One of the more common expressions used today with regard to a family member or friend who died is the expression, “So and so is looking down on us from Heaven right now.” In fact, this expression has become a euphemism among some of my priest friends when a person says they want to give a eulogy at a funeral. Inevitably, if allowed, the eulogy will be built on this sentiment. Yes, this is a reflection on how many people today view death and life after death: everyone automatically goes to Heaven. Another common expression is, “We must keep so and so alive in our hearts,” or, “So and so will live on in our memories.”
And even as time passes, the survivors “celebrate the anniversary of so and so in Heaven.” Keep in mind that this idea of life beyond the grave is the defining doctrine of the Universalist denomination, not of Catholicism. And yet so many Catholics believe this to be the case. It is even more problematic when priests and deacons do not recognize the error contained in this doctrine.
For instance, just the other day a visiting priest and deacon came to say a funeral for a young woman who passed away. Mind you, neither the priest nor the deacon have been assigned to the parish for more than 15 years, which indicates that this person and her family have not come to know any of the priests assigned since they left. As part of the funeral preparations, we ask the family to fill out some background information on the deceased, mostly to assist the priest in understanding the faith life of the deceased. For this particular person, although she received the Sacraments as a child, the family indicated that she rarely went to Mass (not even selecting the “Christmas and Easter Only” option), and she was not anointed before dying. When I celebrate the funeral, I am always edified when the family is honest in this regard because it helps me to shape the homily. With regard to this funeral I had the impression that the visiting priest was not going to take this into account and was most likely going to canonize her in his homily, which he went on to do.
To press the issue further, on the liturgy planning sheet, the family asked that the following petition be offered during the universal prayer: “For so and so as she is greeted in Heaven by all her family and friends who have gone before her…” Both the priest, and the deacon who would be offering the Universal Prayer, made note of the request and were deciding where to incorporate it. During their deliberations, I felt compelled to mention to them that the prayer does not make any sense, especially at a Catholic funeral. They both looked at me with a sense of puzzlement, and the deacon said the prayer had a nice sentiment. Although it was a brief conversation in the sacristy, he tried to convince me that there was nothing wrong with it. So I responded by asking, “If so and so is already in Heaven, why should we pray for her in death? Why even have a funeral Mass?” Both nodded in agreement and tried to figure out another way to say the same thing.
Admitting just how widespread this mistaken understanding has become, I am convinced there are many souls suffering in Purgatory, or, even more likely, Hell. With regard to the latter, if most people believe that what we do in this life really makes no difference and everyone goes to Heaven upon death, then people will live as if there is no Hell, or even the possibility of ending up there after death.
Yes, one’s view of judgment and eternal life has a profound impact on how he or she lives in this life. With the rapid expansion of immorality in our world today – immorality that is championed as good and virtuous – we can see just how deeply this approach to life beyond the grave has taken hold. Many people today do live as if there is no Hell or Judgment. What is most distressing in this trend is the complete lack of a Catholic response. In fact, based on the above example, many Catholic priests and faithful have bought into this error and no longer fear “the pains and fires of Hell”. In this regard, something has to change, and change soon, unless we are willing to see many souls lost to eternal damnation.
The first step we must take is to admit that attaining Heaven is not an easy task, and that many people are not living a life of Grace that demonstrates sufficient sanctity to merit going directly to Heaven upon death. Among the conditions that God has revealed for attaining eternal bliss with Him is that a baptized person die in a state of Grace. By a state of Grace, we mean that the person regularly goes to Confession, repents of any sins committed, and lives a life of holiness. For those who at the end of life are incapable of going to Confession, there is the sacrament of Extreme Unction (i.e., anointing with the presumption that the person would confess and repent if possible). Even those who die in a state of Grace but are “imperfectly purified” (i.e., having serious sins forgiven through confession or anointing, but the person remained attached to sin), will undergo a final purification in Purgatory. It is for this reason as Catholics we pray for the dead and have Masses said for them, because the soul of a loved one may be in Purgatory.
Yes, Purgatory is the temporal punishment for one who dies in a state of Grace, but imperfectly purified. Thus, as one approaches death, we should do everything possible to ensure a person is in a state of Grace. Having done this, we should also remember that there is a possibility that someone may die “imperfectly purified”. It is with this possibility in mind that we are to pray continually for them in death, and have Masses offered for them just in case they are in Purgatory.
As I have said so many times, praying for someone who died, offering indulgences on his or her behalf, and having Masses said for them, is our way of loving them into Heaven. In this regard, I will never assume that someone who died is in Heaven, because that person may be depending on me to assist him or her. The only way I would stop would be if the Church investigated the life of the person, and canonizes him or her. Otherwise, it is tremendously dangerous to presume a loved one is in Heaven.
When it comes to final damnation, that is, Hell, a person who dies “in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love” will be separated from Him by his or her own free choice. Yes, Hell is real and is a real possibility for souls who die without freely accepting Christ. With regard to eternal life, the Church has always been very cautious in stating the eternal destiny of specific souls who have died, particularly those who were notorious sinners. We affirm that Hell is a real possibility, and that there are souls who end up there. But the Church never states that any particular soul by name is there because of the possibility of repentance and the acceptance of God’s mysterious and merciful Love. That being the case, it does not mean that everyone goes to Heaven, because there will be those who die without freely accepting the Merciful Grace of Christ. Since we do not know for sure that even a notorious sinner is in Hell, we must pray for his or her soul in death in the hope that he or she repented.
With all this in mind, to those Catholics who grapple with the certainty of death, I find it more consoling to admit our human weakness and imperfection, particularly at the moment of death. In so doing, I will accept the impending Judgment by God, and affirm that Heaven is not guaranteed to the sinner. Even though we may eulogize that the person was good to everyone, very generous to those in need, a great cook, and went to church weekly, none of those actions or qualities are what merits getting into Heaven. Culpability for sins committed and the attachment to sin are effects of our fallen and corrupt nature, and only Grace can reverse the effects of Sin.
When standing at the bedside of a loved one who is dying, such an understanding will compel me to assist the dying soul in any way I can. In this regard then, I will make every effort at the hour of his or her death to assist his or her soul into eternal life with God by doing what I can to help the person achieve a state of Grace, even if the person remains imperfectly purified. After having done what I can at the hour of death, I will continue to presume that the person was imperfectly purified and therefore will continually fulfill my role in praying that his or her final destiny will be in Peace with Christ. Thus, as long as I remain in this life, I will never presume that a loved one is in Heaven, nor will I celebrate anniversaries of that person in Heaven, nor will I ever say that person is looking down upon me from Heaven, because he or she just might not be. I love them too much to make such a presumptuous mistake.
And I can only hope that those who love me, and who will survive me after I die, will assume the same for me, for I, too, am a sinner.