We are all aware of the rise of criticism atheists are leveling at all religions, but in particular at Christianity. For example, there’s the movie by Bill Maher, Religulous (an obvious play on the word “ridiculous”), in which he interviews a number of Christians. Some indeed have very extreme ideas, many of which we as Catholics would not agree with. There are others who profess to be Christian but really do a very poor job of explaining what they actually say they believe . Sadly, Religulous has been described as “the funniest movie of the year.”
Professed atheist Christopher Hitchens has been very critical of Mother Teresa’s writings and of her experiences of the “dark night” and her spiritual desolation. Because Hitchens has little or no understanding of the true spirituality in our 2,000-year-old Christian tradition, he has gone so far as to call Mother Teresa a “closet atheist” because she spoke of her doubts and struggles. Actually, I always wondered what a professed atheist might tell his eight-year-old daughter when her grandmother dies and what explanation he would give to her. “Well, Grandma’s just gone. Where? Well, nowhere. She doesn’t exist anymore.” What a statement of emptiness and hopelessness!
As Christians, we have been gifted with one of the most significant doctrines and beliefs concerning death and eternity. Simply put, we believe that once God gives life, it never ends; we live eternally. As Catholics, we have the most positive, reliable and consoling teachings—not just about life after death but about the continuing relationship we have with our loved ones, and they with us. A non-believer could challenge and say, “Prove it.” There is, of course, no scientific proof for our belief in eternal life. However, the proof and conviction we have are in our heart. And that conviction is the very reason why millions of Christians from all walks of life through the centuries have laid down their lives for their faith, believing they would live forever.
Eternal Life Means Those Relationships Remain into Eternity.
Our faith is based on the principle of relationship we see within the blessed Trinity itself—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And when the word became flesh in Jesus Christ, he did not float down from heaven (as God could have done), but he was born of a woman and born into a family and lived his life in relationships. In fact, all creation is based on relationship, whether in the animal world (and surely seen in our pets) or in the solar system in which planets move in orderly relationships.
But human relationships are most important because they are God’s means of giving life to humans. Remember, Jesus taught us to call God “our father”. As people of faith, we take Jesus’ words literally: “Whoever believes in me will never die ” (Jn 6:47). What that means for us as believers is that while death painfully separates us physically from our loved ones, “their life is only changed, not ended,” as the preface for our funeral Masses proclaims. It means that they are with us and we are with them. The Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, expressed it beautifully: “Our loved ones do not leave us. Where are they? In darkness? Oh, no! It is we who are in darkness. We do not see them but they see us. Their eyes, radiant with glory, are fixed upon our eyes, filled with tears… . They are not even absent, but living near to us, transfigured ” ( K. Rahner: Content of Faith, p. 625 ff).
The Deepest Truths of the Heart Are Mysteries
To share something from my own life, each morning in prayer I talk to my deceased mom (d. 1985) and dad (d. 1968). I say, “ Dear Mom and Dad, thank you for the gift of life you gave Marianne (my sister) and me. Thank you for the loving, tender care you gave to us; for sharing your faith with us by word and example; for joyfully supporting us in our religious vocations (my sister is a Sister of Charity), even though it meant that you would never have your own grandchildren. Lord, bring them home to you; they deserve your special care and love because they gave us to you. And so, we now give them to you.” I am absolutely convinced that my mom and dad are always beside me in my life and ministry. After all, where would parents be except with their children, and children with their parents?
I feel certain many of you reading this column have that same deep faith and perhaps even have experienced a sense of your loved ones being close to you. And you know the difference between reality and fantasy. There are some things we can’t explain, but we know they are true. As the saying goes: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”