Catechism II: What happens after we die?

Man’s destiny is to die once for all; nothing remains after that but the judgment…
— Hebrews 9:7 (The Knox Bible)

Once upon a time, Halloween was known as All Hallow’s Eve. It was the evening before All Saint’s Day, November First, sort of like Christmas Eve comes before Christmas Day, and so forth. I’m not going to websearch the transmogrification of the Eve Before All Saint’s Day into its current iteration; you can do that as well as I. Suffice it to say that it has become what it has become and that’s that.

But, what has Halloween become? I’ll grant you, Halloween can be fun, especially if you have small children. Pumpkins: carving pumpkins, picking pumpkins, stacking pumpkins, (hopefully not) smashing pumpkins. Pumpkin bread. Pumpkin cookies. Pumpkin brownies. Pumpkin spice coffee. Costumes. Doing the rounds of the neighborhoods, going to the trunk or treat events, even, yes, even haunted houses (or forts, as the case may be). Halloween can be . However, it also is, or can be, a celebration of the corruption and decay that attends bodily death. On the trick or treat circuit along with Barney, Dory the Fish, and Tigger one finds remarkably unnerving depictions of death and decay, skeletons climbing out of graves on the lawn, and inhuman, nightmarish creatures casually referred to as “ghouls and goblins”. The quasi-holiday of Halloween is obsessed with death, and the notions of what may come after can range from benign to perverse, perverted, and downright weird. Further, much of the increasingly florid excesses of Halloween are part of a larger fascination, by no means healthy and especially among so-called “millennials”, with the occult. This fascination with the moribund has been a part of the human condition forever, but in the age of instant imaging it is certainly more noticeable.

The Church, of course, has been said (in both generous and ungenerous terms) to be obsessed with death. The Gospels talk about it a quit a lot. The Church throughout her history has talked about it quite a lot, albeit recently, maybe, not so much. But death, and what comes after, is a significant part of Church teaching, perhaps, in some ways, the most important part of Church teaching. So, what does the Church have to say? 

“Death,’ says the The Catechism of the Catholic Church  (hereafter referred to as CCC; the #number format refers to the paragraph number), “puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ.” (#1021). Death comes to each of us only once, as Hebrews 9:27 (among other citations) makes clear: there’s no reincarnation or recycling of ourselves until we finally get right. “Each man,” the CCC continues, “receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment (my emphasis) that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven – through a purification or immediately, - or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (#1022) The Roman Catechism puts it this way: “The first (judgment) takes place when each one of us departs this life; for then he is instantly placed before the judgment seat of God, where all that he has ever done or spoken or thought during life shall be subject to the most rigid scrutiny. This is called the particular judgment.” (p. 81) (A very brief primer on different catechisms is here.)

So, after the particular judgment we shuffle off to either heaven, purgatory, or hell, where we await the General Judgment.

Heaven: “Those who die in God’s grace and friendship and are perfectly purified live for ever with Christ. They are like God forever, for they ‘see him as he is,’ face to face.” (CCC #1023)

“...Christ our Redeemer will pronounce sentence … in these words: Come ye blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning...” (emphasis in the original) … the just are invited from labor to rest, from the vale of tears to supreme joy, from misery to eternal happiness, the reward of their words of charity.” (Roman Catechism, p. 85)

Purgatory: “… is entirely different from the punishment of the damned… All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The tradition of the Church … speaks of a cleansing fire.” (CCC #1031,1030)

Hell: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice… Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’” (CCC #1033, 1035)

Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire... (Jesus’) words, depart from me, express the heaviest punishment … eternal banishment from the sight of God, unrelieved by one consolatory hope of ever recovering so great a good. This punishment is called by theologians the pain of loss...The next words, into everlasting fire, express another sort of punishment, which is called by theologians the pain of sense...” (Roman Catechism, p. 85-85)

The General Judgment (or, the Last Judgment) is preceded by the resurrection of all the dead. “The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life … The Last Judgment will come when Christ returns in glory … We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end...” (CCC #1039,1040) 

“The second (judgment) occurs when on the same day and in the same place all men shall stand together before the tribunal of their Judge, that in the presence and hearing of all human beings of all times each may know his final doom and sentence… This is called the General Judgment.” (Roman Catechism p.81)

“At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come into its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign forever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed...” (CCC #1042)

Thus we have the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Further, Jesus Christ, as God and as man, is the Judge (Roman Catechism, p.81). And that, my friends, is what the Church teaches about what happens after we die.

Valete.

Post scriptum: In case you were wondering, here’s how they do the All Souls Requiem Mass in the EF over in the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin.

 

 

 

 

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