dust-up with the temple merchants and officials. A lot of people find this disturbing, because it jars their view of Jesus as a peaceful man. For the record, I don’t think Jesus was about peace the way we think of peace. He was definitely more about zeal for the truth, for justice, and for proper worship of God, all of which is in play here. Those merchants were doing a necessary task, honestly. People needed to pay the temple tax, and they needed the proper coinage to do it, so there had to be money changers. People needed to make sacrifice, and they needed unblemished animals for it, so there had to be people selling animals. What didn’t need to happen was for these people to be taking advantage of the poor, and charging more than they should have. That was dishonest and unjust and Jesus was sick of it.

But even more than that, this whole dishonest structure was a view of Church that Jesus was saying was completely unnecessary now. The kingdom of God is at hand, we’ve been hearing that in the readings for months now, and so this unjust and corrupt view of Church needed to come to an end. So in his zeal for the real house of God, Jesus turns the old stuff upside-down. That’s what’s going on here. Saint Paul underscores the similar notion to the people of Corinth in today’s first reading. What is the Church? He says, “YOU are God’s building!” He and the Apostles have laid the foundation, and we are building it up, becoming a Temple of the Holy Spirit. There is an entirely new view of Church going on here, and it’s one that we should celebrate and have zeal for.

So today we celebrate Church; we peel back the Church’s many layers, touching and learning the concrete, living the experiential, asking for the intercession of the heavenly, and yearning to be caught up in the eternal. The Church is our Mother who has given us birth in the Spirit and who nurtures us toward eternal life. The river of God’s life flows forth from the Church to baptize and sanctify the whole world unto the One who created it all. The Church has its foundation in Christ, who also raises it up to eternity. Blessed are all those who find their life in its sanctuary.

The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle

Today we celebrate the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the apostle.  This is a feast that commemorates Jesus giving the servant authority of the Church to Saint Peter, as we heard in today’s Gospel.  This is a special day of prayer for the Pope, the successor of Saint Peter among us.

It’s important to remember that Saint Peter was not chosen because he was perfect, but instead because he was faithful.  Even after he denied Jesus, he turned back and three times professed his love.  That’s an important lesson for us, because we too may have failed our Lord time and time again, but he always gives us the opportunity to turn back, to profess our love, and to be part of his mission once again.

In today’s Scripture, Saint Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the One who comes in God’s name.  Making that proclamation is the task of the Church in every place, and in every age.  We disciples are called to faithfulness, just as Peter was; we are called to conversion, just as Peter was; and we are called to witness to the authority of Christ in every situation: in our Church, yes, but also in our workplaces and in our homes.  With the Lord as our shepherd, there is nothing we shall want in any situation.

Mass for the Election of a Bishop

Our diocese this weekend is celebrating the Mass for the Election of a Bishop, praying for the prompt appointment of our next bishop.  So I did a brief homily on what a bishop is and does, followed by a talk about (sigh) money.  You get just the first thing here!

As you may know, our diocese has not had a bishop since early December, when Bishop Sartain became the archbishop of Seattle.  Since then, Bishop Siegel, our auxiliary bishop, was named the diocesan administrator.  He can keep the diocese running, but can’t really make any substantive changes.  So at this time, we are waiting for Rome to select a new bishop for us, and today we celebrate a special Mass for the Election of a Bishop, praying that the Holy Spirit would help Pope Benedict find us a man who is holy, and loving to his people and clergy.

 

Bishops were selected in the Church pretty early on, during the time the original Apostles were dying off.  These successors to the Apostles helped to ensure that the faith was handed down to us as the Lord intended it.  They administrate the Sacraments and see to it that the diocese and its parishes live and witness to the Gospel message in the present time.

 

Candidates for the office of Bishop have to be priests.  When there is a vacancy in a diocese such as ours, it can be filled by a man who is already a bishop somewhere else, or by a priest of our diocese or even of another diocese.  Names for these candidates are submitted to Rome through the Papal Nuncio, who in the United States is Archbishop Pietro Sambi.  These candidates are examined very closely, and without their knowing, I might add.  If the person selected is already a bishop, he is installed in the diocese within a short period of time.  If he is a priest, he is ordained or consecrated as a bishop, which automatically installs him as the bishop of the diocese.

 

The diocese of Joliet in Illinois was erected in December of 1948, carved out of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the diocese of Rockford, and the diocese of Peoria.  Since then we have had four bishops.  Bishop Martin McNamara, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, served from the erection of the diocese until his death in 1966.  Bishop Romeo Blanchette, a priest and auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Joliet, served from 1966 until 1979.  Bishop Joseph Imesch, an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Detroit, served from 1979 until his retirement in 2006.  Bishop Peter Sartain, who was bishop of Little Rock, served from 2006 until this past December.

 

And so we continue to wait for word of who our next bishop will be.  We are a rather large diocese, of around 700,000 Catholics spread over seven counties.  Popular opinion suggests that that means we won’t have to wait very long.  Our prayer is that the Holy Spirit would inspire all those involved in the decision so that we have a wonderful bishop who can serve us and help us move our diocese forward in spreading the Gospel to the people of our seven counties.

 

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, apostle

Today’s readings

Today we celebrate the feast of the Chair of St. Peter the apostle. This is a feast that commemorates Jesus giving the servant authority of the Church to St. Peter, as we heard in today’s Gospel. This is a special day of prayer for the Pope, the successor of St. Peter among us.

It’s important to remember that Peter was not chosen because he was perfect, but instead because he was faithful. Even after he denied Jesus, he turned back and three times professed his love.  That’s an important lesson for us during this Lenten season.  We too may have failed our Lord time and time again, but he always gives us the opportunity to turn back, to profess our love, and to be part of his mission once again.

In today’s Scripture, Saint Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the One who comes in God’s name. Making that proclamation is the task of the Church in every place, and in every age. We disciples are called to faithfulness, just as Peter was, we are called to conversion, just as Peter was, and we are called to witness to the authority of Christ in every situation: in our Church, yes, but also in our workplaces and in our homes. With the Lord as our shepherd, there is nothing we shall want in any situation.

Monday of the Second Week of Ordinary Time: Christian Unity

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is challenging some age-old practices.  He is not saying that fasting is a bad thing, but instead he is saying that something new is going on.  He has come to usher in a new age, and fasting is inappropriate while he is there bringing it in!

Today is the beginning of the annual week of prayer for Christian Unity.  This week we remember that Christ came to found one and only one Church and, sadly, we have messed that up through our own sin and pride.  But this week we also celebrate that some of that is changing.  Slowly, but surely.  Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists are beginning to come to agreement on what “justification by faith” means.  Orthodox and Catholics are beginning to talk about Eucharist and the role of the pope.  Even Catholics and Evangelicals are coming to trust each other more, and have come together in many ways to promote the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.

We still have a long way to go, but these steps are signs of progress.  We focus on what we all believe in: a loving, Trinitarian God, salvation in Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit, our common Baptism and the promise of everlasting life in heaven.  From these we can begin our prayer for unity, that, as Christ desired, we may all be one.  The bridegroom is among us, even in our fractured state, and doing something new, something wonderful, something life-changing.  There is new wine and new wineskins; for that we can all be grateful.

CREEDS Retreat Conference II: The Eucharist and the Church

Scriptures: Matthew 26:14-30

Godspell: “Beautiful City” and “On the Willows”

The Eucharist is an amazingly complex event.  Ordinary food – bread and wine – become the very body and blood of our Lord and God.  Through the Eucharist we mere creatures are given the opportunity to take part in the very life of God our creator.  That life giving body and blood join to our own flesh and blood and raise us up from the base creatures that we are to become more like our divine Savior.  In some way, we become what we receive.  And each celebration of the Eucharist isn’t merely one of a vast number of disconnected events; instead it is what we call an anamnesis, a re-presentation or remembering taking part in the one event on Calvary that saved us all.

In this meal, we are fed and we participate in a sacrifice.  We are fed spiritually, given the strength to fight against evil, to reach out to the needy, to live our lives in holiness and grace.  The strength that the Eucharistic food gives us enables us to change our lives, becoming more than we were, becoming more that we might settle for, becoming all that God created us to be.  We participate also in sacrifice, not just any sacrifice, but the one saving sacrifice that reconciled us to God.

This holy mystery comes about through a similarly complex event, which is to say our celebration of the Mass.  Words are said – “this is my body,” “this is my blood” – the very words Christ himself used when he gave us this amazing sacrament.  These words aren’t magic “hocus pocus” words, because this event is much more than magic.  It’s not a mere change, it’s a re-creation, a re-creation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and a re-creation of ourselves into the disciples God wants us to be.  And it’s much more than just the words: the bread and wine themselves are important, the priest as the minister acts in the person of Christ, the assembled body of believers brings their joys, sorrows, successes, failures, their riches and their poverty, their gifts and their brokenness, and lays all of it before the altar, in a great offering of faith.

We could get all caught up in the externals.  We want the best music, the nicest vestments and decorations.  But none of that means anything without the faithful act of the assembly, praying and participating, becoming one with each other and one with God.  Eucharist is thanksgiving for our many blessings, but most of all for the blessing of salvation and grace.  Eucharist is communion with Christ and with our brothers and sisters.  In Godspell, this is symbolized by the players having the face paint washed off before the breaking of bread: what had made them beautiful individuals in the sight of God is now an obstacle to communion, and so it is washed away as they come together as one community.

This is why we take such care with the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  We carefully prepare the bread and wine.  We pray the words as best we can in both word and song.  We bow before we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.  We handle the Body of Christ and the Cup of the Blood of Christ with a care reserved for the most precious of gifts, which of course this is.  And when we are done, we meticulously collect and consume every crumb of Christ’s Body and every drop of his Precious Blood.  When I do that, there is a little prayer that the Liturgy has me say quietly: “May I receive these gifts with purity of heart.  May they bring me healing and strength, now and forever.”  Isn’t that wonderful?  Notice how it carefully refers to the tiniest of leftovers as gifts to be received with purity of heart.  Notice how even those fragments have the ability to bring me healing and strength now and forever!

And what those gifts do for me, they do for all of us.  We become a community strengthened by our participation in the Eucharist and our Communion with God and each other.  The Eucharist is the central act of the Church, because in the Eucharist, we become one and together we accomplish all that Christ wanted for the world: healing the sick, binding up the broken, reaching the lost and the marginalized, meeting the needs of the poor and homeless, helping prisoners find freedom in Christ, defending the infant in the womb, the child on the streets, the elderly on their sick beds, bringing the presence of Christ to the lonely.  As the song says, we can build a beautiful city, but only through our communion with Christ.

As incredibly complex as the Eucharist and our celebration of it is, we are blessed to be able to celebrate it every day of the week.  I remember in the first week of seminary, one of my friends on Saturday said, “Who wants to go to Mass with me tonight and get it over with?”  You’ve never seen men with such horrified looks on their faces!  That is because, whenever we gather, that is the best part of our day.  Our participation in the Eucharist makes all the rest of our lives possible, but not only possible but also better, more filled with grace.  And so, as the prayer says, may we always receive these incredible gifts with purity of heart.  May they bring us healing and strength, now and forever.