Where are our beloved dead?

Taken from The Sacred Heart Messenger October 2020 written by Fr Brian Grogan SJ, author of Creation Walk – The amazing story of a small blue planet. He is reflecting on his experience of COVID-19 which reminds us of the great Christian hope of resurrection that we can offer our troubled Nworld.

The recent ever-mounting global death-toll haunts us, and the pain of our own losses is still raw: I feel that pain personally: over Easter I lost six good friends to COVID-19.

Never before in our lifetime has the spectre of death loomed so large in our collective consciousness, but our corporate silence about where the dead may be is deafening. Catholic belief in the ‘afterlife’ is being silently eroded. The faith-filled phrase, ‘they’ve gone to God’ is being replaced by ‘they’ve passed’. Surveys show that many Christians have little that is distinctive to say about their dead: for some, the promise of eternal life is reduced to hope that their beloved ones will at best live on in cherished memories.

With November close at hand, when we remember the dead in special ways, it is important to clarify and strenthen our belief in the final statement of the Creed, ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’.

Doubters can be invited to explore the ‘afterlife’ in a respectful setting, but our culture, fixated on the affairs of this world, makes it bad form, even at a funeral, to start a conversation with ‘Where do you think so-and-so is now?’ The legendary saviour of Irish soccer, Jack Charlton, died recently. In all the column inches of appreciation there was not a word on his present state.

Why this decline in religious belief among Christians?

Ernest Becker argued in The Denial of Death that while many deny the reality of death, the success of the Christian world-picture lay in its ability to offer to ‘slaves, cripples, the simple and the mighty’ a sense that their lives were of eternal significance.

The Sescond Vatican Council updated many dimensions of Catholic belief, but not that of eschatology – the study of what were then termed the ‘last things’. The joke was that on the door of the Department of Eschatology a sign read: ‘Sorry, closed for repairs. Come back later!’

Matching the silence of our culture about the fate of the dead is silence from the other side. My devout but struggling mother used to say, ‘No one has ever come back. Even one word would help so much…Why are the dead so silent?’ Raymond Moody’s Life After Life appeared in 1975, and its vivid accounts of near death experiences offered her a whisper of hope. ‘Maybe’ she’d say and would leave it at that.

Since Ernest Becker wrote in 1973 about the success of the Christian world-picture of the past, our generation has been given a revelation of a new world-picture; our universe is unimaginably vast – 93 billion light years in diameter, and expanding. Such facts make it ever more reasonable to believe that this universe is not a cosmic accident but is born out of infinite love and leads on to the fullness of divine companionship. We can rightly interpret this glorious cascade of the material world as being authored for our ultimate joy. We can reasonably decide to accept that our amazing planet has made yet one more impossible leap in the emergence of Jesus Christ, one indeed like us but risen gloriously from the dead as the first fruits of the great harvest of all humankind.

The audacious hope of believers is that the Author of the galaxies welcomes everyone home to the Great Banquet, to the enjoyment of divine beauty and of human transfiguration. We rightly hope that in a universe destined for glory we can anticipate ecstatic reunions with those we have mourned. This is the Christian hope that we can offer our troubled world.

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