Because the separation of soul and body in death was not what God desired for us, He will ultimately reunite them by raising our bodies on the last day.
The general resurrection of the dead has been an important component of Christianity from the very beginning; despite incomprehension from some and even opposition, the Church has always upheld this article of faith.
God had revealed the resurrection of the dead gradually to the Jewish people; by restoring the unity of our original creation, as human beings composed of body and soul, He would thereby fulfill His covenant.
Jesus explicitly taught this doctrine before His Passion and Death, and proved His trustworthiness with His Resurrection on Easter morning.
Just as Christ rose to a new life, so too will He raise us up; we receive His risen and glorified Body in the Eucharist, which gives us a foretaste of our own bodily resurrection.
This truth underscores the dignity and sanctity of the human body; it is among the reasons why we must respect and care for our own, and others’ bodies, and why we want to avoid sins of the flesh, that disrespect God’s gift of the body.
When Christ comes again, all of the dead will be raised and gathered for the Last Judgment; publicly confirming the particular judgment on each soul, Christ will also expose the ramifications of the good we did, or failed to do, on earth.
Then Christ, as Lord of history, will reveal the meaning of all that has happened down the ages – the triumphs and tragedies of the entire human family – and we will understand the mysterious workings of divine providence.
The bodies of the faithful will go on to enjoy the blessings of heaven, while the bodies of those in hell will participate in their torment.
The entire cosmos will be renewed and transformed, in what Scripture calls “new heavens and a new earth,” in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
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Our culture promotes misleading views of the body. On the one hand, it pretends that we have the right to do whatever we want with our bodies, that the flesh is just a disposable container. Yet at the same time, it overemphasizes physical appearance, as if our self-worth depended on the body.
But our faith tells us the truth about ourselves: God loves us – both body and soul. He wants us to be happy with Him in this life and the next, and we will be, if we abide by His will for us in both body and soul.
Perfect union with God in heaven requires perfect holiness: “nothing unclean will enter it” (Rev. 21:27).
Those who die in God’s grace, but are still imperfect, are not yet ready for heaven; these souls must undergo purification, or Purgatory.
Purgatory is not a second chance after death; rather, such souls are already assured of their eternal salvation, and need only to be cleansed of any lingering imperfections.
Although this doctrine was formally expressed in such Councils as Lyons II (1274), Florence (1439-45), and Trent (1545-63), its antecedents date back many centuries earlier, as evidenced by Church Fathers’ reflections on Scripture.
Jesus implied that some sins are forgiven in the “age to come” (Mt 12:32); He also said in a parable that “you will not be released until you have paid the last penny” (Mt 5:26).
The Church has always believed that it was good and helpful to pray for the dead (see 2 Macc 12:46), especially by offering the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass.
St. Paul refers to being saved “as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15), and a similar passage in 1 Peter uses the imagery of being “tested by fire” (1:7).
A number of early Church Fathers wrote of souls experiencing a purging fire (such as St. Cyprian of Carthage in the 250s, Lactantius in the early 300s, St. Gregory of Nyssa in the late 300s, and St. Augustine in the early 400s.)
Others mentioned souls paying penalties in a state of detention, such as Tertullian (early 200s) and St. Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 350), while St. Basil (ca. 370) described souls being detained because of stains or effects of sin.
Church teaching on Purgatory thus explains and clarifies why we pray for the dead; our prayers and sacrifices help them during their purification.
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Some erroneously imagine that Vatican II did away with the doctrine of Purgatory, but in fact, the Council reaffirmed it (e.g., Lumen Gentium 49 & 51).
We owe a debt of charity, especially to our deceased family members and friends, to pray for the repose of their souls.
Aside from the consolation we can afford them, we please God by performing this spiritual work of mercy, and we in turn benefit from their prayers for us.
Heaven is the fulfillment of our deepest desires, a state of perfect happiness that lasts forever, without end, without any lessening of pleasure.
This eternal blessedness arises from the soul’s intimate communion with God, for Whom it was created and in Whom alone it can find its ultimate joy.
Because heaven is the state of perfect union with God, only those who die in God’s grace, and are completely purified, are able to enter.
The blessed see the Most Holy Trinity “face to face,” in what is called the “beatific vision,” and as a result become like God; these saintly souls radiate heavenly glory and reign with Him, in harmony with all of the choirs of angels.
Our earthly minds cannot adequately conceive, let alone explain, this exalted manner of being; by way of analogy, Scripture employs such imagery as a wedding feast, the Father’s house, and paradise (a royal pleasure garden).
But those who definitively reject God cannot enter heaven; God respects their free will, and abides by their decision to cut themselves off from Him.
Hell is this state of eternal separation from God; by turning away and depriving itself of its true home, the soul feels unimaginable desolation and suffering, which Scripture describes as an eternal fire.
God never predestines anyone for hell; rather, He continually reaches out, offers us His grace, and calls us to repentance.
Those who sin gravely against God and neighbor, willfully refuse to repent, and deliberately rebuff His love, are eligible to cast themselves into hell.
We cannot presume to judge the state of anyone’s soul; God alone searches the inmost heart and knows how culpable someone might, or might not, be.
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If we want to live with God forever in heaven, we should already live faithfully with Him now on earth.
We can lull ourselves into a false sense of security that heaven is the default position, but Jesus Himself has warned us repeatedly of the real danger of hell.
This teaching should never make us despair, for God will eagerly embrace us in His boundless mercy, if we seek it.
But we should guard against the sin of presumption, wherein we take our spiritual lives lightly, and salvation for granted.
Death – the separation of the soul from the body – was not part of God’s original plan, but only entered the world as a consequence of sin.
Yet God, not death, has the final word; by willingly suffering and dying for us, Christ has transformed death into a blessing, for through it we come to God.
Even before we physically die, Christians have already died sacramentally with Christ through our baptism; we mystically participated in His death and burial, and arose to new life in God’s grace.
Like Jesus, we too should embrace our own mortality in obedience and love for the Father.
In this way our physical death completes our incorporation into Christ, if we die in this state of grace, in right relationship with God.
At the moment of death, the soul immediately goes before God for the “particular judgment,” and learns its eternal destiny – either heaven (possibly after undergoing further purification in Purgatory), or hell.
We determine our own eternal destiny by the choices we make in our earthly life.
Each of us has just one life on earth; there is no reincarnation, for we are totally unique, unrepeatable creations.
We have only a certain amount of time to respond to grace and to grow in love for God and neighbor; our eternal life depends upon how we use this gift of time on earth.
Because death will come for us all, we should remind ourselves of our mortality and prepare for that inevitable hour; we do this in every “Hail Mary,” asking the Blessed Mother to “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
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We diligently strive to achieve our earthly goals, but how much effort do we put into the ultimate goal of all, the only one that really counts – our eternal destiny?
Getting to heaven is more important than any success we could possibly have in this life, but we are often tempted to put our spiritual life on the backburner.
Are we prepared to be judged by God instantly? If not, what do I need to do right now to change my life?
The communion of saints is a description of the Church; we have communion in “holy things,” which creates our communion “among holy persons.”
Among the holy things, or spiritual goods, we share in common are our faith; the charisms or special graces given by the Holy Spirit; our material possessions, which we use to help others; and our charity.
But above all, the holy things we share are the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, which binds us most intimately with Christ and therefore with each other.
Through the sacraments, Christ, as the Head of His Body the Church, communicates His riches to all; these riches are referred to as the Church’s treasury – not meaning worldly wealth or property, but her spiritual endowment.
In addition to Christ’s infinite merits, this treasury includes the totality of the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all of the saints.
Because we are one in the Mystical Body, we all share in each other’s good, and a wonderful exchange of spiritual goods takes place continuously.
A perennial link of charity connects us with the saints in heaven as well as with the holy souls being purified in Purgatory: the saints constantly intercede for us to help us on our journey, just as we on earth pray for our family, friends, and those in special need.
This profound understanding of communion is why the Church on earth has always prayed for the dead; the faithful departed are not cut off from us, but organically joined to us in Christ, so that our prayers may benefit them, and they may assist us.
While our good works redound to the benefit of the whole Body, every one of our sins harms this mystical communion.
Thus sin is never a purely private matter, for it has a detrimental effect on the Body.
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Our culture promotes radical individualism, celebrating a selfish desire to do whatever we like and call it good.
But such a notion is incompatible with the mind of Christ. To be authentically Christian, we must live with a deep sense of communion with others, aware that our “personal” choices have consequences that reverberate well beyond ourselves.
Let us reflect if our opinions are formed by the world, or by Christ.
Every Christian – each one of us, no matter our individual circumstances – is called to holiness, but some are called to give themselves totally to Christ in the consecrated life.
This is characterized by the profession of the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity in celibacy, and obedience, within a permanent state of life recognized by the Church.
The evangelical counsels are not to be viewed in the negative sense of giving things up, but rather in the positive sense: they provide the freedom to live single-heartedly for God alone.
Consecrated life therefore focuses on our ultimate goal – our final destiny with God; as a result, it serves as a powerfully attractive sign of the mystery of eternal life in the Kingdom, the pearl of great price.
From the beginning of the Church, faithful souls have responded to God’s invitation to seek deeper union with Him; this life of intense dedication has taken various forms over the ages, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Who even now continues to raise up new communities.
Its most ancient expressions include hermits, who offer prayer and penance in solitude, and consecrated virgins, who are dedicated to the service of the Church.
Communities of monks and nuns began to form in the early centuries, often by gathering around a holy individual who became their founder; from these groups, which first arose in the Middle East, “religious life” developed.
Religious life is distinguished from other forms of consecrated life by its liturgical character, life led in common, public profession of vows, and witness to the union of Christ with His Church.
These communities reflect their own distinct spiritual heritage: e.g., the Carmelites are inspired by the prophet Elijah; the Jesuits were founded by St. Ignatius Loyola; and the Benedictines, Franciscans, and Dominicans owe their names to their saintly founders.
Religious orders, in all of their brilliant variety, have been a great gift to the Church throughout history; they proclaim the Gospel around the world, perform innumerable works of charity, and act as prayer warriors on our behalf.
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Even if not called to consecrated life, we still live by the evangelical counsels in a way proper to us.
Although not bound by a vow of poverty, we should be detached from our possessions, and generously give to those in need (including the consecrated who rely on our financial support).
The unmarried are obliged to be chaste, and spouses should be faithful to one another in marriage.
While we don’t formally profess obedience, we are encouraged to curb our selfishness and practice self-denial.
The lay faithful are distinguished from the clergy, or those consecrated in religious life, by their mission to advance the Gospel in the midst of the world.
Each and every human activity is subject to God’s dominion; as laity, we are involved in all of the various aspects of contemporary life, and so are called to influence society and culture in a Christian direction.
Lay participation is vital to shaping political and economic life in accordance with the Gospel; by working for just laws, we do not “impose” ourselves on others, but rather promote the common good of all, including non-believers.
It is not only our right, but our duty, to communicate our faith in the public square; it is not simply a task that we volunteer for, but a responsibility that flows from the fullness of Christian life.
The Lord equips us for our mission through the sacraments; by virtue of our Baptism and Confirmation, we participate in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and kingly office.
Our participation in the priestly office means that we are empowered to offer our spiritual sacrifices – prayers and works – and to offer ourselves to the Father during the celebration of the Eucharist; through these acts of worship, we consecrate the world to God.
This is different in its very essence from the ministerial priesthood, which is conformed to Christ in a special way through Holy Orders and empowered to celebrate the sacraments.
We participate in the prophetic office by our witness of faith in daily life; often we do so through the power of example, but when the opportunity arises, we should also speak up for the truth of Christ.
The kingly office is characterized by self-mastery: we are to rule over ourselves by overcoming sin and striving for holiness; in this way we are strengthened to carry out our mission to be “leaven in the world.”
While our sharing in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office primarily involves our life in the world, it also has an application in the life of the Church, so that the lay faithful may exercise stewardship in appropriate ways.
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Because of the dignity and importance of our mission as lay faithful, our faith cannot be reduced to merely personal belief, a piety that is hidden and private.
To fulfill the charge that Christ gives us, our faith must necessarily take the form of public witness, in whatever way that is possible in our own life circumstances.
If we understand this responsibility, we cannot be “personally opposed” to intrinsic evil (e.g., abortion), but supportive of it as public policy.