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“It is appointed for men to die once, then comes judgment”. These are sobering words indeed from scripture (Heb 9:27)! They bring up two of what we refer to in Catholicism as the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell).
No one likes to think much about death and judgment, especially these days. There’s an erroneous notion, contrary to our faith, that when you die it’s lights out. That’s it. Your earthly existence is all there is so get and do everything you can now!
Yet nothing could be further from the truth! All you have to do is read the Church’s public and private revelations about what happens after death, as well as numerous Near Death Experiences reported in the media, to realize that we have souls that live on after bodily death in various states of great joy, pain, or shades in between.
And when it comes to that foolish notion that “He who dies with the most toys wins”, this other saying makes a good response: “Shrouds have no pockets.” You can’t take it with you, whatever it is that you coveted so intensely in this life!
Regarding our faith, we shouldn’t adopt the specious view that God is only a figure of mercy and not a just judge as well. Many people have mistakenly taken Pope Francis’ now famous question “who am I to judge” to imply that the best judgment is none at all. But that’s not what he meant, as discussed here.
In this age of secularism and moral relativism run rampant, it is all too easy to go down the broad road that Jesus warned us about (Matt 7:13) that leads to destruction!
We hear much of our Lord’s great mercy nowadays, and this is in itself a great antidote to despair, but we also must keep in mind, in accordance with scripture and people’s actual experiences, that when we die we will be judged by God, and many say by ourselves in the process, on how we’ve lived our lives, and this will determine our Eternal destination, be it in heaven or hell!
The Church speaks of two Judgments. The first is the Particular Judgment each of us will face upon our death. This sends us to heaven, hell, or purgatory. (Purgatory is for souls that are saved but not quite ready for heaven. These must undergo a “cleansing” period first, with varying degrees of joy and pain, as discussed here.)
The second is known as the General Judgment, which will take place with our Lord’s Second Coming. This judgment will reaffirm the results of our Particular Judgment, but with the added effect of each person’s soul’s condition being plain for all to see. In addition, our bodies at that point will be reunited with our souls in heavenly perfection and love with God; or hellish pain and misery separated from our Creator; in either case, forever.
When it comes to that particular judgment we face at death, nothing is hidden from God, who sees our souls in “High Definition”, the good and the bad, warts and all! As we read in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews “all things are naked and open to the eyes of him [God] to whom we have to give account” (Heb 4:13).
As St. Paul expressed it once “All of us must be made manifest before the tribunal of Christ, so that each one may receive what he has won through the body, according to his works, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10).
Christ expects each of us to follow His Commandments as we worship Him in this life. As He said in the Last Supper discourse “If you love me, keep my Commandments.” (John 14:15). And the Ten Commandments are not Ten Suggestions, as ABC Network's Ted Koppel once noted a while back.
Trees don’t care what you do, or who you may cheat or cheat on, for that matter. Some guru, Mother Earth, or one of the many pagan gods, may or may not care. But God does! Maybe that’s why some people would rather worship Mother Earth these days, or a tree, or something or someone else rather than the God who gave His life for your salvation on the cross at Calvary.
In the end, traditional Catholicism holds that when you pass away you will face your Creator and the main question then, with your soul laid bare before Him, will be not just how you lived but also, more importantly how you loved.
This is in accordance with our Lord’s famous words in Scripture which appear in the both in the Old and New Testaments, that you are to love God with all your heart, strength, and mind and your neighbor as yourself.
While we are called to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48) our Lord understands our weaknesses enough to know we fall prey to sin all too easily. That’s why He implores us not to despair from our sins but to partake of His Mercy in the Sacrament of Penance (Confession).
Yet, while we must implore His Mercy we should not take it as a license for habitual bad behavior. We must respond as fully as we can to the graces He gives us in the Sacraments of the Eucharist (in Mass) and Penance.
St. Robert Bellarmine noted, in Chapter 4 of his excellent book The Art of Dying Well (by living well!), routine examinations of conscience (such as this one) can help you weed out bad and sinful habits and inclinations. They also better prepare you for confession.
The main thing is to for us to develop informed consciences not chloroformed ones, in which, for whatever reason, we purposefully suppress our guilty consciences over sins with dubious rationales such as “Everybody does it” or “I don’t need God to tell me what’s right and wrong”.
Many treatises have traditionally stressed the importance of preparing for our judgment at our death by living in as much as state of grace and sanctity as possible. As I mentioned before, when we stand before God at that moment there will be nothing hidden from him. Your life is an open book at that point, with all your strengths and weaknesses on display for you and Him to see.
This sounds sobering indeed, when all those sins you thought were no big deal suddenly loom large in determining your Eternity! I heard a priest once say we are to walk in faith but not in fear. And yet we read in Scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 11:10)! St. John of the Cross once called this disposition “Holy Fear” and said it was the “key and custodian of all virtues.”
The great saints never took their salvation for granted but rather followed St. Paul’s admonition to work out their salvation with “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). This doesn’t mean adopting a cringing, servile attitude towards God, but rather one of great respect and awe for Him as both our Creator and partner in our salvation. As St. Augustine once said “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.”
Jesus Himself said "I am the vine you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). He lovingly offers each one of us His assistance to to live better, holier lives as "citizens-in-training" for heaven. This makes following the Ten Commandments easier than it would otherwise be. But, as Mother Teresa once famously observed, we must give God permission to work within us. This is truly a partnership!
As St. Robert Bellarmine put it "a good death depends upon a good life.” Keep in mind a living a good life doesn't mean living what we've come to think of as the good life, in which our own pleasure and prestige come first and foremost!
The great Patron Saint of Priests Jean-Marie Vianney expressed a similar thought: "To die well we must live well." This involves letting Christ work within us and, as mentioned earlier, making frequent examinations of conscience, even if just briefly during the day or before retiring at night.
If you find you can't do this every day, do it whenever you can as a way of "checking-in" with our Lord to partake of His fellowship and Mercy. And no, He's never "too busy" or "on another line"!
Prayers to the Blessed Mother (such as the Hail Mary) and to St. Joseph (the patron of a happy death) and these prayers for a happy death can be helpful as well!
To die a happy death might not necessarily be peaceful, sadly, but the goal is to die with your soul as ready as possible for Eternal Life in Heaven! An important part of a happy death, one with a heavenly outcome, is being able to practice dying to ourselves while here on earth.
You might have heard of the term mortification used regarding one's sensual desires. St. Paul once wrote "if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live"(Rom 8:13).
The important idea here is for us to practice each day taming our earthly desires, and never letting them run and ruin our lives. Do you respect others or just use them to get what you want? Do you obsess about things? That new car, house, fancy gadget, piece of jewelry, etc. Do you own your possessions or do they own you??
This doesn’t mean we can’t create or enjoy pleasures in this world, such as from food, art, sports, music or other entertainment, or whatever else. God gave us all different talents to be used and shared, after all! The important thing is to think of ourselves as stewards of the talents and abilities He’s given each of us, no matter how great or how small, they are. Do we use them to give glory to God or to ourselves?
Never let possessions get in the way of real love and charity towards your neighbor! This can be a tall order, especially in the materialistic world we live in these days where all too many of us subscribe to the spiritually toxic notion that “you are what you own”!
It is an important tenet of our Catholic faith that we determine our fate by our reaction to the lives we’ve lived at our Particular Judgment when we see ourselves as we truly are and have been in God's eyes as well as our own.
God sends no one to hell. We send ourselves there when we reject His graces by committing mortal sin with no thought or desire to seek His forgiveness in confession. Our Lord well understands human nature (John 2:25), but still expects us to make our best efforts possible to fight our sinful inclinations and, as mentioned earlier he is ready to help us do so with His grace if we ask Him for it sincerely.
If you’re just going through the motions, thinking you can get by with no religion or a fake show of religiosity you might be in for a nasty surprise at your passing when Jesus says "I never knew you" (Matt 7:23).
Along these lines, it is important to note that our Lord stresses the importance of both loving preparedness and perseverance in seeking and doing His will for us in preparing for heaven so that a sudden death, whether from an unexpected illness, a natural disaster, or getting T-boned in a car accident doesn’t catch you off guard!
You don’t want to be the man without a wedding garment (Matt 22:11-14), especially not at the nuptial feast of the Lamb (Rev.19:9)! Or in more simple. less theologically lofty terms, you don’t want to seem so out of place in our Lord’s presence that you succumb to despair and flee from Him out of shame, much as if you showed up at a formal dinner party dressed shabbily.
These concepts are sobering, it is true. But, especially considering the perilous times we are living in, they are well worth considering. But have hope and faith as well as fear, then when thinking about the Four Last Things and your death someday.
If this all sounds like a tall order, keep your eyes on the prize: Eternal Life and love with God and with each other in heaven. May we all experience the peace of Christ when we pass from this world onto the next and be able to hear Him say to us "Come share your Master’s Joy” (Matt 25:21)!