Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Four Last Things

This article is part of my attempt to write down those aspects of the faith I most want my daughter to understand before her upcoming Confirmation. She has, I know, learned much of this at her Catholic school, but hearing my way of describing it will, at the least, make it a little more personal.

The Four Last Things
The Four Last Things represent what happens next. They are the answer to the puzzle of why we live this life and what comes next.

If you are taking a class with a final exam, it would be smart to put some thought into that final exam. What will be on it? How hard will it be graded? What is the grade curve? When will it be and how long will it take? What do I need to study to ensure I do well?

The Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell – are the final exam for life. Nothing, really, is more important. That is why we are encouraged to meditate on them regularly, even daily. Not in a fatalistic sort of way, and not in a morbid way, but with seriousness and with hope, putting our trust in Christ Jesus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the four last things in paragraphs 1006 to 1041. You can read those sections here.

Death

“It is in regard to death that man’s condition is most shrouded in doubt.” In a sense bodily death is natural, but for faith it is in fact “the wages of sin.” For those who die in Christ’s grace it is a participation in the death of the Lord, so that they can also share his Resurrection. (CCC 1006)

There are three key things to know about death:

1. Death came into the world because of sin. Before the sin of Adam, there was no death for men in God’s plan.
2. Christ conquered death. This means that he transformed death so that now, when we die, we share in Christ’s death and therefore earn the opportunity to share in His Resurrection. Christ has turned death into a blessing.
3. In accepting Christ and in choosing to die to self, we have already begun the process of dying. Physical death only completes that process. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI said in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week that those who believe in Jesus have already entered into eternal life, that death is just a part of that eternal life.

Judgement
Judgement is complicated because there are two judgements, the particular judgement, which comes to us at the moment of our death,

Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation. (CCC 1022)

and the general judgement, which is that judgement that occurs at the end of time, after the resurrection of the dead.

In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life. (CCC 1039)

It is hard to understand why there is a general judgement when we have already received the particular judgement. There are three things to keep in mind to try to understand the difference:

1. The particular judgement is before the resurrection. The general is after, and so we go through the general judgement in our resurrected bodies.
2. Time after death is not the same as time on earth. God exists outside of time. It is not clear what our relationship with time will be in the next life, but the distinction as to which judgement came first may not be important.
3. We are alone during the particular judgement. The general judgement is in front of everyone, and we can see the effects of our sins on those other people.

One useful analogy is this: Imagine your senior year at high school or college. When you get your final grade, you know whether or not you have graduated and if you have received any honors. Weeks later, however, you still go through the formal graduation ceremony, where you are publicly recognized.

Heaven
Heaven is kind of the point of all this. The only real reason to practice religion is because you love God. And if you love God you want to be with God. To be with God after death means you will be in Heaven.

This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity —this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary,the angels and all the blessed —is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings,the state of supreme, definitive happiness. (CCC 1024)

But there is a catch. Nothing impure can be in the presence of God. The Old Testament is very clear on this, and it appeals to common sense. If God is perfect goodness, how could He tolerate any non-goodness in his presence? Put another way, Heaven wouldn’t be a perfect place if anything imperfect were there. If I retain some selfish traits, then sooner or later in Heaven I am going to act out on those traits, and someone else will be hurt. But if a person can be hurt, then it can’t be Heaven.

So, the natural consequence is that most of us – those of us where aren’t living saints – are going to need purification before we can enter God’s presence.

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified,are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. (CCC 1030)

This purification, we call Purgatory. Purgatory is a process, rather than a place. St. Paul describes it as a burning away of the wood and the chaff, the imperfections, leaving behind only the gold. We don’t really know what it is like, though some mystics have seen glimpses of souls in purgatory.

Once we have been purified, we are in Heaven, in total intimate communion with God. Again, we have no idea what it is like – “Eye has not seen. Ear has not heard…” but we do know it will be the essence of joy.

Hell
Hell is real. Christ repeated that over and over. And many will go there. We don’t know who is in Hell. We don’t even know if Hitler is there. (He may have repented at the last moment.

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” (CCC 1033)

So if we die in mortal sin without repentence, we will go to hell. We will be separated from God. Again, it makes sense. If I intentionally separate myself from God in this life, what makes me think I won’t do so on entering the next? My main job must then be to learn to love God as much as possible to avoid that eventuality.

The Precepts of the Church

A couple of years ago, I was at a men’s group meeting, and the presenter asked for someone to name the precepts of the Church. No one could, out of over thirty people.

The precepts of the Church are defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 2041 to 2043. They are the minimum requirements to be considered in communion with the Church, to be considered an active and full member of the Catholic Church.

Keeping the precepts doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to go to heaven. It doesn’t mean that you don’t sin or are not living in a state of moral sin. It doesn’t even mean that you are a good person. Not keeping the precepts might, however, put your soul in jeopardy. Breaking the precepts is considered a grave matter, and if done with consent and understanding would constitute a mortal sin.

How do the precepts help us? They are “meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” (CCC 2041) They are foundational. Necessary but not sufficient. Good grammar won’t make you a great novelist, but you won’t be a great novelist without good grammar.

Here are the precepts:

1. “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor” (CCC 2042). This pretty much reflects the commandment to make holy the Sabbath. It isn’t really complicated, though what is meant by resting from servile labor could take a whole book to discuss.

2. “You shall confess your sins at least once a year” (CCC 2042). Many people only go to confession during Lent. If you are pretty saintly and avoid mortal sin assiduously, and don’t have a problem with habitual venal sin, then maybe that is enough. But for the rest of us, monthly confession is helpful, and if you do fall in to mortal sin, going right away is imperative.

3. “You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season” (CCC 2042). If you only go to confession during Lent, then only taking the Eucharist at Easter makes sense. But remember we are going to Mass weekly. Most people take communion every time they go to Mass (though this hasn’t always been the case).

4. “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church” (CCC 2043). At the current time in the U.S. that means that we fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meat on Fridays of Lent. We are also (in the U.S.) called to make some sort of penance on all Fridays. There is even talk of renewing the Friday abstinence (which, by the way, was the direct cause of the McDonald’s Fish Filet sandwich).

5. “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church” (CCB 2043). That means giving to the collection basket as well as volunteering. We are called to give according to our ability, and what that means is left up to our consciences.

So that is it: go to Mass, go to confession, partake of the Eucharist, fast and abstain, and provide for the needs of the church. The basics of being a Catholic.

Preparation for Confirmation

My eldest daughter is preparing for confirmation. It’s an exciting time – the first in our home since mine some twenty years ago. We are starting to have more intense discussions about the faith, and I find myself wanting to be a bigger part of her preparation. It would be easy to leave it to her and her Catholic school. They would do a good and complete job, but I think my involvement can make a big difference as to how strong her faith is at the other side.

Why? A few reasons.
First, I provide a different perspective and different life experiences that can help her to dig deep into complex topics.
Second, I know her and how she thinks. That will help me to explain things in a way that she can see even more of the truth.
Third, every time she sees me living my faith, studying my faith, interested in my faith, it reinforces that all this is not just lip service. It’s real and it’s serious, and people like me build their lives on it. Hopefully she will realize she needs to the same.

So over the next several weeks, I am going to be making some simple posts about simple truths that every Catholic should know. And based on my experience and that of others I know, most people will not know these things.

I’ll be writing these as lists. Lists can be memorized. Memorization, which was heavily denigrated when I was in college, is, I think, an essential element in learning a complex subject. It puts a key set of data at your beck and call. Once it is there, you can use those fact as the foundation for deeper learning.

So, soon I will start with the basics: the precepts of the Church.

Ten Principal Virtues of the Blessed Virgin

According to St. Louis de Montfort:

1. Profound humility
2. Lively faith
3. Blind obedience
4. Continual mental prayer
5. Mortification in all things
6. Surpassing purity
7. Ardent charity
8. Heroic patience
9. Angelic sweetness
10. Divine wisdom

Worth reflecting on how we stack up against these virtues during these final days of Lent.

A Message for Our Holy Father, Pope Francis

Dear Holy Father,

I didn’t know who it would be or how I would feel, but now I know. I am so grateful to have you as our Pope!

Everything I have heard about you during this short time since the white smoke fills me with hope for the future and passion for Our Lord. Your humility, simplicity, and firmness of virtue already inspire, and I am sure there are more wonderful stories to come.

All we have heard about in the last weeks are the problems you will face, as if you are just another political candidate trying to address all the concerns of a divided electorate. But now the smoke has cleared. You have one and only one problem to face: how to evangelize a world that has turned in on itself.

But seeing the people in Saint Peter’s square, hearing professional journalists break down in tears at your address, reading the jubilation of millions online; these things show the truth, that there is a planet full of people out there who love Christ and who love his Vicar.

God bless you Pope Francis! And thanks be to God. I can’t wait to see what you do next!