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DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE
Administrator, Saturday 31 May 2014 - 06:55:30

DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE -- WHAT CATHOLICS BELIEVE



1. Why did this happen? Why does God allow people to die?

Death was not the original intention of God. God made us in His own Divine Image to perfectly share in His love and goodness. But the sin of our first parents brought about a state of separation from God, and consequently, loss of eternal life. Thus, the reason for death is sin.

As odd as this may sound, we need death to get rid of sin. God allows death not to punish us, but to heal us -- to restore our fallen human nature. Though it is not good that death has to exist, seen in the context of sin it is good, it is necessary.

It is important to remember that death reunites us to God. Jesus Christ, Himself, submitted to death. The Good News is that, through Him, death was destroyed and life restored!

2. Why do good people suffer? I prayed and prayed for a miracle..... Where is it?

A complete and perfect answer to this question belongs to the end of time, when every pain and tear will be wiped away. There are, however, several good analogies which enable us to better understand the mystery of innocent suffering. Take, for instance, a novel.

The plot of most novels ends with the old adage, "and they all lived happily ever after." But, before getting to the end, it is first necessary to read through the pages in the middle -- this takes time!

As human beings, we are like characters in a novel, journeying to a blessed end. But, often, the time we spend getting through the middle of our own "stories" can seem overwhelmingly difficult. It is here that we turn to Jesus Christ.

In the life of Jesus, we ironically find the innocent sufferer: the homelessness and poverty of Bethlehem, the hatred and jealousy of the authorities, the abandonment and loneliness on the Cross. And here lies the Christian answer to unjust suffering, namely, that God does not sit on His heavenly throne letting bad things happen to good people. No, in the person of Jesus, our God chose to enter into the world. He chose to suffer with us. He is on our side. Can any of us ultimately reject this kind of God?

There is another side to this discussion. When a parent refuses to do a child's homework, it causes hardship for the child. Would the solution be to do the child's homework? No, for them the child would never learn. The point is that good and loving people can sometimes let us "suffer." Yes, it is painful. Yes, it hurts. But if it is united to the Cross of Christ, redemptive lessons are always learned, and we emerge as better persons - spiritually and emotionally.

In his apostolic letter, "On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering," Pope John Paul II stated that "suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love toward neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a "civilization of love".

So why does God allow suffering? For the same reason He does everything - HE LOVES US AND INVITES US TO LOVE IN RETURN!

3. What about Purgatory?

None of us can say that we are perfect. Throughout our lives we struggle to rid ourselves of habits of sin and uncontrolled desires that often penetrate our very personality. Since there is only perfection in heaven, it seems natural that before approaching the unspeakable holiness of God, our weaknesses and failing must be removed.

More accurately, purgatory is a "state" or "condition" by which the soul is purified before entering heaven. It is like heaven's "bathroom" where we get "washed-up" for the magnificent heavenly banquet.

The "cleansing" of purgatory is no doubt painful. Whenever our faults are laid bare there are difficult lessons to learn. Change always hurts. The greatest suffering in purgatory is the temporary loss of the vision of God -- who is so near, yet so far. Medieval imagery depicts purgatory as a place of fire. Though this is not an article of faith, this imagery aptly portrays the notion of purification. Certainly, a veil of mystery prevents us from accurately assessing the intensity of pain in purgatory.

Since the souls in purgatory are outside of the standards of worldly time, the process of purification is difficult to measure. Some hold that it takes place in an instant; others believe that it endures for some time. In any case, it is important to remember that while there is intense pain in purgatory, it is not solely a place of negative suffering. The souls in purgatory are also very happy because they are assured of their salvation.

St. Catherine of Genoa comments on purgatory as a state of positive progress. She wrote that the worst suffering in purgatory is more joyful than the greatest joys on earth "because God is there teaching you ... and you want to learn everything He teaches .... even about your sin. It hurts, but it is Truth ... and you love the Truth. This is why you're there in the first place, because God is Truth." Once we are mature enough to know ourselves, we can know and love others as we could never on earth -- this completes the Communion of Saints.

Finally, purgatory is the love and mercy of God -- does it not offer hope for some wayward loved one, and for all of us who find it hard to rid ourselves of habitual sin?

4. How and why should we pray for the dead?

When we pray for the dead, we are praying for the souls in purgatory, since the souls in heaven or hell do not benefit from our prayers. This practice is rooted in Scripture, in the Second Book of Maccabees 12:46 -- "It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins."

When we speak of the Communion of Saints, we refer to the Church "triumphant" in heaven, the pilgrim Church on earth, and the Church "suffering" in purgatory. All three are united since they are joined to Christ. It is a comforting thought that the Church souls in purgatory by our works of piety, by almsgiving, charity, and fasting -- but more solemnly, by the prayer of the Mass. When we are gathered around the Altar, and the Eucharistic Lord, our loved ones come to us; here is where they touch us, and we touch them. Though we cannot see them, we are able to "feel" them. Why? Because it is at the Mass that the Church on earth unites itself to both the Church in heaven and the Church in purgatory, with one voice, rendering thanks to God, who has given us the victory through Our Lord Jesus Christ!

One final point: the Church does not sell Masses. No one can buy a Mass. At every Mass, all of the dead are remembered. When a particular request is made to remember a deceased loved one, an offering is generally given to the priest, who remembers the deceased in his personal intention. This practice is traced to the very beginning of the Church, when the faithful offered bread and wine to be used for the celebration of the Mass. In time, monetary offerings are appropriate because they evidence our concern for the Church and support the Church's ministers and works (Canon 946). Often, a percentage of this money is sent to the missions, which helps to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation.

5. Did God make hell? How can a loving God send people to hell?

Anyone who does not believe in hell need only look at a crucifix, which reminds us of what Our Lord endured so that we might not go there. Jesus did not give us much information about hell, only that it exists. The New Testament uses symbolic language such as "unquenchable fire" and "the grinding of teeth." But, ultimately, hell, as a physical place, stands behind a veil of mystery. More accurately, we can expound on hell as a "state" or "condition" created by the souls who go there. Did God make hell? No! We make hell.

Several of the saints spoke of hell as the mercy of God, explaining that at the moment of judgment, the soul becomes intensely aware of God's love. Only at the moment of death will we really know and understand how much God loves us. The soul who chooses hell does not know how to love. It's life choices were so deliberately rooted in selfishness, that it willingly turns away from God's invitation to life and love. It chooses to hide from God; to expose itself to God's love and light would be too painful. This is what hell is: people who live without love, trapped in self-frustration and bitter hate, persistent in their sins and unwilling to let go of their rejection of God's commandments. Since the human person was made for the sole purpose of loving and serving God, separation from Him is the most terrible of sufferings.

God cannot force our love. He does not treat us like puppets, monitoring our every movement. He has given us the precious gift of freedom -- to choose. If we are free to say "yes" to God's love, we must be free to say "no" to God's love.

Our salvation is completely the work of Jesus. Our hope rests knowing that He has done everything possible to assure it. But we, too, have our role to play, one that cooperates and responds to Christ's loving invitation. The basic criterion of our response is simple: "If you love me .... If you say you really love me, then obey my commandments" (John 14:15). So sacred is this duty, that the Holy Spirit has been sent to us to help us live out this noble command.

In sum, hell is made by those who go there .... and, for the most part, the road to hell is hellish.

6. What is heaven like?

Again, there is the veil of mystery -- "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has ready for those who love Him" (1 Corinthians 2:9). Yet, it is commonly agreed that, essentially, we will do the same things in heaven as we do now -- but perfectly.

Our greatest joy in heaven will lie in the awesome adventure of penetrating the very heart of God as He reveals Himself to us in innumerable ways. We will partake of the exciting journey of getting to know and love our very Creator more perfectly and completely. We will get to know the angels and the saints. (Imagine meeting our Lady, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Peter and St. Paul.) Too, we will love even more intensely those whom we have loved on earth. This poses an important question. Would the absence from heaven of a loved one make us sad? The answer is "no." In heaven, our happiness is rooted solemnly in the will of God. To be attached to anyone or anything that has chosen to be apart from God would be inconsistent with this understanding.

While everyone in heaven will be perfect and complete, our degree of happiness will be in accord with the life we lived on earth. A good analogy is the comparison of a small glass filled with water to a large glass filled with water. While the larger glass contains more water, the smaller glass is full, and does not have the capacity to receive more. Similarly, in heaven, our degree of perfection and happiness is in accordance to our capacity to receive it.

The fullness of glory will come at the end of the world when, at our Lord's second coming, there will be a general judgment of the world. All things will be made known, and the entire universe will be joined to Christ. When this occurs, purgatory will be no more. The bodies of all the dead will be joined to their souls -- in heaven or hell.

It is fitting that our bodies will be reunited to our souls. We do not change species after we die. Our eyes, ears, mouth, touch, and sense will all remain. We will be fully conscious of our identity. But we will be different; the bodies of the just will be glorified, beautiful, and supernaturally radiant. Our bodies will no longer be susceptible to suffering and sickness, and we will have no need to preserve it with food or sleep. We will not be limited by time and space and will be able to move about freely in an instant. In sum, heaven will be one exciting adventure after another; every "moment" will offer new ways to "know" and "love."

We have all, at one time or another, experienced a foretaste of heaven while on earth. Whether it be at the joyful birth of a child, or the peace of heart that comes with life's varied experiences, our loving God sends us little signs to remind us that one day every tear will be wiped away, the world will be transformed, AND DEATH WILL BE NO MORE!

Note: Sources for the above include:
Kreeft, Peter. Yes or No - Straight Answers to Tough Questions about Christianity.
Ignatius Press: 1991;
Groeschel, Benedict. EWTN - "Series on the Afterlife." 1991; The Catholic Encyclopedia; and various Catholic Catechisms.





 

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