What do we hope for in heaven? Home

Heaven, as imagined in Baltimore CNS

Last Friday morning our parish priest announced that as it was the first Friday of the month, Mass would be offered for the Holy Souls. Sometimes announcements like this do not ruffle the comfortable surface of one’s consciousness; one thinks “Holy Souls? Yep – been to that devotion and bought the T-shirt”.

Yet sometimes, a moment of grace perhaps, one is jolted into deeper reflection. On this occasion I remembered that we were still in the novena of the devotion to the Divine Mercy and that the author of the Abbey Road blog, Terry Nelson (whom I sometimes look at because of the cheeky photos he unearths to cover Church news items), had written that same day, April 5, “On this 8th Day of the Novena the Lord asked St Faustina to pray for the souls in Purgatory.” He had added, and it was this that made me listen a bit harder to the priest’s announcement, “I’m hoping some of the people I’ve known and loved have made it there.”

What! Don’t we all go straight to heaven as soon as we die? Or, if not to the (scary) Christian “Heaven”, at least to a place where there’s endless beer, jazz and good times? Look, I’m a Catholic and I know this isn’t true – but the modern, godless world with its love of maudlin sentimental funeral services can lull one’s sounder theological instincts into the momentary tempting embrace of a schmaltzy nirvana.

Now, pondering Terry Nelson’s remark further, I think, “If you love a person, surely it implies they are lovable people? And if you find them loveable, surely God will too – despite their human faults and flaws?” In other words, is it really possible to love someone – with one’s heart and not merely one’s will – who appears to be seriously in danger of Hell? We might pity them, feel sorry for them, pray for them – but love them? I don’t know the answer to this.

I blogged last week about having had lunch with the Canadian broadcaster, Michael Coren. During our conversation he mentioned his late father – a secular Jewish Cockney from the East End. When his father died, Michael said that for a moment he felt desperate to receive a sign from God to confirm that his father was safely “home.” Then his wife reminded him that, two months before his death, his father had visited them in Canada and had attended Mass and his grandchildren’s Nativity play. On both occasions the old man had wept, a sign that his heart was open, in its own way, to the mystery of Divine love.

When my own brother died last year, I also wanted to know he was “home”. He had been a lifelong Catholic but his life had also been full of the usual failings and falls from grace, and he had struggled with alcoholism for many years. And in answer to my unspoken plea, God gave the most beautiful sign imaginable: a prepared and holy death on All Souls Day itself – the very day in the liturgical year when the souls in Purgatory are paramount in the thoughts and prayers of the living.

Yesterday was Divine Mercy Sunday. Terry Nelson quoted the words of Our Lord in his private revelation to the obscure Polish nun, Sr Faustina, as recorded in her Diary: “Pray as much as you can for the dying. By your entreaties, obtain for them trust in my mercy, because they have the most need of trust and have it the least.” Also yesterday, journalist and broadcaster Libby Purves, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, gave it as her view that “even people of faith know in their bones that we don’t really know anything at all about what lies beyond death.” Speak for yourself, Libby – but don’t claim to know what people of faith know, believe and hope when they pray the words of the Divine Mercy invocation: “Jesus, I trust in you.”