RCIA Blog – The Last Things
The Last Things
During the last week of the Christmas season, we discussed what Catholics refer commonly to “The Last Things.” For those who are unfamiliar with the term, this deals with the end-of-life topics of judgement, heaven, hell, and purgatory.
Having spent a lot of time in other faith traditions, I can say from experience that most churches discuss these things first and most often; which for better or worse, was what I and many people may expect coming into the RCIA program but are then surprised to find they will have to wait for other topics to be covered first. Being the kind of person who always looks before leaping, and who reads the instructions before playing the game, I had researched these topics before I could even think of joining the Church. However just because I researched them, does not mean I knew or know all about these topics; but it does mean I was able to find peace with some of the more thorny parts for former protestants.
After saying all that, I want to make clear, that I think the Catholic way of saving these more heavy topics for after a time of introduction and maturation is best. I never felt comfortable with a body of believers that started every conversation or greeting with a depiction of heaven and hell and how to “know where you are going”. It just never seemed intellectually genuine. I know that many people, my family included, say you can know for one hundred percent certainty that you will go to heaven, but that has never been me. Not to claim that I never said those words; because I did. I just never truly believed them, and the more I focused on it, the less I believed it. So far, the most intellectually honest answer I have heard to the question “If you died tonight, do you know where you would be going?” is from a priest who said “I don’t know, but I hope so”. That’s right, a man of God, fully dedicated to service of Christ, who had to go through years of schooling and training, and be accepted by a Bishop, is hopefully optimistic but not certain.
It is because of this type of honesty that I was able to investigate the claims of the Catholic church and what they teach about end-of-life topics. Because this topic like so many other topics in RCIA is a ocean’s worth of discussion and debate, I will not try to go over them here. What I will say is that they are neither as scary as I had believed coming into the program, nor are the beliefs as far fetched as I was once told. In fact, I now have a greater sense of clarity of what the original Christians would have believed about heaven, hell, and purgatory (yes, purgatory was with the faith from the beginning).
One insight I will share from the class that points clearly towards the early Christians believing in a third place other than heaven or hell was something said in class. In the catacombs, the first Christians during the persecutions would write on the graves of their loved ones. These writings were mostly prayers for their deceased loved ones or asking those reading to pray for these people. One that is still with us today is “Rest In Peace” which is a shortening of a prayer asking God to grant them eternal rest, peace and entrance into paradise. While I knew this, I hadn’t given it any further thought then knowing it existed.
The logic follows thusly. If someone is asking for a deceased person to be prayed for, they are assuming that they are not in hell; as there would be no use in praying for the person already condemned and unable to be saved. They are are also assuming they are not in heaven as it would be equally futile to pray for someone already in paradise; since they would be lacking for nothing. That leaves some place or state of being that is neither heaven nor hell that would allow for some prayer to then benefit the deceased. This third place or state of being is called purgatory.
What I suggest is that anyone who wants to know what the church teaches about judgement, heaven, hell, and purgatory should ask a local parish priest. I have not seen or heard of one who is not caring and obliging to answer questions or to lead people to resources that can answer their questions. Also, I recommend, listening to Catholic Answers Live on EWTN. Pat Madrid, Tim Staples, and the crew are kind, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and most importantly they are patient in answering those with questions about anything Catholic. Other great resources include Catholic.com and The Coming Home Network forums at forum.chnetwork.org (which is a place for those looking into the claims of the Church as well as investigating conversion); all of which I have used and continue to daily.
– A Brother In Christ