If You Love Them, Don’t Assume They’re In Heaven

I find modern memorial services extremely frustrating.

On the one hand, I love celebrating all that was best in the life of someone who has died. It is beautiful to see a life through the loving eyes of those who knew the person best, with all the missteps and failures stripped away.

But when we celebrate those who have died and neglect to pray for their souls, I feel like we’re cheating them — we are consoling ourselves but abandoning our loved ones when they need us most.

I think I developed my understanding of heaven from my mom.

Growing up, I remember my mom would often wistfully say, “I want to go home.”

When I was little, I assumed she meant Mexico. She had moved to the States when she was a small child, and I thought how sad that must be. If home was Mexico, then a thousand realities barred her from going back: Her job, her family, her friends, her language and her tastes were all American now. It would take a radical change for her to “go home.”

As I grew older, I realized she was longing for something more fundamental than a tiny town in Northern Mexico — because I noticed that I longed for home, too. I would sit there on the back porch of my own house, look at the mountains in the distance and feel what Mom did: “I want to go home.”

Father Robert Spitzer says everybody longs for “home,” which is just another nickname for “God.” He associates the word “home” with “being.” We are tired of this world where all existence is transitory and ephemeral — we long for a place where “to be” is solid, real, and lasting.

Catholics know that there is such a place, called Heaven. It is a place where God is the center of everyone’s attention, where we see him face to face, and we are constantly in the company of the saints who have become perfect in love.

But first comes judgment.

The problem is, we too are far from home. Just as a thousand new realities in my mom’s life distanced her from her Mexican home, a thousand realities in our lives separate each of us from God’s eternal dwelling place.

When we die, we will each come face to face with our judge, who will examine how much we lived.

We will either have lived in harmony with our old home in God, who is love, or we will have lived in a way that makes it impossible to go back.

“Even supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter,” wrote John Henry Newman. “We are apt to deceive ourselves, and to consider heaven a place like this earth; I mean, a place where every one may choose and take his own pleasure … but there he must do God’s pleasure.”

Maybe you have noticed what I have: The people that surround us on earth do not seem very much like a company of saints. God is not in the center of their thoughts and actions. They are not rocks in a tumultuous world, but boats on the waves.

And perhaps you have noticed that you aren’t a saint either. Maybe, like me, you are lazy, filled with petty pride, quick to rely on white lies, and ungenerous with your time and money. Maybe you find it impossible to skip your own guilty pleasures but easy to skip your prayers.

If so, you would feel terribly out of place in the home you are longing for.

If we have barred ourselves from heaven, that leaves only two options.

Our heavenly home is real, and our lives’ choices are real.

If we spent a life rejecting God, we have embraced a new home without God — a place called hell.

At the same time, if we have not entirely rejected God, but have fallen short of holiness, we can’t be happy in heaven, either. First, we need to be transformed from self-centered creatures of the world to God-centered saints of the Kingdom. We need Purgatory — a place of intense suffering and joy, and a place of cleansing and mercy, according to the saints.

We should be very afraid on behalf of our loved ones who die.

We should long for them to reach their home as much as we long to reach it, but we need to be realistic about how difficult that is. We shouldn’t just celebrate their lives; we should sacrifice and pray for their souls.

That’s what we will want when we die. We will desperately want people to help us go home.

This appeared at Aleteia.
Photo: Wikimedia

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.