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.

Thursday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This morning’s Gospel parable is admittedly a bit of a head scratcher. It almost seems to portray our God in a rather unfavorable light, comparing him to a capricious king who destroys whole cities after being snubbed by some invited guests, and then tosses out a visitor who seems to have come to the banquet poorly dressed. But obviously, that surface-level reading of the parable is inadequate, and the invitation it brings is worth reading deeper.

So, put plainly, the banquet is the Eucharist, given for all. The wedding is the marriage of God with his people, which makes us one with him and opens up the possibility of eternity for those who accept it. Those guests who refused to come were the leaders of the Jewish people, who should have been looking for the feast and have welcomed it with eager longing. But instead they mistreated and murdered the servant-messengers, who were the prophets who announced God’s reign and helped forge the covenant.

So those pulled in off the streets to share in the banquet are everyone else who hears the Word of God and responds to it. The guest thrown out for improper attire are those who accept the invitation of Christ with their lips, but remain clothed in the filthy garments of worldly desire and ambition instead of giving themselves to the marriage completely.

So, if it’s not already obvious, we are among those pulled in off the streets. We have heard the Word of God and know his desire to be one with us. The question is, what kind of garments have we been wearing? Are we clothed in that white garment of pure desire for God that is given us in Holy Baptism, or have we cast that beautiful vesture aside for the filth of the world?

Monday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time 

So the question today is, what is it that holds us back? The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did. He says he kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law. But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking. “What do I still lack?” he asks. When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go. He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.

So back to my first question. What holds us back? Is it many possessions? Or is it our work, or status, or what the neighbors might think? It could be that we don’t want to get out of our comfort zone and follow Christ according to the way he is calling us. Whatever it is, it involves letting go – giving up what is not God and clinging to him alone. It’s not that Jesus didn’t want the rich young man to have money. He wanted him to have eternal life. And whenever we cling to what is not God, we are in grave danger of giving up eternal life. 

We have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us. What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to. So the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life? We’re going to have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time. 

The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

I have to let you in on a little secret tonight.  Very often, when we preach a homily, the message ends up being for us preachers.  It’s not that we set out to do that; actually if we thought about it I’m pretty sure we would avoid it at all costs.  It’s just that when we pray about our homily, and we write it with the inspiration of the Spirit, after we preach it, we often sit down and say, “Oh.  You were talking to me, weren’t you, God?”

Lent has been like that for me.  Back when I picked the theme that we have been using to guide our reflection during these somber days, “Rediscover Our Need for a Savior,” I thought it was a clever way to hearken back to the book we gave out at Christmas, Rediscover Catholicism.  But as we’ve reflected and preached our way through Lent, I’ve found the message to be quite personal, more so than I would have intended.  I hope that you too have had the opportunity to rediscover a relationship with Christ that maybe wasn’t as fervent as it should be.  Lent is supposed to do that for us.

For me, these Triduum days have been amazing reminders of why I need a Savior.  As we hear the Scriptures and watch the Liturgy unfold, we can’t help but be reminded of the awesome price our Lord paid for each one of us on that Cross.  On Friday, I looked at the cross and remembered it was my sins that put him there.  I remembered that it was my brokenness that he suffered to redeem.  And most of all, I remembered that God loved me enough that not doing it was completely out of the question.  He did that, for me.

We do indeed need a Savior, all of us personally, but also as a society.  All you have to do is turn on the news and everything you hear points to a desperate, urgent need for salvation.  This world would have us accept the darkness and say it’s good enough.  This world would have us live for today, with no thought to an eternity that it really doesn’t acknowledge anyway.  This world would say there is no need for a Savior, because we’re good enough to do what we need to do.  But the world is dead wrong.

We can’t possibly ever make up for our many sins personally and as a society all by ourselves.  We have constantly made choices that take us out of friendship with God and put us on paths that lead nowhere good.  If we’re honest, all of us would admit that.  It takes a Savior who loves us more than we deserve to set things right.

And the thing is, we have that Savior.  Right here and right now.  This is the night.  Not some distant long-past night, but this night is the night, when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose triumphant from the underworld!  We keep vigil on this night because our celebration of this Most Holy Vigil brings us into communion with every believer from every time and place and with our Savior as he bursts forth from the underworld.

This night changes everything.  The ancient foe is defeated, the sentence of condemnation has been remitted, even sinful Adam is raised up from death to new life.  As an ancient homilist wrote in today’s Office of Readings, “God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.”  No power of any kind can keep our God’s salvation from coming to fruition.  Christ’s obedience on the Cross, suffering the sentence for our sins, rising from the dead, all of this gives us hope of eternal glory on that great day when we meet our God face to face.

And this is possible for one very simple reason: we have a Savior.  Our Risen Lord is the one who urges us to toss aside our water jugs and receive living water; he urges us to wash away our blindness and see ourselves, our God, and other people the way they really are; he beckons us forth from the graves that have kept us from friendship with God for too long, untying the bandages of our sinful nature.  He gives us the opportunity for eternity, and all we have to do is to allow the fire of his glory to be ignited in our hearts.  All we have to do is acknowledge our need for a Savior, and embrace his cross in order to receive his resurrection.

Because as I sang a while ago, our birth would have been no gain had we not been redeemed.  Who cares if we were born if all there is is this paltry existence?  Why would we want to be born if there is no eternity, no possibility of anything past this life, fraught as it often is with hardship and pain?  But on this night, this very night, that depressing prospect is given a proper burial, that darkness is set ablaze by the new fire, and our cries of anguish and despair give way to shouts of “Alleluia!”

Brothers and sisters, we all need a Savior.  And that Savior is the one morning star who never sets: Jesus Christ our Lord who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on all humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever!  Amen!  Alleluia!

Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas

Today’s readings

So what did you get for Christmas?  Was it everything you’d hoped for?  Perhaps you, like me, feel that the gifts are nice, but being together with family and friends at Christmas is the real gift.  Today’s first reading is exhorting us to something similar.  While the rest of the world waits in line for hours to get the coveted gift of the year, we have the consolation of knowing that nothing like that is ultimately important, or will ever make us truly happy.  The real gift that we can receive today, and every day, is the gift of Jesus, the Word made flesh, our Savior come to be one with us as Emmanuel.

St. John tells us quite clearly: “Do not love the world or the things of the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  Because what we have is so much better than anything the world can give.  The real gift this Christmas, and really every day, is the gift of eternal life.  And we have that gift because Jesus came to earth and chose to be one with us in our human nature.  That’s why the angels sang that night, and why we sing his praise every day of our lives.

Monday of the Twentieth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

So the question today is, what is it that holds us back?  The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did.  He says he kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law.  But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking.  “What do I still lack?” he asks.  When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go.  He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.

So back to my first question.  What holds us back?  Is it many possessions?  Or is it our work, or power, or what the neighbors might think.  It could be that we don’t want to get out of our comfort zone and follow Christ according to the way he is calling us.  Whatever it is, it involves letting go – giving up what is not God and clinging to him alone.  It’s not that Jesus didn’t want the rich young man to have money.  He wanted him to have eternal life.  And whenever we cling to what is not God, we are in grave danger of giving up eternal life.

We have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us.  What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to.  So the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life?  We’re going to have to live with the answer to that question for a very, very long time.

Thursday of the Thirty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Every now and then, in the Liturgy of the Word, we hear words that have directly influenced our prayers in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Today is such an occasion.  Just before we receive Holy Communion, I will elevate the host and the chalice and say: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.  Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”  These words are directly influenced by the last line of the first reading this morning.  Here John the Revelator is told to write down specific words:

Blessed are those who have been called
to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

And we all long to be on that invitation list, don’t we?  If not, we certainly should.  Here we will be brought in and given everything we need: at this banquet no one goes hungry, no one is left out, no one is unimportant.  At this banquet, Christ, the Lamb of God, is united most perfectly to his bride, the Church.  Here, all who have been called to the wedding feast are drawn up into the very life of God and are united with God in all perfection.

This is the goal of all our lives, and we get there by following the example of the saints, and by giving our life over to our Lord, the Lamb of God, who came that we might have eternal life in all its perfection and abundance.  In these last days of the Church year, Holy Mother Church reminds us where we’re going so that, should we have strayed from the path, we might make amends and correct our course.

Because not showing up at the wedding feast of the Lamb has eternal consequences.  And forfeiting eternal happiness with all the blessed ones is absolutely unthinkable.