What Catholics Believe - Chapter Thirteen
Life is Changed, Not Ended: Our Eternal Destiny
I remember as if it were yesterday the times when I was blessed with the beautiful but painful privilege of offering the prayers of commendation of the dying for my mother and father – Mom in 1977 and Dad in 1998.
After readings from Scripture and the Litany of Saints, and when death appeared imminent, I prayed these words from the Church’s ritual:
“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….”
The ancient theological axiom - lex orandi, lex credendi - proves true once again: The way we pray is the way we believe. Our human destiny is eternal.
Chapter 13 of the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, “Our Eternal Destiny,” sets forth the Church’s doctrine concerning what are called in Catholic tradition “the last things” – resurrection of the body, death, particular judgment, heaven, purgatory, hell, last judgment, new heavens and a new earth. This chapter, based on the final article of the Creed, proclaims our faith and hope in eternal life.
While death is the universal, natural and inevitable end of our life on earth, it is too easy to bracket off death’s eventuality and its meaning from our daily consciousness. It is important to reflect on the reality of death because its finality gives urgency to our lives. “Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ” (CCC 1021).
St. John of the Cross in the 16th century wrote: “At the evening of this life, we shall be judged on our love.” The quality of our loving will be the standard by which our eternal destiny will be determined at the moment of our death in the particular judgment. “Perfect love will make possible entrance into heaven, imperfect love will require purification, and a total lack of love will mean eternal separation from God (USCCA 153).
The essence of heaven is the beatific vision – beholding God, face to face, in all his glory. Purgatory is the final purification of all who die as God’s friends, assured of salvation, yet imperfect and in need of transformation. Then there is hell, the chief punishment of which is the pain of isolation in a self-chosen, eternal separation from God.
Let’s go back to heaven for a moment – heaven, which is, as Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft put it, “the heart’s deepest longing.” St. Paul declares heaven to be “what eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Heaven is often caricatured as an eternity of souls blissfully floating on clouds to the melody of angelic harps. For too many Christians, the central doctrine of the resurrection of the body has been forgotten. We need to recall St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). It is the ancient faith of the Church that the dead will rise when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.
While we will each face God in the particular judgment immediately upon death and enter heaven, purgatory, or hell, at the end of time the final judgment will occur, when all will be assembled before God and their relationship to God made known to all. At the end of time when Christ returns in glory, the entire cosmos will be renewed – a new heaven and a new earth.
To ponder these “last things” is in no way morose for those striving to live faithful Christian lives. Fidelity to Christ, his Gospel, and his Church, conversion of heart, and seeking the gift of his merciful forgiveness are the pathway to eternal glory and the reason for our hope.
When we lose a loved one in death, and as we contemplate our own, may we recall with joy the consoling words of the funeral Mass: “Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”