Death is one of the certainties of life. Jesus taught that we must always be prepared for our deaths [Matthew 25:13]:
… because you do not know either the day or the hour
The experience of death is beyond anyone in this world. While people have many questions after loved ones die, no human being alone can discover answers.
Hence, we need to be clear about the teachings of Jesus Christ who, being divine, gives basic answers. It is he alone who can open to us the mystery of death.
God’s desire – our choice
The Catechism of the Catholic Church opens by reminding us of God’s desire that every human individual enters into personal relationship with the Creator. God’s love for each of us is total and unconditional.
However, relationships require the consent of both parties. This is why God created human beings with free will – so that they could choose to enter into personal relationships with God.
Having created free will as part of human nature, God accepts the reality that not all may accept God’s invitation to personal relationship. Children know the disappointment of wanting to be friends with others who do not wish to be friends with them.
Jesus taught that it is in this life that we make our choice whether or not to relate personally with God. The basic sign of a willingness to relate with God is the sincere effort to seek and to experience God. How a person does this will depend upon their stage on the journey of faith.
In the Christian of full and mature Christian faith, the decision to relate personally with God will be reflected in their efforts to seek deeper experiences of God, daily prayer, worship and daily efforts to live as Jesus taught. For the non-Christian, it will be reflected in their efforts to seek God and their sincere efforts to love and do good according to their consciences.
Here we are at a point where no one can judge another. Only God and the individual know how sincerely someone is seeking God.
At the moment of death
At death, we meet Jesus himself. He recognises or judges whether we have accepted God’s invitation. Our choices have eternal consequences.
Jesus taught in the Parable of the Vineyard Labourers that God is merciful and just [Matthew 20: 1-16]. He also forgave the repentant thief, who chose God only as he was dying. So a person has until their final moments before death to repent of past sins, and choose to relate personally with God.
Heaven for those accept
Those Jesus recognises as accepting of personal relationship with God, and who are free of all selfishness and sinfulness, enter into the experience of ‘heaven’. They share in God’s own life.
Jesus taught heaven to be an experience of joy [eg Luke 15: 7, 10]. All human heart yearnings for true happiness, goodness and freedom are fulfilled.
God purifies: purgatory
God is perfect love and goodness. Hence, the full experience of ‘heaven’ is not possible while there is within us any trace of selfishness or wrong doing.
After death, God purifies those who seek to relate personally with their Creator, but who still suffer traces of selfishness and sinfulness. This purification we call ‘purgatory’.
Praying for the dead
God revealed too that the living can assist those who need purification after death. Judas Maccabaeus offered atonement sacrifices for his deceased soldiers [2 Maccabees 12:45].
This is why he had this atonement offered for the dead, so that they might be released from their sin.
God knows the future – including future prayers on behalf of those who have died. This is why a deceased loved one benefits from our future prayers.
Since the beginning, the Church has prayed for the dead in every Mass. It is why a Requiem Mass is part of the funeral for a Catholic.
The Church has encouraged members to pray daily for the deceased – particularly family members and friends who have died. The month of November is dedicated to special prayer for the dead.
Finally people who are suffering now can purify themselves of selfishness and all that is not of God within them by uniting their sufferings with those of Jesus. They can also offer their sufferings in atonement for their own sins.
God accepts rejection: ‘hell’
God does not force anyone into the relationship of heaven: to force people in this way would violate human freedom. Those whose lives show that they reject a relationship with God experience hell – the eternal separation from God.
Those who reject God show this by mortal sin. This is the free and deliberate choice to disobey a grave commandment of God.
God does not will anyone to suffer hell. Rather, hell is the result of human choice and rejection of God.
Jesus used different images of hell to warn people against rejecting God. They include complete darkness, fire and the depths of the sea.
Jesus taught that all who have died will rise again at the end of the world – just as he rose from the dead. However, the risen body of Jesus, which could appear in a locked room, was different from the body seen during his earthly life – as will be our risen bodies.
St Paul likened our present bodies to grains of wheat. Wheat grains need to die to change into wheat – and our bodies need to die so we can rise with bodies like Jesus’ body [1 Corinthians 15:35-53].
Preparing for death
Each of us can ‘live, move and exist’ for as long as God wills. Every breath we take is a gift of God. The time will come when it is our turn to die – maybe soon.
We need, therefore, to be prepared as we know not ‘either the day nor the hour’. We need always to be prepared.
Daily examination of conscience
Each of us needs to examine our conscience each day. We need to recognise when we have failed to respond to a life situation in the ways Jesus taught – particularly be helping anyone in need. We need too to recognise if we have failed to live any of Ten Commandments.
We need to thank God for every good we have done, and express sincere sorrow for any failures.
The Sacrament of Penance
Through this sacrament, we become reconciled with God. Our personal relationship with God is restored and our sins are forgiven.
In earlier times, this sacrament was called ‘confession’ for its focus was on confessing sins. After the Second Vatican Council, the focus returned to reconciliation because it is a sacrament for restoring our relationship with God.
Many today still do not appreciate this. They do not practice the sacrament because they do not consider themselves to be in mortal sin.
Those deepening in personal relationship with God, however, will become more sensitive to their need for reconciliation as they become more sensitive to ways they offend God.
Works of love
We can prepare for death by doing works of love for others. These counter selfishness and other personal weaknesses that otherwise need to be purified.
We can become a member of the local St Vincent de Paul Society and assist the poor and those in crisis. Then there is the Catholic Women’s’ League whose members do marvelous works of service.
Then there can be parish outreach groups and groups who visit the sick and those in prison.
Offering personal sufferings
Jesus showed by personal example the effects of personal sufferings offer to God. His sufferings and death won redemption from sin for humanity.
If we are suffering physically or psychologically, we can win blessings for others – as well as prepare for death – by offering our sufferings to God.
In past times, parishes automatically included a Requiem Mass for their deceased loved ones as part of their funerals. These days, this practice is declining because people have drifted from the practice of the faith.
The Mass in the most powerful of all prayers for it is the self offering of Jesus himself. He makes prayers of those present his own, giving them infinite power.
It is good, therefore, to write that there will be a Requiem Mass as part of our funerals into our Wills.
Many today try to avoid anything associated with death and the fact we have to account for our lives. It is not uncommon to hear the view expressed that someone who has died is ‘now with God’ or has ‘gone to heaven’. There can be no evidence to support this view.
Some suggest that God loves everyone so God takes all to heaven. This view ignores the reality of free will and that people have to make choices.
There is the growing practice too of celebrating someone’s life, rather than praying for their eternal rest. While comforting for those who are in mourning, this in no way provides for the need of the one who has died for prayer.
In fact, it is probably not common for people to die ready to relate fully with God, who is perfect love and goodness. So there is the need for purification.
Let us all take Jesus’ warning to be prepared for death seriously.