Padre Paul’s Ponderings: Programming “Heaven” into Our Spiritual GPS

Just a few weeks ago, 7 new saints were canonized in a Mass at Saint Peter’s in Rome.
But of course, there are many other saints who are in heaven too that we’ll only know
about when we get there.

So, what is heaven exactly and how do we get there? How does one become a saint?
Well, it’s not as simple as saying “I believe.” That’s a starting point. But there also needs
to be a transformation of a soul into someone who is fully loving of God and others. And
this transformation, and our connection to one another, is something the Church invites
us to think about. Not just the final destination, but how to get there.

On the one hand, it is grace that saves us. We do not rack up a certain number of good
deeds like frequent flyer miles to move up to first class. But the Christian must also
cooperate with grace. That entails thinking about the flaws, and then living out the
commandment of our Lord to “love one another as I have loved you.”

The problem is though we do not like to think about the flaws. It’s easier to pretend we
are perfect. But the reality is we are all sinners, and all flawed. Capable of love and so
much greatness, but still capable of sin. The saint learns how to be open to God’s love
and fully live it out.

In the saints, his love is seen clearly, and in all of us God’s love is there. And that love is
a two way street. It requires a reception on our part, being open to saying the prayer of
the tax collector “God have mercy on me a sinner” and it requires us to help one
another to become better.

And so with that in mind, what our feast days that start November do is to help us to get
the right perspective on death, sin, and what the transformation from sinner to saint
looks like.

With respect to All Saints Day, the day is to celebrate the many people in heaven who
are saints known to God. There are canonized saints, people who go through a process
where the Church looks at their life and with the help of the Holy Spirit determine that
this person loved God perfectly. But there are many others too. A saint is simply
someone who is in heaven. We believe that the saints are close to God. And so we
celebrate the fact that there are so many people in heaven to help us. What the saints
can do for us is that they can inspire us. We can look to people who have lived heroic
lives, some of whom we may know who have been among our loved ones, and be
inspired to become like them. They also help us. We believe that as they are close to
God, they can intercede for us – and so we can ask people to pray for us, just as we
would do so on this earth.

So what of All Soul’s Day? This is the following day, and it is a day where we pray for all
of our beloved dead. We do this because we believe that there is a journey to heaven.
For some when they die, they have already learned to love God fully; they go to heaven.

For some, they may have rejected God completely, and they go to hell, which is the
absence of God; hence the eternal frustration of someone who can do nothing to undo a
completely closed heart. However, we also believe in purgatory. And as I’ve noted
before citing then Cardinal Ratzinger who wrote on the subject, purgatory is not some
type of concentration camp. Rather, it is a process, known to God, where His love
purges us of those sins and things we cling to. We can go to confession, and sin is
forgiven, but there is still sometimes in us the tendency or temptations to do those same
sins again. After we die, God helps us through that so that its permanently removed. Sometimes there is pain in letting go of something that isn’t good for us. Purgatory isn’t
a matter of time being served. Rather it’s a “letting go and letting God” point, and so we
pray for a person as they go through that process just as we would encourage someone
in this life who is trying to kick a bad habit or better themselves.

Both days also remind us that we are connected to the dead, and it’s important to have
a clear picture of that too. From the good, we can learn so much, and we can ask for
help from those who have died and the saints to pray for us. I am still inspired by people
like my grandmother Pat or my grandfather Henry to be a better person. We have so
much to learn thinking about the heroes we knew too. But we also need to acknowledge
our flaws and even flaws of those we care about. At this point I’ve celebrated hundreds
of funerals, and in some families there is nagging pain and tension because there is hurt
going on in that family. We are there at a Mass to pray for the person in the casket and
for ourselves. And that goes on after the funeral too. With those who have died, we
should also pray for them and for ourselves and work through the pains, even the anger
we may have towards them. People are human, and humans sin. Sometimes a person
doesn’t see their drinking problem, their nasty temper, their cold demeanor, that they
ignore Mass and prayer, etc. But God does; there’s no hiding this from Him. And that
would be pretty scary if God were out to get us or took delight in seeing us suffer.
Rather, God takes delight in liberating us from our sins, so we pray for those who have
died, and acknowledge their shortcomings.

But we also acknowledge our pain too. As I wrote about last week – it is OK to cry, and
grief does not have an expiration date. We also need to acknowledge other emotions;
it’s OK to be angry at someone who died or frustrated about things that happened. Life
is messy, as are people. Emotions should not be covered up, and sometimes I think
people feel all they can think about is a person being in heaven or just the good. God
though doesn’t think that way. We as people crucified Him. His best friends deserted
Him. And His response was, through it all, love. The marks in His side were not covered
up after the Resurrection – they were a sign of what happened, but the resurrection was
also a sign of the future. The love of God overcame it all. So let that love heal you. I
think it’s important to bring things to our prayer life, or to even bring them to Jesus when
we receive Communion, and ask for God to help us let go of pain. Sometimes also
talking about it with someone we trust, or even a counselor can help too. It doesn’t do
much good to hold onto anger; Jesus let go of it on the Cross, and we need to do the
same.

As we journey through this world to the next, let us prepare for it by striving to become
better each day through the inspiration and intercession of the saints, and help all of our
loved ones, living and deceased, to do the same through our prayers for them. Death
isn’t much fun to think about, nor are the flaws that we and others have. So rather than
ignore them, may we deal with them directly and realize that through the power of God’s
love, all of us can be transformed and truly find the way to Heaven.

God bless,

Fr. Paul