If you ever teach a class, you come to appreciate people asking questions, even those that are quite challenging. Understandably, some of the most challenging questions deal with life and death. The Church treats these matters under the heading of the Last Things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – which in a sense are really a new beginning (CCC 1020-50).
One reason it is good that questions about the Last Things are asked in class is that all too often they are not asked in everyday life. Young people still think they are invincible and older people may avoid the topic of their mortality as too unpleasant to think about. Thoughts of death are unavoidable at the funeral of a loved one, but while we should then accompany those who mourn and offer consolation and an unassuming witness of hope, that is not the time for an extended catechesis. Instead, now and throughout our pilgrim journey is the time to reflect on these matters.
Consideration of the Last Things is very helpful in ordering our lives, so I thought I should do an entire blog series on them. This would supplement a blog series on end-of-life issues covering some of these matters that I wrote in the fall of 2013. In taking up people’s questions, however, we should note that some stem from mistaken ideas and it is important to enlighten people as to the true revealed teaching of the Church.
A few of the things commonly asked of catechists are: What are heaven and hell like? What do we do in heaven – eternity is a long time, will we be bored? What do I need to do to go to heaven? If God is love, why is there hell? Why doesn’t everyone go to heaven? Why does God send people to hell? What about people who commit suicide, is there hope for them? Can I change my judgment after I die? What is purgatory, is it like a waiting room, or is it “hell-lite” for the not so bad? Why pray for the dead?
When death is approaching – and it some day comes for us all – and these questions become more pressing, or simply when we contemplate death and what comes next, it is a pious thing to turn to our Blessed Mother and implore her maternal accompaniment and intercession, asking her to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” We turn to Mary in a special way today, the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is on this day that the Church also observes the World Day of the Sick.
As we experience sickness, even terminal illness, and think about the Last Things, there is no need to do so with fear and trepidation. Our God is a God of mercy and he delights not in anyone’s death. He made us for life, and in his infinite love for each of us, he wants to renew and purify us so that we might have eternal life with him.
This is the first in a multi-part series on the Last Things.