When I was in law school, I had a classmate named Barry (not his real name). At the time, I was not practicing my faith and by no means was a paragon of virtuous living. Despite my own low standards, I thought Barry’s carousing lifestyle crossed the bounds of propriety.
He even confided to me that while he was home one weekend he made his girlfriend have an abortion, because he was not willing to take responsibility for his actions. One day, months later, Barry out of the blue told me, “It's time for a revival.” It was then that I learned that he was a part-time preacher, who from time to time would go barnstorming through Missouri and Arkansas, inviting people to become “saved.”
I was shocked. I admitted that I had no room to talk, since in my estimation I was no longer a Catholic or even a Christian. Even so, the disparity between Barry's faith and his ongoing debauchery confused and scandalized me. He eventually explained that I had to learn to separate faith from daily life. I told him with less refinement and charity than I'd use today what I thought of a religion I could test drive but not take home. My burning intuition was that a religion that did not affect who I was and how I lived was not worth my time.
An analogous situation arises today in the context of funerals. As many of us know, the dominant mindset is that the deceased assuredly is “in a better place,” and thus the funeral rite itself should be nothing other than a mini-canonization.
Assuredly we entrust the deceased to the mercy of God, who alone judges hearts. We also must be compassionate and consoling to those who are mourning, offering them solid grounds for hope that their departed loved one is indeed with the Lord. In this regard, it is entirely fitting to recall the good deeds and accomplishments of the deceased to buoy our hope in his or her resurrection.
Yet the current trend goes even further. Our contemporaries assume the deceased is in heaven, so the only real concern is helping friends and family cope with the temporal loss. This approach effectively does away with the need to pray and offer sacrifice for the deceased, which Scripture describes as a “very excellent and noble” practice (2 Mc 12:43; cf. Catechism, no. 1032). It also wastes a teachable moment: The reality of death affords all of us the opportunity to consider our own mortality and thus seek to be in right relationship with God. An objective observer at many funerals today could easily conclude that it really doesn't matter how one lives, because everyone's eternal fate is the same.
Both my encounter with Barry and the experience at many funerals today reflect the error of presumption, which takes many forms (cf. Catechism, no. 2092). One form of presumption is the timeless heresy of Pelagianism, which holds that happiness is attainable by merely human effort, without the necessity of grace. Another example of presumption, commonly seen at funerals, is the attitude that in the end God will forgive us irrespective of our cooperation with grace. Following this view, heaven is the inevitable and more or less universal sequel to this life.
Christian fundamentalism is yet another form of presumption. Granted, Barry’s case is an extreme example of the “once saved, always saved” mentality. Most Bible Christians would be aghast at Barry's lifestyle. Further, they rightly affirm in the midst of our largely secular and indifferent society the centrality of our faith in Jesus Christ. Even so, the necessity of a “born again” experience is typically explained in a way that leaves no room for human freedom. Once “saved,” the individual can't “lose” his salvation, even through apostasy or mortal sin.
Tragically, many people today live in despair and fail to see any purpose in life. Others fall prey to presumption, believing that when all is said and done our actions are irrelevant to our salvation. But the truth is that we are neither “lost in the cosmos” nor helpless pawns in the drama of salvation history. Rather, we are pilgrims on a journey to our true home. Our baptisms make us members of God's family, but mark only the beginning of our journey home to the Father.
God's grace is never absent during the journey, but it mysteriously respects our freedom to cooperate as His disciples. Our cooperation is substantially aided by prayer, the sacraments, and growth in virtue. For example, we need to grow in fortitude and patience so that we may hold firm in difficulties and remain focused on our heavenly prize (cf. Phil 3:13-15).
In our own time, we have no greater “witness to hope” than our Holy Father. Despite personal tragedies, the relentless Nazi and Communist oppression of his homeland, and the myriad challenges and sufferings that go with being the Roman Pontiff for over a quarter of a century, Pope John Paul II's life has borne a loud, compelling witness to the hope that is in him. He readily admits that the Gospel is demanding. But when he counsels all people to “Be not afraid!” he is not watering down the Gospel, but rather affirming that God's demands never exceed our human abilities to cooperate with His grace.
Having a destination in mind makes all the difference. Think about two drivers on a freeway. The first driver is just out for a drive “to kill time.” The second driver is en route to her daughter's wedding in another city. Note that there is a difference not only in destination. The fact that the second driver has a specific destination doesn't lessen the importance of her drive. To the contrary, the fact that she has a specific goal in mind actually invests the drive with meaning and significance.
The truth of the matter is that our Lord right now is calling us to an intimate relationship with Him as His children, and He desires our eternal happiness. That's why the Church stresses that our hope in a life to come does not take away from the importance of our earthly duties, but rather infuses those duties with greater meaning and purpose.
If we're not on our way to our eternal home, where are we going? And how are we getting there?
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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